What is democratic education?
The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) defines democratic education as “learning that equips every human being to participate fully in a healthy democracy.” This definition excites me. It is brilliant in its simplicity, yet still profound. Before unfolding what the word “learning” means in that definition, I want to address democracy and public education since it affects most of the young people in the United States. In all public schools, democracy is taught, so wouldn’t that make them all democratic by IDEA’s definition? It’s important to note that while democracy is taught, students are not given an opportunity to authentically practice democracy. This means having the opportunity to make real decisions in a community with concrete outcomes–not voting in student council on recommendations that are then given to an adult authority figure to say yes or no to. As Shilpa Jain pointed out to me, “If we don’t experience democracy in our schools, how could we ever expect to end up with democracy in the ‘real’ world?”
We must balance our intellectual and historical understanding of democracy with opportunities for practice and spaces to learn about the nuances that take place when you must collectively come to a decision that affects your entire community. Ira Shor was very clear in explaining to me that “Democracy is not a speech given by an official to reassure us that we live in a democracy. Democracy is an everyday practice.” Bill Ayers reiterated this point when he went on to express the importance of “learning from democracy, not about democracy” which reminds me of a great scene in a documentary called Democratic Schools. In the documentary students are learning about butterflies through a chalk diagram on the board when a butterfly flies by the window. One student stops paying attention and is consumed with watching the butterfly’s every motion. The teacher pulls the shade down, scolds the student and reminds her that they’re trying to learn about butterflies (not from them).
Shilpa Jain says that it is hard to use the phrase “democratic education” because of how each of those words have become so corrupted and diluted from their true meanings. Sonia Nieto added that democratic education “means practicing what we preach. It means putting into effect all of those noble ideals of equality and fair play.” She continued with a challenge to “look seriously at the policies and practices we have in place and ask how those further or not a democratic vision. Do high stakes tests for example further the ideals of democracy? What about the curriculum?” Her answer to each question was “not currently.”
After attending a democratic school and teaching high school and preschool in a democratic environment, I’ve come to settle on a personal definition of what democratic education is which unfolds the word “learner” in IDEA’s definition. I see democratic education as learning that is meaningful, relevant, joyous, engaging, and empowering. I see it as learning rooted in respect for children and young people who actively participate in their education journey. It is learning grounded in love and community. I’ve come to realize democratic education is more than any one learning environment, such as a school, and more than one feature, such as voting, but an approach to life and learning and an approach to interacting with all members of your community in a way that respects, honors, and listens authentically to each voice within it. For me, this is the practice of real democracy, which can manifest in many different ways based on you, your community, and your learning environment.