Democratic education - where every child can find his or her own way
When he was going to nursery school, little Yaacov Hecht was frequently naughty. His teacher punished him more than once by locking him into an adjacent room, which was dark.
Yaacov was not angry with her - rather, he understood why she did it. Sitting in the dark closet, he listened to his friends playing together in the next room and thought about how adults might behave with children so they would not have to punish them.
His story begins in the 1950s, in Israel, but it is not just the story of a problematic child, as it might seem at first glance. In first grade it became clear to him that he would have a problem with reading and writing.
He understood that what was important at school was earning a good grade, not that what he really enjoyed was chess and mathematics. In order to avoid being assigned to a class that his fellow pupils called "retarded", he invented many ways to hide his deficiencies, and most of the time earned a good grade by cheating (for example, by stealing test answers from the teacher's desk).
His life at school was a lonely one full of oppressive lies and secrets. Paradoxically, in 1973 he was liberated from it at the age of 15 by a war.
All of the adult men disappeared into military service in mid-year, and adolescent boys had to replace them at work. Yaacov worked in a bakery, delivered mail, and cared for children in the nursery schools together with others.
For the first time in his life, he felt that he was needed, that he was doing something useful, and that he was receiving recognition from those around him. When the adult men returned from the war and he was faced with returning to school, he was unable to re-enter that system, which for him was a world of hiding and lies.
Since there were no alternatives, he decided to drop out of school. After a long journey, the intelligent young man found a way to access an education, and that made it possible for him to realize the dream that had been born in that dark nursery school room - with several fellow enthusiasts he established the first democratic school in Israel.
That was in 1987. Currently there are 25 such schools in Israel.
The story of the Hadera school
At the democratic school in Hadera the classes are not organized by year. Pupils learn in various large groups that are created on the basis of their interest in a certain topic.
So-called "instruction centers" function at the schools (e.g., the arts center, the language center, the music center, the computer center, the scientific laboratories, the library, the kitchen, and others) where various programs run during the day that the children can join. The pupils themselves can also propose a subject they want to focus on and if they can find a sponsor and get their fellow pupils excited about it, they can begin to study it.
Each child has an adult guide (a teacher) during their time at the school with whom they consult how they are doing and what they are focusing on, and the guides do their best to support the pupils when they don't know how to proceed. This kind of school places great demands on the personality of the teacher - we do not have precise instructions to follow for how to resolve certain situations, as every child is different and needs individual support.
This approach naturally requires a child's parents to collaborate with the school as well. During its first year of operation, 12 hours of instruction in mandatory subjects were provided weekly together with 12 hours of electives.
After two years of operation and numerous discussions, the school decided not to insist on the mandatory subjects. It turned out that when the children had a genuine interest in something, they would need to learn languages, mathematics, reading and writing sooner or later in order to develop that interest.
The children, therefore, learned to read when they needed that skill to develop their pursuit of what they liked. At the democratic school there is no discussion of learning dysfunction, but of learning diversity - each child will learn what is important when the moment is ripe, and only 1 - 2 % of the children have difficulties in learning to read and write after the age of 11.
What is the "democratic" school about?
In this concept, democracy is first and foremost a set of values, an arrangement aiming to advocate for an apply human rights in society. Democratic education follows two main aims, one of which is to raise children to be independent and responsible in their approach toward themselves and toward the world.
In today's dynamically developing world, it is important to know how to set one's own aims and find the road to achieving them. Knowledge is variable - today people change professions significantly more frequently than the generation of our grandparents did, and within the framework of a single job must constantly adapt to new approaches and technology, so it is important to be capable of learning new things, to be willing to learn new things, and to know how to decide what we want to focus on in life.
When we learn something with genuine interest, we enter a so-called "flow" state, a state where the activity completely engulfs us and we forget about our own existence, where time flies by and we don't even know how - and really, how many times in the last month were you able to enter such a state, and did you ever experience it at school or during any other activity? This is hard to learn in a school where what we must learn when is precisely prescribed, as well as how we are supposed to learn it.
The second big aim of democratic education is to develop respect for human dignity. At a democratic school, each child has the opportunity for self-realization and for developing his or her potential through creativity.
This approach does not lead to disregard for others or to individualism - on the contrary, it leads to the recognition of the right to dignity for all. We do not learn respect for others by hearing a civics teacher talk about it.
We can only form such an attitude through our life experience. In a school where everyone is supposed to work at the same time and produce the same results, difference is a problem.
A democratic school, however, supports everyone to find their own, productive paths and to follow rules that they themselves have formulated in debate with others. In this kind of environment, a person naturally has the desire to create something with others instead of to destroy what others have created.
Democratic education also makes it possible for children with organic learning disabilities (that 1 -2 % of children who have serious problems with reading, writing, etc.) to discover that life is full of opportunities and that even though they may encounter certain obstacles they may not be able to overcome, they can still be involved in matters that interest them and develop their strengths instead of being stuck on their obstacles - how many of us as adults dislike reading aloud because we were traumatized in school by the idea that we were not good enough at it? Moreover, academic results do not lead to a satisfied life, but what does lead to a satisfied life is the development of emotional intelligence (the ability to read one's own emotions and to understand those of others, the ability to establish deep relationships, the ability to control one's own actions, to motivate oneself, to make decisions, etc.).
The classical school model was created when the world was not yet democratic. Even today, we continue to expect children to follow rules in the schools that have been created by the adults - by state bureaucrats and supervisors.
A democratic school does not teach children the definition of democracy, but makes it possible for them to grow up in a democratic culture, a culture to which everyone contributes to the decision-making and therefore bears responsibility for how society functions. Yaacov Hecht's book Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story tells the absorbing story of one democratic school and, through mature analysis, the story of our current approach to education.
The book is inspirational reading for everyone involved in the raising of children in the schools and for everyone who sends their children to school. If you are interested in this approach to education - or if, on the other hand, it irritates you - you will certainly find the brief video in which the author introduces this approach to instruction interesting.
Eliška Bucvanová is a lecturer with the Center for Democracy in Education in the Czech Republic
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