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Can teachers promote democracy in the classroom?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2113 words Published: 8th May 2017

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Democracy is a highly desirable but contested concept in education, argues Paul R. Carr. [1] However, little is known about how current and future educators perceive, experience and relate to democracy, which could have a significant impact on how students learn about, and become involved in civic engagement and democracy. [2] 

Study at a university in northeast Ohio

This study was aimed at exploring the perspectives, experiences and perceptions of current and future educators who are students at a university in northeast Ohio. This study focused on two themes; attitudes towards democracy and attitudes towards democracy and education.

With regards to the first theme, when asked to define democracy, respondents, most frequently, referred to a form of government, often alluding to elections and voting. Many answers contained similar combinations of words about it being a ‘government by the people and for the people’ or a ‘government in which the people hold the power rather than government officials’. Voting seems to be the central focus for the majority of respondents.

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With regards to the second theme, a large number of respondents did not make a direct connection between education and democracy. Part of the reason for this is perhaps the discomfort some respondents exhibited vis-à-vis politics. Most respondents admitted to not having a truly democratic educational experience during their high school years. Of particular note is that most of the students viewed democracy in education as being uniquely or primarily associated with elections. A number of reasons were provided to explain why the respondents’ educational experiences were not considered democratic, including the curriculum and minority issues; such issues were ignored by the school. In a democracy, the majority rules, yet the minority groups would not be ignored. One prevalent comment postulated that; ‘The students do not govern the classroom; the teacher is the dictator. The students do not vote for the teacher; the teacher is appointed’. Given that in a democracy the people hold the power, the students are correct in saying that the school that they attended was not democratic. Racial discrimination was highlighted by a student, who contributed that ‘There is no fairness in the classroom; the teachers expect African-Americans to do poorly; they don’t challenge us in advanced courses’. In a proper functioning democracy, all the students would be given equal opportunities.

When asked about whether their high school experience had an impact on their thinking about democracy, a small minority indicated in the affirmative, whereas most of the respondents were less positive. Many more respondents, however, echoed the sentiment that their high school had avoided the subject or even, more drastically, failed them in not preparing them to deal with such issues. As a middle-ground response to the question about a democratic experience in high school, a number of respondents highlighted that this consisted of a single class on government or politics.

When asked about whether teachers should strive to inculcate a sense of democracy in students, the vast majority of respondents agreed strongly. Yet students are not to be indoctrinated by a set of values which the teacher decides to be the best; they are to be left free to abide with and live their life in line with any values that they choose. Some of the respondents stated that teaching about politics is not the teacher’s job, but the government should take care of that. Furthermore, there were some who stated that politics was not part of their area of study, thus there was no need to study about democracy. [3] The fact that there are students at university level whom are not interested in democracy is quite worrying, especially when this reality is tied to the fact that they do not put pressure on the governments and the school administrations to practice democratic practices in the classrooms. In this case, the teachers would find themselves in a dilemma; should they or should not they work towards democratic practices in the classroom?

Democratic Classrooms and Discipline

Harvey Craft [4] commented that classroom management often includes a large dose of suppressive techniques intended to simply control. In recent years a movement has emerged to teach democracy in schools by being democratic. Dozens of books, organizations, and incentives have grown from the new emphasis on democratic schools. Democratic schools emphasize the development of mutual respect and trust between students and teachers. The process of transforming a school to a democratic school requires special training for staff members. Teachers will learn some management skills that reflect democracy and mutual respect.

There is list of management techniques for teachers that promote democracy and give students an idea of what democracy is all about. According to Craft, the teacher should explain that rules must encourage free and honest exchanges in an orderly manner. The teacher should engage students in discussions about the value of mutual trust and respect, and discussions about rights, responsibilities, and privileges. Another discussion that students should be allowed to participate in is that regarding the limitations of freedoms, particularly freedom of speech, and discussions about moral behaviour. The teacher should allow students to participate in the development of rules and consequences. The students are to be given the opportunity to develop their ‘bill of rights’, in this way it would be clear both for the students and for the teachers what their rights and obligations are. The teacher should plan regular lessons about character development. The students are to be prepared how to behave and act in a democratic society.

