What’s Different About A Democratic Education Community?
By now most of us know that a Democratic Education Community is a place where children are 100% free to learn according to their own interests and without coercion.
But, if our family is already “unschooling”, then why pay money and invest effort and petrol in getting kids to a Democratic Education Community?
And if our family already makes use of a relaxed, zero-pressure homeschooling centre or social group, isn’t that already a DEC, just the name is different?
What’s different about a Democratic Education Community?
1) A DEC is a learning community.
The level of peer-to-peer learning and interaction is far higher at a Democratic Education Communitythan in your home, unless you have several dozen kids. Your child’s range and richness of interaction with adults is also quantumed.
A social space that is both bigger and beyond the family zone also allows kids opportunities to experiment with identity and widen the scope of their exploration of self and relationship.
Intermittent social gatherings are a great way to have fun and socialise – but they cannot match the ongoing, cumulative interaction that can develop in a long-term consistent togetherness.
A homeschool centre that the child regularly attends can create a sense of community and the opportunity for deepened interaction. But there is another level of bonding and relating that happens when there is joint responsibility for the whole endeavour. Which brings us to…
2) At a DEC, the kids are co-creators.
At a homeschool or resource centre, the child is a client who is free to make use of what is offered.
They may be able to make suggestions and requests, but somebody else will decide what actually happens. Essentially they have what they have and get what they get, and sometimes it’s enough.
The same goes for home: you have the house and grounds that you have, and family members can’t be changed.
Children are heavily dependent on the good will of adults, and often due just to life’s necessities, their needs and wants come second, and often aren’t met.
At a Democratic Education Community each and every child has real democratic power to campaign for changes to anything and everything – from structures and equipment, to the staff.
They can work to co-create their ideal learning environment.
Of course that means they also have power over…
At a Democratic Education Community each child is a co-creator. They have direct influence over how space is used and how budgets are spent. Nothing exists at a Democratic Education Community unless the kids want it to be there.
Will there be a sandpit? Or a treehouse? A movie editing suite? A pasta machine? A forge? It’s not up to the adults alone to decide what should be prioritised.
At home, if there’s no sewing machine and nobody can sew, and nobody can give you a lift to sewing class, you do without. At a homeschool centre, there may be a sewing machine, but they’re teaching skirts when you want to make oven gloves. Or, you want a potter’s wheel, instead.
At a Sudbury, kids don’t have to wait to be offered organic chemistry, or metalwork, or algebra. If they want it, the system is in place whereby they can make it happen. This is especially important if their interests are particular.
It is as viable, at a Sudbury, to get support learning how to write in cuneiform, how to spin cotton into thread, mastering towel-origami or boat making, learning Java or hairdressing, as it is to get support in learning to read.
Budget is the only limit, and even there, kids are supported in learning how to fundraise.
Parents with their own busy lives can find it difficult to keep up with the resources and attention that children often need to optimise their learning. Full-time Democratic Education Community staff have dedicated work hours for entirely that.
The other thing about the Democratic Education Community resources is that they are…
- Always accessible.
At home, the woodwork tools may be right there in the garage, but the adults are too busy to help today. Or tomorrow.
At those homeschool centres organised enough to even offer woodwork, very often by necessity it is a case of “on Thursday you can make a chair. If you want to make a dollhouse on Tuesday, sorry for you.”
At a Sudbury, kids are empowered to get what’s needed, access it when wanted, and get help from a range of peers, adults, and remote resources such as internet tutorials.
If kids want a lesson, they can arrange to have a lesson.
Musical instruments, tools and materials also just stand there, tempting, in the absence of any kind of lesson.
This gives kids opportunities to just experiment and explore, vs focussing on standard “lessons” and finished products – an incredibly important way to learn deep, and nurture creativity.
This is powerfully important for keeping intact the child’s initiative and inborn talent for…
- Natural Learning.
Adults often judge kids as fickle or foolish if they “just fiddle” with something. They can be triggered when children just “mess around” without any clear goal, or when there is a goal, “don’t finish what they start.”
In a Democratic Education Community environment, staff work on themselves to drop these judgements and respect the child’s innate wisdom in managing their own learning process.
The child who just mixes colours and doesn’t get around to painting them onto the paper this time…
The child who starts carving a spoon but just whittles a while and then walks away…
The child who learns half the alphabet and then stops any kind of reading activity for the rest of the year…
…Is following their own perfect personal lesson plan.
