It is not at all uncommon for people to claim that a classroom ought to be a democratic environment, or perhaps one in which democratic values are upheld. Typically (as in the work of Freire) this involves challenging the position of the teacher as the central authority in the classroom, and giving greater emphasis and value to the knowledge, beliefs and attitudes of pupils. I want in this post to suggest that, while I am fully supportive of classrooms underpinned by democratic principles, this does not necessarily result in things like letting pupils decide the class rules, or similar ‘student voice’ ideas.
Let’s start with what it means to live in a modern democracy. It is quite clear, first, that modern democracy is not a free-for-all. All democracies have laws that members of that society have to obey. As a British citizen, I have to pay my taxes, drive on the left and not steal from other people. At no point in my life have I been asked if I want to do these things, and if I try to challenge these laws (such as by driving on the right) I would expect to be punished. Indeed, if people were able to opt out of these things, then I would expect our society – and its democratic principles – to collapse into chaos.
What about the process by which these laws are made? Well, in modern democracies it is very rare to have a direct vote on whether or not a law should be in place. In most democracies (e.g. the UK, the USA or Germany) citizens get a vote every few years, and at that moment they select the people whom they would most like to exercise authority over them. Although in theory it is possible to remove an elected representative from power outside of the normal electoral process, this is in general only possible if that person has done something pretty bad. Modern democracy works on the basis that we accept living under the authority of some people, and we agree to do what they tell us, with the proviso that we can challenge them and their position from time to time.
Where do children fit into this? Well, in all modern democracies, children are not understood as being ready to exercise the right to participate fully in the democratic process. We can certainly quibble over the (necessarily arbitrary) age at which someone gets to vote (18, 16, 14?) but very few people seriously suggest that the vote ought to be given to a thirteen-year-old, let alone an eight-year-old. It is assumed that adults – specifically parents – will make choices in the best interests of children until they come of age, and if a child is seriously unhappy about something, then a parent or other responsible adult will represent them. Children do of course have opportunities to express their unhappiness, but they do not have the power to change the laws of society.
There is little here I think that is controversial. No one says that we should not obey laws (democratic citizens are expected in this sense to be obedient), and very few people seriously think that we should have a form of direct democracy where every decision has to be ratified by those it might affect. Legitimate authority is recognised in democracies, and authorities are limited by adults who have the right to vote.
So what does this all mean for schools? If we have democratic schools, then what should we expect to see?
Well, we should first expect to see rules exercised by an authority, and we should expect children in a class to obey the rules in the same way as citizens obey the law: it would be inconsistent to challenge the idea of ‘obedience’ in the classroom while accepting it in wider society. If a pupil decides to disobey the rules, then they should expect to be punished, just as a citizen would expect to be punished for disobeying the laws in a democracy.
Those rules, in order to be legitimate (as opposed to arbitrary), clearly should be open to a process of scrutiny so that bad rules can be scrapped and new rules introduced. There ought to be a clear process in place by which rules can be reviewed. Importantly, we should not expect to have the opportunity to vote on every new rule introduced. Rather, we ought to be able to exercise some control over the people who make those rules. In this UK, this control is typically exercised by governors, who are in part elected by the parents of children in the school. We might quibble about the precise mechanism by which governors are elected and the powers they exercise (these are key questions that need debate), but nevertheless the system is, at least in theory, fairly robust as a means of ensuring that the authority exercised in school is legitimate. There are key mechanisms in place whereby schools can be challenged if parents, or other members of the community, are unhappy with what the school is doing.
This leads, finally, to the question of who should be having a say here. If we are going to be consistent and apply our wider democratic standards to schools, then we ought not to expect children to be voting on rules or holding authorities to account – in wider society, they can do that only once they are 18. The social liberal in me has always felt that 18 is a little late as a cut-off, and I could imagine allowing pupils aged 16+, or perhaps even 14+, to have some say in electing governors, but this is really a debate about the details rather than the principle. Generally speaking, a democratic school – or, more specifically, a school that follows the principles of our democratic society – would be one where responsible adults act to represent the rights of their children. They do this directly by electing governors, and they have the ability to lobby on behalf of children by talking to teachers and managers.
It is for all of these reasons that I have no problem with saying that classrooms should be democratic. In the modern world, that means obeying rules set down by a legitimate authority which is limited by responsible adults. Both online and off, however, I rather sense that when people talk about ‘democratic classrooms’ they are actually referring to something far more radical and revolutionary. One might certainly engage in a meaningful discussion about the radical arguments advanced by people such as Freire, but we should not kid ourselves that such a position is any more democratic: in many cases, the more radical arguments bear little resemblance to modern democracy.