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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.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Heather #

    Thank you, Chris! It was a good chat and an enlightening one!
    Best, Heather

    May 19, 2014
    • Derry Hannam #

      I love the tentative, non-dogmatic yet clearly ‘committed to the growth of children’s understanding of the world’ tone of your responses Chris. I imagine you had the same effect on your interviewer as you probably had on your students at Albany! Re-affirming. Thanks.


      May 26, 2014
      • Chris Mercogliano #

        What a lovely thing to say, Derry. Thank you.

        May 27, 2014
  2. Vlad #


    Interesting interview, thank you!

    “There are some democratic schools like [..] Summerhill, or Sudbury Valley where students have complete freedom to choose what they want to do [..], but there are many others where this isn’t the case.” – showing differences and similarities between different alternative schools is very important, I would say that some democratic schools could easily be worse than some mainstream education schools. And if you expand “democratic” to “alternative” and include Montessori/Waldorf schools – that’s certainly the case.

    It would be great to see more materials and maybe even tools for parents choosing a school for their child to see better picture and to be able to assess the school, it’s values.

    Currently almost the only way is to look at school’s history – but what if it’s a new school? Then it’s hard, even by going on a tour around the place – it’s hard to see the picture fully in a short time.

    “I prefer to say that my school is a free school that is democratically run.” – but unfortunately the term “free school” is basically ruined by other schools that are not free at all but call themselves this way! At least in the UK you can have just about anything inside a place with this name: and “Free school that is democratically run” is quite a long description.

    I agree that democracy is a tool that does not really cover all aspects of life in the democratic school. A lot of things going on that don’t involve any democracy at all!

    For some time I was thinking about it and now think “freedom-focused school” is a term that I’d suggest to use here – it is as short as possible and highlights respect to personal freedom as a main value, the gravity center, that pulls all other things (including democracy) to it. I’d be very interested to learn what you think about it.


    May 21, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for the great comment, Vlad. Labeling anything as complex as a school is such a tricky business. How do you reduce the essence to just one ingredient? Here in the U.S. we had a pretty good thing going for awhile when we just called all the schools that broke away from the conventional, Skinnerian, teacher- and curriculum-driven model “alternative schools.” Then collectively we called ourselves the “alternative school movement.” There was a wide variety of approaches, which I thought was a good thing. Like you, I didn’t particularly like certain schools, but I appreciated that they offered children and families a truly different option. But then the public schools co-opted our umbrella term and started calling its dumping grounds for misfit kids “alternative schools” and that was the end of that.

      Anyhow, these days I’m particularly fond of the way Zoe calls Summerhill a “self-governing democratic community” instead of a “school.” Particularly because of the emphasis on community, which for me is probably the most fundamental ingredient of a good school. A true community by definition is a place where members are free to be themselves and are accepted for who they are. So I see community, strictly defined, as the gravity center as you put it.

      May 22, 2014
      • Vlad #

        Thank you for your reply.

        I think the perspective here is that we have about a hundred million schools in the world. The word “school” is probably there to stay for a long time, whatever happens, it’s just too deep. What we can hope for is to re-shape the meaning behind it, very slowly.

        The problem though, how I see it, is that any word combination will experience same inflation of meaning, is vulnerable: you call your school “self-governing democratic community” and then somewhere a maniac starts a totalitarian cult and claims they have exactly the same thing and then makes it into the news – what can you do about that? Not much. It’s like with Putin claiming Russia is a “true democracy”.

        But I think there is a known way to avoid this vulnerability. Author can’t tell his book has 5 star reviews on Amazon if it’s not true, hotel can’t just claim they are a 5 star hotel, someone can’t call himself a lawyer or a cop or a doctor – just out of the blue. There are ways to protect meanings and alternative education community is going towards maturing enough to have some of that, I hope.

        And what you say about having a good community and a strong culture – is very important and it’s probably that “secret ingredient” that many alternative schools that run for a few years and then are shut down are failing to get. But “community” as a part of a term? Not sure, in my head it raises all sorts of things like “church community”, “online community” or even “prison community” – community is possible in any dystopia and could have any values in it.

        I know there was a group of people that were a very tight and compassionate community, helped each other and even were self-governed in a democratic way – but is it enough to describe a Warsaw Ghetto? Something is missing from this definition for me.

        But it could be reducing the essence to one ingredient or coming up with a short and elegant “brand” is not even required at all – current mainstream education system probably would deserve something like “economically oriented and evaluated schools” then, but no one uses that, everyone just uses “school” and “education” terms.

        Well humanity had the first bank some four hundred years before we had the first psychologist – so it’s somewhat natural to have it all that way, but now when we evolve we could have an independent psychological perspective on education too, it might be the next step.

        So, I believe in the near future we’ll see independent evaluation of levels of democracy, levels of freedom or even happiness in schools – and just like mainstream education is now evaluated from what is an economic perspective in global programs like PISA.

        It’s totally not impossible to have an independent evaluation of alternative schools that is honest, open, and hard to manipulate. And if that’s done – school then can define itself in whatever way, if independent views are developed – self-assigned labels really go down in value.

        So regarding “freedom-focused education” I think it’s also just a perspective where you don’t just tell what you are – but also tell what you are not, communicate what you will not compromise on. There’s a global movement for human rights, child rights, there are documents that all or most of the humanity agree on, there’s UNICEF child’s rights program – and I here reduce it all down to one word “freedom”.

        Personal freedom is a very deep core concept, that is probably as old-rooted as “education” itself. Just about everyone feels what “freedom” is, even if they can’t define it. I would love to see “Personal freedom: 5 stars” honest label given to some school one fine day…

        Sorry for such long reply and thank you again!

        May 23, 2014
        • Chris Mercogliano #

          No need to worry about the length of your comments, Vlad because you have important things to say. You’re so right about my beloved term community. It has been euphemized practically to death, but I will continue to use it because there is no accurate substitute. I just always make sure to define it carefully every time I use it, and as I said before my definition is very strict.

          May 27, 2014
  3. Hello Chris, What is your definition for community? By the way I agree more with you as with Vlad (I know him very well). Freedom is not everything. You cannot separate one thing, and praise it, as the most important thing. In cas of schools (or communities) there are some things which are very much interconnected, and only if you have all the ingredients, will work it good. In case of a school, I can list some ingredients: freedom. self government, tolerance, respect for individual rights, space etc.


    June 6, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Great list, Peter. I know it’s a bit mushy, but can we add love to it too?

      As for my definition of community, it has two parts. The first comes straight from M. Scott Peck’s book The Different Drum, which was his treatise on creating and sustaining true communities: “A highly cooperative group of individuals whose relationships are grounded in something deeper than role-based identities because the members are able to communicate honestly with each other and develop a significant commitment to rejoice together, mourn together, and delight in each other, making the other’s condition their own.”

      To which I have added: In a true community, the members not only hold interests, tasks, and goals in common—the root word of community—but also the essence of their lives and selves. Moreover, communities are inclusive by nature. They respect individual differences rather than demanding a uniform sameness, and it is the relationships between the members that form the basic structure. Leadership and responsibility are widely shared, everyone has a voice in determining shared tasks and goals and how best to achieve them, and there is no competition for rank or status.”

      June 12, 2014

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