Everyone knows you cannot possibly master anything complex in a single sitting. Adults like to break things down into “lessons”, “modules”, “chapters”, “instalments”.
So do kids.
Their own systems know exactly what and how much they are ready for, this time. Also, how long they need to integrate that before they will be ready for next.
This is where the Democratic Education Community staff train themselves to provide a unique kind of …
- Holistic educational support.
The tragic result of pushing a child to “persevere” beyond the end of their innate desire, is to create an aversion in them – just as eating too much of even your favourite food can make you ill.
Well-meaning adults can destroy a child’s natural attraction to a subject, and influence them to dislike and avoid an activity they would otherwise happily return to when they are next ready.
“But isn’t it also important to learn to complete things? Discipline and excellence?”
Yes. And, as long as well-meaning adults haven’t given them an aversion to it, it’s yet another lesson that kids will eventually learn – as, how and when they are ready,
The critical thing that Democratic Education Community staff realise, is that it’s impossible to predict “from the outside” what constitutes a “whole” learning experience.
In “The Art of Doing Nothing”, Hanna Greenberg writes about the girl who “found it more useful to use her time at school to concentrate on socializing and organizing dances than to hone the writing skills she would need for her chosen career as a journalist…. By dealing with people directly rather than observing them from the sidelines, she learned more about them and consequently achieved greater depth and insights, which in turn led to improved writing.” (Sudbury Valley School press 1992)
Democratic Education Community staff actively cultivate profound professional humility, and work to free themselves of the kind of highly invested attachment that parents can’t help but experience.
This frees the child to pursue full and rounded personal mastery, without the pressure of having to justify their choices and activities, and without being pushed into self-doubt and off track.
This is one reason why it is so important that Democratic Education Community is founded on the concept that all people have the power to know their own good, and the right to make decisions. Everyone at Sudbury, regardless of age, is equal, and free to participate in the…
- Democratic decision-making system.
Just like everything else at Sudbury, nobody is forced to attend school meetings, and nobody is forced to vote.
However, for those with future careers in law, governance, activism, or anything at all that requires the ability to lobby, communicate, and administrate, Democratic Education Community offers an incomparable learning opportunity.
In a regular kid’s debating team, kids get to spend a few hours cooking up clever arguments for and against statements such as “No Man Is An Island.”
At Sudbury, a passionate child can spend the entire year researching, lobbying, constructing convincing arguments, public speaking and engineering to get a tennis court built, or a pizza oven, or to buy a piano, or Google glass, or VR equipment.
It almost doesn’t matter what the focus is: the process is a phenomenal learning experience.
Where else can you get that?
Both the democratic School Meeting and the conflict resolution processes allow an enormous amount of powerful learning and skills acquisition in fields that are hard to “teach” in any artificial way.
I would go so far as to call this Democratic Education’s “Secret Weapon #2”, second only to #1, what Daniel Greenburg has dubbed “Sudbury Valley’s Secret Weapon”….
- Allowing people of different ages to mix freely at school.
A child who may have difficulty relating to a much younger or older sibling, can find it easier to relate to a differently-aged child who is not part of the same family politics.
Children in a large learning community have a better chance of finding partners with common interests or compatible abilities, and benefit from interacting across different skill levels.
Children who are not trapped in lesson-based settings that create natural separation between learners of different ages, sizes and levels of ability, can learn from each other not in spite of different levels of ability, but because of them.
When Democratic Education Community kids want a mentor, guide or instructor, they often seek out another child, rather than an adult. Daniel Greenberg has some powerful insights into this, which I will over-simplify and summarise in just a few lines (but I highly recommend further reading!)
Essentially, when the age/developmental level/competence gap is too big, as between a 4 year old and a 40 year old, there can sometimes be such a huge difference in perception and experience, that there is, in Greenberg’s words, “the lack of a common line of communication. They are not talking on the same level (and so) The more the adult explains to the child, the less the child understands.”
A child who is only just “ahead” still knows what it is to struggle, and can still comprehend the textures of the previous stage of understanding.
In return, their assistance to the child just “behind” gives the child who is “ahead”, the opportunity to integrate, consolidate, and articulate their own new gains. It helps them to make their implicit learning explicit, and take it to a new level.
What’s different about a Democratic Education Community?
Enough that you’re ready to let the child/ren in your life find out for themselves?
– Je’anna Clements 2015