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Democratic school

Democratic Education is an educational ideal in which democracy is both a goal and a method of instruction. It brings democratic values to education and can include self-determination within a community of equals, as well as such values as justice, respect and trust.


The history of democratic education spans from at least the 1600s. While it is associated with a number of individuals, there has been no central figure, establishment, or nation that advocated democratic education.[1]

Enlightenment era

In 1693, John Locke published Some Thoughts Concerning Education. In describing the teaching of children, he declares, “None of the things they are to learn, should ever be made a burthen to them, or impos'd on them as a task. Whatever is so propos'd, presently becomes irksome; the mind takes an aversion to it, though before it were a thing of delight or indifferency. Let a child but be order'd to whip his top at a certain time every day, whether he has or has not a mind to it; let this be but requir'd of him as a duty, wherein he must spend so many hours morning and afternoon, and see whether he will not soon be weary of any play at this rate.”[2]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book of advice on education, Émile, was first published in 1762. Émile, the imaginary pupil he uses for illustration, was only to learn what he could appreciate as useful.[3] He was to enjoy his lessons, and learn to rely on his own judgement and experience. “The tutor must not lay down precepts, he must let them be discovered,”[4] wrote Rousseau, and urged him not make Émile learn science, but let him discover it.[5] He also said that we should not substitute books for personal experience because this does not teach us to reason; it teaches us to use other people’s reasoning; it teaches us to believe a great deal but never to know anything.[6]

19th century

While Locke and Rousseau were concerned only with the education of the children of the wealthy, in the 19th century Leo Tolstoy set up a school for peasant children. This was on his own estate at Yasnaya Polyana, Russia, in the late 19th century. He tells us that the school evolved freely from principles introduced by teachers and pupils; that in spite of the preponderating influence of the teacher, the pupil had always had the right not to come to school, or, having come, not to listen to the teacher, and that the teacher had the right not to admit a pupil, and was able to use all the influence he could muster to win over the community, where the children were always in the majority.[7][8]

20th century

Dom Sierot

In 1912 Janusz Korczak founded Dom Sierot, the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, which was run on democratic lines until 1940, when he accompanied all his charges to the gas-chambers of the Treblinka extermination camp.[9][10][11]

Influential democratic schools

The oldest democratic school that still exists is Summerhill, in Suffolk, England, founded in 1921. It features voluntary class attendance and a School Meeting with broad powers. In the 1960s, hundreds of schools opened based on Summerhill,[12] however A.S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill, distanced himself from American Summerhill schools for not successfully implementing the philosophy of "Freedom, not license."[13]

Sudbury Valley School, founded in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1968, has full democratic governance: The School Meeting manages all aspects of the school, including staff hiring and facilities.[14] Beginning in the 1980s, several dozen schools opened based on Sudbury Valley.[15]

The Democratic School of Hadera, founded in Israel in 1987, is public funded. It offers voluntary classes.[16] There are now more than twenty democratic schools in Israel.[17]

Free schools movement

Progressive education (including many schools based on Summerhill[18]) became a broad movement in the 1960s and 1970s, but was largely renounced by the 1980s.[19]


Networks supporting democratic education include:

IDEC 2005 named 2 core beliefs: self-determination and democratic governance.[22] EUDEC has both of these beliefs, and mutual respect is also in their belief statement.[23] IDEN supports schools that self-identify as democratic.[24]


Democratic education comes in many different forms. These are some of the areas in which democratic schools differ.


Democratic schools are characterized by involving students in the decision-making process that affects what and how they learn. Some democratic schools have no mandatory curriculum, considering forced learning to be undemocratic. Most democratic schools officially offer voluntary courses, and many help interested students to prepare for national examinations so they gain qualifications for further study or future employment.[25] Some democratic schools have no official offering of courses, although courses can be offered or requested by school members.[15]

Administrative structure

Democratic schools often have meetings open to all students and staff, where everyone present has a voice and sometimes an equal vote. Some include parents.[26] These school meetings can cover anything from small matters to the appointment or dismissal of staff and the creation or annulment of rules, or to general expenditure and the structure of the school day. At some schools all students are expected to attend these meetings, at others they are voluntary.[27] The main school meeting may also set up sub-committees to deal with particular issues, such as conflict resolution.[28]

Conflict resolution

Within the purview of democratic values, there is wide scope for how conflicts are resolved. There may be a formal system, with due process and the rule of law.[28] There may be rules but no punishments.[29] Other possibilities include, but are not limited to, a consensus process, mediation, and informal dialogue.


