What is Democratic Education?
What is Democratic Education?
An Interview With Chris Mercogliano
by Yong Shian Phoon
Yong Shian Phoon, who also calls herself Heather, is a Malaysian graduate student at the University of Hong Kong. She is completing a Masters thesis on democratic education, and I was among a number of educators that she interviewed as part of her research.
Heather: What made you want to become a teacher at the Albany Free School in the first place?
Chris: I wanted to be a teacher because I really like kids, and I enjoy helping them learn things they didn’t know before and watching them grow happier. The reason I chose the Albany Free School was because the school was trying to help children in the inner city where the public schools are pretty bad and where kids need people who care about them and refuse to leave them behind. And then I saw so many little miracle happening that I never left. I also stayed because I had the freedom to teach in ways that make sense and I didn’t have to follow anybody else’s script.
H: So would you say this is one of the benefits of a democratic school, being flexible and not having to follow a specific curriculum?
C: Yes! What I especially loved was that I only had to work with children who wanted to learn. I didn’t have to deal with all the resistance that you often get from kids when learning is compulsory.
H: What is your definition of a democratic school?
C: First I should tell you I’m not crazy about the term because it’s strictly a political one. “Democratic” refers to a system of government in which people share the power. I think children being involved in making decisions, and negotiating rules, and solving problems is an important aspect of a school, but it’s only part of what goes on. Then there is the other part where children are learning and doing all kinds of things that don’t have anything to do with governing the school that the term doesn’t really address. And so now you have schools around the world that call themselves democratic and yet have quite different educational philosophies. There are some democratic schools like the Albany Free School, or the Brooklyn Free School, or Summerhill, or Sudbury Valley where students have complete freedom to choose what they want to do each day and there is no set curriculum that they have to follow, but there are many others where this isn’t the case. Then to add to the confusion, many people call mainstream public education “democratic” because it is available to everyone and students supposedly have an equal opportunity to succeed whether they are rich or poor.
H: I understand. That’s exactly what I experienced when I was trying to do research on democratic schools because in the academic world there are different ideas about what a democratic school means.
C: It’s why I prefer to say that my school is a free school that is democratically run.
H: So you are very much against a compulsory curriculum with a set content that has to be taught to every student.
C: That’s right, for me it’s not so much a philosophical issue as it is that children simply learn better when the motivation is coming from the inside because they are interested in what they’re learning. Also, every child is born with a different temperament. Some children are more willing to do as they are told. But others are strong-willed; and when you force them to do something they don’t want to do, they push back and start hating whatever it is you’re making them do. You can really do damage to their potential for learning.
H: So if there are quite a lot of different types of kids in the world, do you think all schools should be democratic or should some operate in an authoritarian way?
C: No, I don’t think there’s any need for schools that make kids learn and act in a certain way. Children are born so hungry to learn. They already have all the motivation they need. But the mainstream educational model is based on the false idea that all behavior is shaped by rewards and punishments, and also that there exists an objective body of knowledge in the world that everyone has to know in order to be an educated person.
This doesn’t mean I think all mainstream schools are bad. Many of the teachers are good people who care about kids, and they do everything they can to make what they are teaching is interesting. But the standardized testing is making it harder and harder for them to do things creatively. Especially in schools for poor children, there is no freedom for the teachers to do anything other than stick to the curriculum and get the students ready to take the high-stakes tests at the end of the year.
H: What do you think are the most important benefits of democratic education?
C: It helps children to become autonomous people and to develop a very deep sense of who they are and what they want in life. Free school graduates believe that every problem has a solution and they have the confidence that they can figure things out for themselves. And so when there are obstacles in their way they will keep trying different solutions, and asking for help if they need it, until they reach their goal.
Also, free school kids will always have the feeling that learning is very exciting, you know. To them learning is a part of life, not just something that happens in school. And you do it simply because you enjoy it so much. This is because they were never performing for rewards, and they weren’t punished for making mistakes. The motivation was always coming from them.
You really see a difference between free school kids and mainstream kids when they get to college. A lot of mainstream students have a hard time at first because suddenly no one is telling them what to do and when to do it. Many of them fall apart emotionally because they don’t have that sense of autonomy that free school kids have. Free School kids know how to manage their time and filter out the distractions.
Another benefit of democratic education is how much more relational it is. The relationships between students are much more complex, and children also learn that adults are just people. Sometimes they are good; sometimes they are bad; and you form relationships with them just like with anyone else.
H: Can you tell me a bit about the skills that you think are required to teach in a free school?
C: It’s important to be relaxed and to be flexible, because in a free school everything isn’t planned and many more things happen spontaneously. So it’s pretty important for the teachers to be able to go with the flow and to be open to not really knowing how a situation is going to turn out. Also, teachers in a free school don’t have all the automatic authority and control like in mainstream schools, and so it’s important for them to understand children really well and to have good relationship skills.
H: That’s the reason why I wanted to conduct research on democratic education, really, because it’s so human.