WHAT if we began practicing democracy in school?
Not the pretend democracy we give when we let students choose, for example, whether they want the quiz on Friday or on Monday; or the playhouse democracy we give to student councils and school papers, where they can decide whatever project they want or whatever article they want to print, but all it takes is a word from the principal or the school board and that project can be instantly vetoed, that article immediately censored.
But what if students’ decisions actually mattered? What if they voted on having no uniforms or having no haircut rules and that decision was actually respected? What if students could decide how the school spent its money? What if students voted on which teachers (including administrators) to hire and which ones to fire? What if students could actually choose what they wanted to do -- whether it’s to read a pocketbook or to chat with their friends or even to play all day?
You may think that is a recipe for disaster for any school and it wouldn’t last a year, or even a week, but that is what Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts has been doing since day one for the past 50 years. Not only has it survived but it has thrived and become a model for similar types of schools in different cities and countries. Its graduates go on to colleges or trade schools of their choice and are in diverse fields and professions.
Hal Sadofsky, one of the school’s earliest graduates, went on to get a Ph.D. in Mathematics at M.I.T. and is currently an Associate Professor in the University of Oregon. He has this to say: “The most fundamental educational lesson we hope our students will learn is that they are responsible for their own education, and in fact for their own lives. Actually internalizing this, and all that goes with it is the best lesson they can have for the rest of their lives. I believe that it is important for people to acquire knowledge and skills, but I don't believe I can or should force them to do so. Much more important is for our children to learn that if they value something, it is worth working for, and that if they have a goal they care about, they need to take responsibility for realizing it.”
And the way this lesson is imparted is not through dry lectures but through actual experience, where the student feels and knows that his decisions do matter, and no adult is going to come along and say, “Well that’s interesting, but now it’s time to come in and learn your grammar,” or something along those lines.
Sudbury founder, Daniel Greenberg, says that even he has no special authority or tenure in the school. He has one vote like everybody else, and he always has to perform well in the eyes of the community, or risk being voted out.
In an essay entitled The Significance of the Democratic Model, Greenberg writes, “To educate successfully for democracy, the real life surroundings of the children we seek to educate must be democratic in every respect, through and through, to the core and down to the last detail. The world of the children we want to reach must be a democratic reality, so the children wishing to master it will have no choice but to master the whole intricacy of its democratic structure. Education for democracy demands democratic schools. There is no other way to make it effective.”
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