Finance: Some democratic learning environments are parent-funded, some charity-funded.[30][31] Schools may have a sliding scale based on family income.[32] Publicly funded democratic schools exist in Canada[33] and Israel[34]

Size: Democratic schools vary in size from a few students to a few hundred. Even an individual unschooler can be described as learning democratically, if people treat her with democratic values.

Age range: Age mixing is a deliberate policy in some democratic schools. It may include very young children, even babies.[35] Some democratic schools only enroll older students.[36][37]

Location: Democratic education is not limited to any particular setting. Settings for democratic learning communities include in an office building,[38] on city streets,[39] and in a rural area.[40]


While types of democratic education are as numerous as types of democracy, a general definition of democratic education is "an education that democratizes learning itself."[41] The goals of democratic education vary according to the participants, the location, and access to resources.[42]

There is no unified body of literature, spanning multiple disciplines, on democratic education. However, there are theories of democratic education from the following perspectives:

Cognitive theory

During the practice theory movement, there was renewed interest in child development. Jean Piaget's theory of universal steps in comprehension and general patterns in the acquisition of knowledge was challenged by experiences at democratic schools. "No two kids ever take the same path. Few are remotely similar. Each child is so unique, so exceptional."[43]

Jean Lave was one of the first and most prominent social anthropologists to discuss cognition within the context of cultural settings presenting a firm argument against the functionalist psychology that many educationalists refer to implicitly. For Lave, learning is a process ungone by an actor within a specific context. The skills or knowledge learned in one process are not generalizable nor reliably transferred to other areas of human action. Her primary focus was on mathematics in context and mathematics education.

The broader implications reached by Lave and others who specialize in situated learning are that beyond the argument that certain knowledge is necessary to be a member of society (a Durkheimian argument), knowledge learned in the context of a school is not reliably transferable to other contexts of practice.

John Locke argues that children are capable of reasoning at a young age: “It will perhaps be wonder’d, that I mention reasoning with children; and yet I cannot but think that the true way of dealing with them. They understand it as early as they do language; and, if I misobserve not, they love to be treated as rational creatures, sooner than is imagin’d,”[44] Rousseau disagreed: “Use force with children and reasoning with men."[45]

Humans are innately curious, and democratic education supports the belief that the drive to learn is sufficiently strong to motivate children to become effective adults.[46]

Criticism based on cognitive theory

The human brain is not fully developed until adulthood.[47] A disadvantage of teenagers being responsible for their own education is that "young brains have both fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected. This leaves teens easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior".[48]


Democracy can be valued on ethical grounds.[49]

Criticism based on ethics

Letting children direct their own education could be considered irresponsible parenting.[50]

Cultural theory

Democratic education is consistent with the cultural theory that "learning in school must be continuous with life outside of school" and that children should become active participants in the control and organization of their community.[51]

Research on hunter-gatherer societies indicates that free play and exploration were effective transmitter's of the societies' culture to children.[52]

According to George Dennison, democratic environments are social regulators: Our desire to cultivate friendships, engender respect, and maintain what George Dennison terms ‘natural authority’ encourages us to act in socially acceptable ways (i.e. culturally informed practices of fairness, honesty, congeniality, etc.).[53]

Criticism based on cultural theory

Children are influenced by many curricula beyond the school curriculum: TV curricula, advertisers' curricula, curricula of religious communities, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, encyclopedias etc. and therefore "one of the most significant tasks any school can undertake is to try to develop in youngsters an awareness of these other curricula and an ability to criticize them…it is utter nonsense to think that by turning children loose in an unplanned and unstructured environment they can be freed in any significant way. Rather, they are thereby abandoned to the blind forces of the hucksters, whose primary concern is neither the children, nor the truth, nor the decent future of American society."[54]

Émile Durkheim argues that the transition from primitive to modern societies occurred in part as elders made a conscious decision to transmit what were deemed the most essential elements of their culture to the following generations. He concludes that modern societies are so complex—much more complex than primitive hunter-gatherer societies—and the roles that individuals must fill in society are so varied, that formal mass-education is necessary to instill social solidarity and what he terms ‘secular morality’.[55]

Political theory

There are a variety of political components to democratic education. One author identifies those elements as inclusivity and rights, equal participation in decision-making, and equal encouragement for success.[56] The Institute for Democratic Education's principles of democratic education identifies several political principles,

Effect on quality of education

The type of political socialization that takes place in democratic schools is strongly related to deliberative democracy theory. Claus Offe and Ulrich Preuss, two theorists of the political culture of deliberative democracies argue that in its cultural production deliberative democracy requires “an open-ended and continuous learning process in which the roles of both ‘teacher’ and ‘curriculum’ are missing. In other words, what is to be learned is a matter that we must settle in the process of learning itself."[58]

