Should classrooms be democratic?

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.

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3 Comments on Should classrooms be democratic?

  1. If we take the term democracy to mean ‘liberal democracy as practiced by western nation states in the present day’, then yes, classrooms are, presently, democratic. But this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the notion of democracy if we understand it to take its etymological sense of ‘rule of the people’.

    Representative Democracy, as presently practiced in the UK, was understood in the 18th century, especially by the Founding Fathers of the United States, as a fundamentally aristocratic system of governance. This was a system by which a political class could monopolise the organs of power and the discussion thereof, decide which questions they were willing to pose to the masses, that wouldn’t threaten their hegemony, and effectively remove fundamental issues of discussion from debate. To pick an obvious example, there is a reason, in contemporary Britain, that upward of 60% of people support the renationalisation of the railways and yet it is not going to be seriously discussed by a parliament stuffed with parties committed to the ideology of Neoliberalism. Under this system of so-called democracy the traditional model of teacher as aristocrat, as privileged member of a higher group of society who decides what is available for discussion on the part of their pupils, and who responds to unwarranted questions and threats to their authority with recourse to the behaviour management policy is utterly unproblematic. It is a precise mirror of our class-ridden society, and an efficient means of reproducing it.

    How, then, might ‘real’ democracy differ from ‘modern’ democracy, especially in the classroom? Here, I feel that direct democracy has been given an unfair hearing. It is not a system in which “every decision has to be ratified by those it might affect”. It is instead a process through which consensus is sought. When that is over an issue of some technical expertise, direct democratic assemblies tend to appoint a working group to study the matter in depth, apply any relevant experience and expertise, and, crucially, act in a manner which is in keeping with the ethos of the group. That is not to say that they come up with a proposition and then resubmit it to the assembly; but rather that they have been granted authority by the rest of the group to act in accordance with an agreed set of basic principles. When it is a more general issue, then yes, a direct democratic body would most likely hold a meeting, in which the views of everyone can be heard, and in which no one’s views are prioritised over another’s due to their status, and in which the final decision of the group will be to undertake only that which everyone can agree upon.

    A direct democratic society doesn’t involve a lack of laws, necessarily, or even a lack of authority. The crucial point is that “the people who make those rules” in a direct democratic society are you and I, and we make those rules for a set period of time with a specific mandate, and when that mandate expires, when our working group has outlived its usefulness and has solved the problems it was set up to solve, the members of that working group become you and I once more. Authority in a true radical democracy is fleeting and context-specific. Democracy is not, therefore, a process of exercising some degree of control over “the people who make those rules”; rather, it is a system in which the people who make those rules are the same people who are expected to abide by them.

    What are the implications of this for the classroom? We might view the class as a democratic assembly which has nominated the teacher in order to teach it. In a democratic classroom we are not necessarily expecting students to produce their own codification of class rules; rather, we would expect an agreement to be reached between teacher and students that certain work has been deemed necessary to the students’ development by someone, the teacher, who has professional expertise in such matters.

    Yes this almost certainly will occasion students to take issue with certain lessons and refuse to do pieces of work in others, and there is a clear question mark around the ability of children to make decisions with their own long term interest in mind. But nonetheless, I’m not sure I see the point in compelling a student to do something they truly don’t want to do. If we history teachers, as we so often say we do, truly care about the creation of independent and critical thinkers we must be exercised by this. I honestly doubt whether there is any benefit in forcing a child to behave in a particular manner and to compel them to learn a particular lesson or topic on pain of detention or some other punishment, even if that lesson is one which promotes so-called good citizenship. The content can be as democratic as you like, but if it is delivered in a form typified by compulsion and punishment it can hardly be construed as a democratic lesson, and it can hardly be doing much to bring about a democratic society.

    This doesn’t sound terribly radical to me: an active agreement reached between students and teacher that the teacher’s authority is legitimate by dint of their professional expertise in the matter of the education of children and their knowledge of the subject matter being taught, and an active commitment by the students to therefore abide by that authority for as long as it serves what has been recognised and agreed upon as their academic interests. On issues or subjects where students are more knowledgeable than the teacher, such a classroom would presumably defer to the student as the new source of knowledge (I recall being given a chunk of an English lesson in year 13 to talk about the discussion of the study of history in The History Boys which my teacher saw as relevant and interesting, but about which he knew little).

    Indeed, it is clearly worth viewing the classroom as just one more arena in which members of society interact. When our Year 13s finish their A levels they become, just like us their teachers, locals at the same pubs, constituents in the same elections, citizens of the same towns and cities. Do we want them to sigh with us over a pint about the manner in which both of us now find ourselves powerless in the face of a supposedly legitimate political class? Or do we want to both have known a much more radical notion of authority and legitimacy, and to sit down and plan together how to bring that about more widely? Indeed, it is worth asking the extent to which “modern democracy” resembles democracy anymore.

  2. Tom Burkard // 19 December 2014 at 15:03 // Reply

    This debate brings to mind the contrast between my experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1960s and at UEA between 1989 -1993. In the first instance, schools in the Midwest were unashamedly didactic and undemocratic during this era, and the curriculum was rigidly defined. My sole memory of History lessons was in the 11th grade, when our teacher asked an open question (a rare enough occasion)–he wondered what prompted people to leave their comfortable homes East of the Mississippi in the 19th century and risk everything to settle new land in the West. I ventured that they were misfits and malcontents–and the teacher became very agitated, pounding on his desk, and putting forth the ‘correct’ answer that they were fearless adventurers trying to create a newer and better way of life.

    Yet when I got to the U of Mich, we used to stay up to the small hours drinking coffee in the Student Union (it was dry) arguing about every academic and cultural question that we knew anything about. In a way this was almost more enlightening than our classes (American Universities have always been modular). About half of undergraduate seminars were taught by graduate students, most of whom were finding out that academia was not for them. I left without a degree after what could most charitably be described as a chequered career.

    Fast forward to 1989, the last entry to escape the modular blight at UEA. Our seminars were taught by some of the best Historians in Britain, and the relatively high percentage of mature students made for lively and informed discussions. Our three-hour seminars were interrupted by a 20-minute break, where we all went for a coffee or coke. The young sprogs who came straight from 6th form–who seldom contributed to seminars unless giving a class paper–talked almost entirely about what they’d watched on TV the previous evening. These poor kids had been spoon-fed ‘critical thinking skills’, in classes where ‘student voice’ was already implicitly on the agenda–but they had nothing to think about.

    And thinking back about the teachers I can still recall with any fondness, if any of them had any doubts about their right to set and enforce the rules, they certainly never let it show.

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