Craft continued to argue that students should have the right to call for discussions whenever an issue that affects the whole class crops up. They should also have the right to vote on matters that affect them. The teacher should set goals for the class that reflect the development of responsibility. Moreover, students are to be given opportunities to practice responsibility. An example might be to allow students to sharpen pencils without asking permission, provided they can properly determine a time that does not interrupt or distract others. [5] 

Circle time – a democratic classroom setting

A democratic classroom setting is that when the class is set up in the form of a circle. In this way, people get to talk democratically about problems with equal respect for everybody. When circle time takes place, students and the teacher are to be seated on the same level so as to represent their equality. Sometimes there needs to be a spare chair / space so people can move into the space and meet people who they have not met before. Often circle time starts with something quiet like talk but later there can be games so you can move round and meet new people. Wherever possible, the teacher adheres to the same rules as the students so as to express the equality between the two; teacher and students.

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In the initial stages a special object will be passed around, only the person holding the object will speak, the others would listen. Everyone gets a chance to speak, yet no one has to if they do not want to. Usually the teacher will ask for a volunteer to start a new topic. Children will be encouraged to talk clearly and speak to the circle as a whole and not just toward the teacher. Any criticism passed is to be constructive criticism. [6] 

Free schools

Some believe that democracy in the education system means that the child would have a free choice whether to attend any lessons at all. If he decides to attend, he should have the choice to choose which lessons he will attend to. According to this school of thought, neither the parents, nor society, not even the government should have a say on the education of children. They are to be left completely free to make up their own mind. Following on from this it would be reasonable to expect that a child would have some say over the curriculum, the day-to-day running of the school and even the appointment of teachers. Both students and teachers would have the right to call a meeting when they feel that there is the need of one. Some would argue that this idea is in favour of anarchy within the educational field. The critics of this school believe that this idea is the perfect formula for chaos and disaster.

The people who believe in this radical idea refer to some schools which adhered to this practice. The Albany Free School in New York, USA, the Booroobin Sudbury School in Queensland, Australia, the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, USA, and Summerhill in Norfolk, England. There are some differences between these free schools, such as the degree to which students have a say over economic decisions. But all these schools have one thing in common without which they probably could not function; the spirit of community. When living in a community, children learn to respect others. [7] 

Case study of a Free School

The Albany Free School has been functioning for the past 32 years. This school does not follow a curriculum and there are not any compulsory classes. Classroom sessions that do take place are usually informal and last as long as the interest holds. There are not any tests or grades either. This school states that learning happens best when it happens for its own sake. A child’s innate desire to learn is a far more powerful motivating force than any external reward or threat. As regarding behaviour, the teachers do not monitor over the pupils but the students learn to manage themselves. During the meetings, both the students and the teachers have an equal vote, thus they share the responsibilities for the decisions taken. One issue which is discussed during these meetings is the school policy within various areas. Each day unfolds organically according to people’s moods and interests, to the season and the weather, and to local and even world events. They reserve the right to make plans quite spontaneously. This does not mean that there are not plenty of ongoing, focused activities and projects. On any given day students might be found writing poetry and short stories, creating books, magazines and works of art, rehearsing and performing plays, or learning French or algebra. There are daily languages and maths classes for students who choose to tackle their basic skills in a more orderly and directed way. There are also classes in areas like history and science depending on student interest. As one would expect, the word ‘competition’ does not exist in this school. Children with mental health problems who attend this school do not take drugs to ‘solve their problem’. The system which the school uses to function renders the drugs unnecessary. [8] These types of schools have received a lot of criticism. Critics believe that these schools are to radical and so not the way that democracy should be practised.


Through a systematic review of what democracy means, combined with how schools can become engaged in democratic practices, students will enhance, not only their academic, but also their socio-cultural and political experience, thus enriching themselves and the society in which they reside. [9] 


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