The political culture of a deliberative democracy and its institutions, they argue, would facilitate more “dialogical forms of making one’s voice heard” which would “be achieved within a framework of liberty, within which paternalism is replaced by autonomously adopted self-paternalism, and technocratic elitism by the competent and self-conscious judgment of citizens."[59]

As a curricular, administrative and social operation within schools, democratic education is essentially concerned with equipping people to make "real choices about fundamental aspects of their lives"[60] and happens within and for democracy.[61] It can be "a process where teachers and students work collaboratively to reconstruct curriculum to include everyone."[56] In at least one conception, democratic education teaches students "to participate in consciously reproducing their society, and conscious social reproduction."[62] This role necessitates democratic education happening in a variety of settings and being taught by a variety of people, including "parents, teachers, public officials, and ordinary citizens." Because of this "democratic education begins not only with children who are to be taught but also with citizens who are to be their teachers."[63]

Preparation for life in a democracy

The "strongest, political rationale" for democratic education is that it teaches "the virtues of democratic deliberation for the sake of future citizenship."[64] This type of education is often alluded to in the deliberative democracy literature as fulfilling the necessary and fundamental social and institutional changes necessary to develop a democracy that involves intensive participation in group decision making, negotiation, and social life of consequence.[65]

Civic education

The concept of the hidden curriculum includes the belief that anything taught in an authoritarian setting is implicitly teaching authoritarianism. Thus civic education, if taught in a compulsory setting, undermines its own lessons in democracy.[66] A common belief in democratic schools is that democracy must be experienced to be learned.[67][68][69] This argument conforms to the cognition-in-context research by Lave.

Another common belief, which supports the practice of compulsory classes in civic education, is that passing on democratic values requires an imposed structure.[70]

Arguments about how to transmit democracy, and how much and how early to treat children democratically, are made in various literatures concerning student voice, youth participation and other elements of youth empowerment.[71][72]

Criticism based on political theory

Attachment parenting claims that a child needs to be on the lower end of a hierarchical relationship in order to have emotional health and healthy development.[73]

Economic theory

Core features of democratic education align with the emerging consensus on 21st century business and management priorities. Such features include increased collaboration, decentralized organization, and radical creativity.[74]

Curriculum theory

While democratic schools don't have an official curriculum, what each student actually does might be considered their own curriculum.[75]

Democratic schools may not consider reading, writing and arithmetic to be the real basics for being a successful adult.[76] A.S. Neill said "To hell with arithmetic."[77] Nonetheless, there is a common belief that people will eventually learn "the basics" when they develop internal motivation.[78][79]

Democratic education in practice


A striking feature of democratic schools is the ubiquity of play. Students of all ages — but especially the younger ones — often spend most of their time either in free play, or playing games (electronic or otherwise). All attempts to limit, control or direct play must be democratically approved before being implemented.[80] Play is seen as activity every bit as worthy as academic pursuits, often even more valuable. Play is considered essential for learning, particularly in fostering creativity.[81]

Reading, writing and arithmetic

Interest in learning to read happens at a wide variety of ages.[79]

Education in a democratic society

As English aristocracy was giving way to democracy, Matthew Arnold investigated popular education in France and other countries to determine what form of education suited a democratic age.[82] Arnold wrote that "the spirit of democracy" is part of "human nature itself", which engages in "the effort to affirm one's own develop one's own existence fully and freely."[83]

During the industrial age, John Dewey argued that children should not all be given the same pre-determined curriculum. In Democracy and Education he develops a philosophy of education based on democracy. He argues that while children should be active participants in the creation of their education, and while children must experience democracy to learn democracy, they need adult guidance to develop into responsible adults.[84]

Amy Gutmann argues in Democratic Education that in a democratic society, there is a role for everyone in the education of children. These roles are best agreed upon through deliberative democracy.[85]

The journal Democracy and Education investigates "the conceptual foundations, social policies, institutional structures, and teaching/learning practices associated with democratic education." By "democratic education" they mean "educating youth...for active participation in a democratic society."[86]

Training Programs

Israel's Institute for Democratic Education and Kibbutzim College in Tel Aviv collaborate to offer a Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.) degree with a Specialization Certificate in Democratic Education. Student teaching placements are in both regular schools and democratic schools.[87]

Legal Issues

The United Nations and democratic education

United Nations agreements both support and place restrictions on education options, including democratic education:

