Democratic Education

What's the difference?

Democratic education (DE) is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff learn how to be active and effective contributors to a democratic society through immersion in an operating school democracy.

DE is both a means and an end in itself. In the long-term, it helps develop well-informed citizens who work toward creating a democratic, vibrant and just society. In the immediate term, it nurtures self-determined and caring individuals who enjoy learning for its own sake.

DE is not a top down system but a true partnership; a system that encourages freedom coupled with responsibility. It seeks to create a culture with the ability to find the uniqueness within every individual and to collaborate with him or her to create something bigger.

Freedom of choice for children is supported. This allows them to experience a deep sense of autonomy, responsibility and self worth.

Holistic education (HE) means to educate the whole person — the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels of ones being.

HE emphasises connections and interconnections: between the self and communities and within the search for knowledge and meaning.

Rather than isolate education into discrete areas of knowledge through compartmentalising of subjects HE seeks to explore connections and ‘the big picture’. HE encourages using various disciplines to pursue areas of interest and to make new meanings that can transform the self and society.

HE allows for mixed age and ability in classrooms. Flexible pacing is also a key in allowing students to feel that they are not rushed in learning concepts, nor are they held back if they learn quickly.

In HE meaningfulness is also an important factor in the learning process. People learn better when what is being learned is important to them. Holistic schools seek to respect and work with the meaning structures of each person. Therefore, the start of a topic would begin with what a student may know or understand from their worldview; what has meaning to them rather than what others feel should be meaningful to them.

What is Democratic Education?

Democratic education is driven by a child’s play, curiosity and passions. Children are considered to be unique and gifted. They learn by following their natural desires, relishing the joy of discovering knowledge for themselves. The goal is to keep the desire to learn alive so students remain intrinsically motivated.

  • Democratic schools allow freedom of choice.  Choosing the how, when, where and who with of learning lets students experience a deep sense of autonomy, responsibility and self worth. In DE children experience the ability to shape their lives and the personal and social reality in which they live.  To support individual learning, staff ratios are higher than in a conventional classroom.  Lessons are non-compulsory and teachers are as much guides and mentors as they are knowledge experts.  
  • Democratic schools model democracy.  School meetings are attended by interested students, parents and teachers. Each child and adult has one equal vote.  Through the school meetings students develop decision making abilities, mutual respect and critical judgement.  They experience the ownership and responsibility of democracy.
  • No two Democratic Schools are the same. Each school is a reflection of what the environment and community of the area have to offer. Alliances are actively forged with local businesses and community groups in order to maintain that. Learning may take place in parks, museums and other places within the community.
  • Democratic schools are communities.  Children interact freely irrespective of their age or gender.  Parents and siblings are welcome in the school. 

DE provides students with the conditions that will encourage them to step outside “the square” and discover their unique areas of strength. Success is not defined by academic achievement but the child’s own definition of success.  Children experience the ability to shape their own lives and the personal and social reality in which they live. 

Why should I send my child to a Democratic School instead of a traditional school?

Education is changing and there is a global movement by educational professionals, psychologists and scientists to change the way we educate.   

School has long been seen as preparation for a successful career, but to succeed in today’s workplace it is no longer enough to simply learn to read, write and calculate.  Academic success has been found to be a poor indicator of professional success.  More and more emphasis is being placed on holistic skills such as leadership, communication, problem-solving and creativity.   Democratic education is one structure that encourages these to grow. 

Research clearly shows that we learn better (drawing deeper conclusions, retaining knowledge for longer, applying the knowledge broadly) when we are engaged in the learning.  An emotional connection is key – be it fun and laughter, sorrow or determination.  It follows that our unique areas of passion and joy would produce our highest quality education.  It makes sense that play generates intense learning opportunities, when learning is considered holistically.  

Democratic education fosters children’s natural love of learning by giving free rein to intrinsic motivation’s key ingredients – autonomy, master and purpose.  Children who are allowed the time to delve into an area of interest become experts.  This gives children positive messages about their unique worth and value.

How does Holistic Education fit in?

Arohanui Learning Communities Trust was set up to promote holistic education (HE), the idea that children deserve to have every aspect of their being respected and developed.  On this website, the terms democratic education and democratic school are used everywhere and holistic education is mentioned rarely.   This is because democratic education is the structure of education whereby, we believe, students can best receive a holistic education.  Through freedom of choice, increased social and play opportunities and a far broader definition of learning and achievement, holistic learning is encouraged.  So when we say DE, we really mean a combination of both.

Have existing examples of such schools worked well?

There are over 500 schools worldwide, including many in Australia, over 80 in the USA and over 25 in Israel, with many thousands in the process of conversion. There is a European and International Organization for Democratic Education, with a yearly conference held in different locations around the world.  There are many models of democratic schools in all corners of the globe, from Israel to Japan, from New Zealand, Australia and Thailand to the United States.  

In New Zealand, we have Tamariki School in Christchurch which was founded in 1967. There are also another two very successful schools in Christchurch who merged (‘Discovery 1’ and ‘Unlimited’) to become Ao Tawhiti which run according to similar principles. In Auckland there is Timatanga Community School and Ako (Little Bush School). Still there are more groups forming NZ-wide to begin even more.  

The oldest Democratic School, Summerhill in the UK, has been in existence since 1921. The British Labour party tried to close Summerhill school in 1999, claiming that it didn’t meet required standards and demanding that Summerhill abandon the key freedoms it offered its students. This despite the fact that Summerhill achieved higher than national average exam pass rates and an unprecedented level of parental and pupil satisfaction. The school took the government to court, and won. It is still running today 

This is a well-founded and proven concept. 

How do the children actually learn anything?

Children schooled in a Democratic school do learn reading, writing and maths. They learn key skills as part of following their own learning pathway.  In this way children are passionate about learning these things.

Practical experience is valued. This places learning in a ‘real-world’  context enabling children to make personal connections so that any new information can become meaningful. This way the learning is relevant, enjoyable, deep and permanent. For example maths can be learnt as part of designing a BMX track or building a vegetable garden.

Learning is recognized in broad terms at DE schools. For example the emotional development of a child is nurtured in an environment in which the child is seen, heard and valued fully as a human being. We believe that by supporting the processes of self-understanding, awareness and trust that a persons development is best nurtured.  We aim to support children as their gifts  unfold in a safe and relaxed environment.  

Children naturally have a strong desire to learn. They enjoy experiencing new things and do this with passion. You don’t need to make your child learn. For example children gain highly complex language skills through experimenting and playing with words. Such natural learning takes place every day through play. We only need to keep this inherent wish to learn alive.

Learning through play is valued because that is the most effective way children learn. When they are playing they are open at all levels of their being. When lessons are tedious, irrelevant, too hard or too easy for a student they close their mental and emotional centres down so that learning becomes very difficult. 

How will children from a democratic school fit into society after leaving school?

Children who have attended a Democratic School fit easily into society because they have already experienced it in school. Having been in a Democratic School they are well prepared for the real world. They are used to being in control of their own lives and making decisions for themselves – just as all adults do daily. They decide what to do, when, and how to do it. 

The community of a Democratic School is a mirror of the existing society. That enables the students to learn and improve all the skills they need to live happily and successfully in our society. 

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