Article 26(3) of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."[88] While this in itself may allow parents the right to choose democratic education, Articles 28 and 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child place requirements on educational programs: Primary education is compulsory, all aspects of each student must be developed to their full potential, and education must include the development of respect for things such as national values and the natural environment, in a spirit of friendship among all peoples.[89]

Furthermore, while Article 12(1) of the Convention mandates that children be able to have input on all matters that effect them, their input will have limited weight, "due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child."[89]


In 1999, Summerhill received a 'notice of complaint' over its policy of non-compulsory lessons, a procedure which would usually have led to closure; Summerhill contested the notice[90] and went before a special educational tribunal. Summerhill was represented by a noted human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC. The government's case soon collapsed, and a settlement was offered. This offer was discussed and agreed at a formal school meeting which had been hastily convened in the courtroom from a quorum of pupils and teachers who were present in court. The settlement guaranteed that future inspections of Summerhill would be consistent with Summerhill's educational philosophy.[91]


  • Joseph Agassi - Israeli philosopher and proponent of democracy
  • Michael Apple - Social scientist, democratic education scholar, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Matthew Arnold - Wrote about education in an age of democracy
  • Pierre Bourdieu - Anthropologist, social theorist, College de France
  • Émile Durkheim - Sociologist, functionalist education theorist
  • George Dennison - American writer, author
  • John Dewey - Social scientist, progressive education theorist, University of Chicago
  • Michel Foucault - Post-modern philosopher, University of California, Berkeley
  • Peter Gray - Psychologist, democratic education scholar, Boston College
  • Amy Gutmann - Political scientist, democratic education scholar, President of the University of Pennsylvania
  • Daniel Greenberg - One of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School
  • John Holt - Critic of conventional education and proponent of home-schooling
  • Homer Lane - Democratic education pioneer, founder of the Ford Republic (1907–12) and the Little Commonwealth (1913–17)
  • Deborah Meier - Founder of democratic schools in New York and Boston, writer
  • A.S. Neill - Democratic education pioneer, founder of the Summerhill School
  • Claus Offe - Political Scientist, theorist of deliberative democratic culture, Hertie School of Governance
  • Karl Popper - Philosopher at the London School of Economics
  • Bertrand Russell - Philosopher, author of On Education and founder of Beacon House School

See also


External links

  • Peter Gray @ Psychology Today
  • Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO)
  • Comprehensive Global List of Democratic Schools (via AERO)
  • European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC)
  • Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA)

Further reading

  • Apple, M. (1993) Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age. Routledge.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron. (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Theory, Culture and Society Series. Sage.
  • Carlson, D. and Apple, M.W. (1998) Power, Knowledge, Pedagogy: The Meaning of Democratic Education in Unsettling Times. Westview Press.
  • Carr, W. and Hartnett, A. (1996) Education and the Struggle for Democracy: The politics of educational ideas. Open University Press.
  • Dennison, George. (1999) The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
  • Dewey, John. (1997) Experience and Education. New York: Touchstone.
  • Durkheim, Émile. (2002) Moral Education. Mineola, NY: Dover.
  • Foucault, Michel. (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.
  • Gatto, John Taylor. (1992) Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education. Philadelphia, PA: New Society.
  • Giroux, H. A. (1989) 'Schooling for Democracy: Critical pedagogy in the modern age. Routledge.
  • Gutmann, A. (1999) Democratic Education. Princeton University Press.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. (1997) "Popular Sovereignty as Procedure’ “Deliberative Democracy". Bohman, James and William Rehg, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Held, David. (2006) Models of Democracy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Jensen, Knud and Walker, Stephen eds. (1989) "Towards Democratic Schooling: European Experiences". Open University Press
  • Kahn, Robert L. and Daniel Katz. (1978) The Social Psychology of Organizations. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Kelly, A. V. (1995) Education and Democracy: Principles and practices. Paul Chapman Publishers.
  • Knoester, M. (2012) Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School. Teachers College Press.
  • Manin, Bernard. "On Legitimacy and Political Deliberation" Elly Stein and Jane Mansbridge, trans. Political Theory. Vol. 15, No. 3, Aug. 1987: 338-368.
  • Miller, Ron. (2002) "Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy After the 1960s". SUNY Press
  • Neill, A. S. (1995) Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood. Ed. Albert Lamb. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
  • Sadofsky, Mimsy and Daniel Greenberg. (1994) Kingdom of Childhood: Growing up at Sudbury Valley School. Hanna Greenberg, interviewer. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.
  • Schutz, Aaron. (2010). Social Class, Social Action, and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. introduction
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