What Parents need to know about Democratic Learning Communities


You are reading this because you care about the child in your life, and you want the best for them. You want to be certain that they will get an education that equips them for a full, successful and happy life.

This introduction aims to help you orient to the natural learning process, so that you can support the child in your life in getting the very best out of this rare opportunity to attend a democratic learning centre.

  1. Most of us have zero experience of genuine democratic education.

Even though it relies on the oldest and most natural forms of learning, the kinds that come built in to every human being, it is the drastic opposite of what most of us experienced in school.  Looking with schooled eyes, natural learning can be hard to understand.

Conventional schooling is linear, compartmentalised, regular, standardised and austere.

Natural learning is rich in play and enjoyment, organic, individualised – and the timelines are all over the place!

Natural learners may pick up and drop, and later return to a ‘subject’, repeatedly over time. On the other hand, they may obsess about one thing for years. Or, they may work on a succession of apparently unrelated areas. Or, resist/ignore something completely for years before suddenly mastering it in just a few months. Or, steadily apply themselves in a balanced way over time.  All of these learning patterns are valid and effective, as long as they are driven from within. They are also mostly different to the patterns imposed by conventional schools.

This can make it difficult for most of us to recognise and trust the learning process.

  1. Only the learner knows what the learner needs to know, and how and when to learn it.

There is no curriculum in democratic education. There is only the individual’s constantly changing range of interests and unique developmental readiness.

Democratic Education is 100% individualised. The learners follow their own interests and passions, and can explore alone or in spontaneous shared-interest groups, in a rich environment.

Facilitators help the children access the resources they show an interest in, and are always available to assist when children need support, but each child is 100% in charge of what they do when, and how far they take it.

If any skill is genuinely important for survival/well-being  in our culture, then all children will eventually find a reason to learn it.

Democratic education does the exact opposite of the spoon-feeding that is stock-in-trade for conventional schooling. When adults stop making educational choices on a child’s behalf, the child is confronted with not only the freedom, but the challenge of responsibility for their own developing competence.

As long as nobody acts as the child’s permanent slave, and as long as children are given real responsibility for their lives, it is simply not feasible that they will never have the incentive to learn to read, or correctly calculate change.

It is more than possible, however, that they might never choose to memorise the capital cities of South America or the exact dates of WW1.

If this deeply troubles you, perhaps consider whether you truly believe that the lack of this kind of “knowledge”(usually quickly erased again from memory anyway) will truly sabotage their success in life, or whether it is simply a remnant of your own schooled conditioning.

  1. All children can benefit from this kind of education, and for some it is critically important.

This kind of education is ideal for learners who have talents or interests that don’t fall into usual curricula. Mastery comes with hours spent. Democratic education frees the learner to spend more time on their areas of core talent/interest. It also allows them to pursue complementary skills that others might not realise are part of their personally necessary skillset.

Democratic education is powerfully healing for learners who are off the centre of the bell curve in terms of being “ahead” or “behind” in some area, since it allows them to make their own pace without pressure. They can learn according to their own readiness without being either pathologised or put on false pedestals.

Often, remedial and medical interventions are unnecessary once learners are freed from externally determined benchmarks, expectations and milestones. For example, “late” readers, or learners who are not ready for formal maths at an early age, generally catch up and may even surpass their peers if simply allowed to take a few extra years.

Most learners who “can’t focus”, are perfectly able to do so once they are empowered to shape their own learning environments, rhythms, and activities.

On the other hand, ‘precocious’ learners (whom research suggests will most often settle into the ‘normal’ range later on in life) don’t have to struggle under the burden of the falsely inflated expectations that competitive environments can impose on them.

  1. This form of education works best if the key adults in the child’s life can put aside their fears and trust the child 100%.

Even “subtly” trying to steer the child, “encouraging” them to consider activities that you feel are valuable, or are worried about, can act as damaging sabotage.

All crucial educational materials will be freely available at/via the democratic learning centre, and your child will know well how to access them and how to get help when needed.

The child who loves you wants to please you. Trying to do what you want and expect, undermines their innate ability to follow their own best interests. It causes self-doubt.

No imposed goal is ever as powerful a learning tool as tackling a goal that is passionately one’s own.

The child who tries to work on reading or maths or their tennis serve in order to please you, is more likely to fail and lose confidence.

Even where they succeed, their success is for you – not their own empowering triumph.

The child who tackles these tasks only once fully ready and passionately keen to do so, is likely to succeed and be further empowered by that self-driven success.

Just as your child learned to talk and walk, they will learn to read and count.

Just as some children learn to walk at 8 months and others at 18 months, some children learn to read at 4 and others at 14. Most fall somewhere in between. If they are supported in true natural learning, almost all will have evened out well before they are 18.

If your child had genuine trouble learning to walk and talk, then yes, perhaps they may also need specialist help in learning to read and count.

But for most children, the most powerful education comes from complete responsible freedom to explore and develop their own abilities in a rich (and richly social) educational environment.

Please be assured that in this democratic learning centre, the child in your life will have exactly that.

  1. The outcome is a confident and capable person, vs a standardised test score.

There are no tests or exams in democratic education, nor even external ‘qualitative evaluations’ common in progressive education. There are only those self-imposed goals which the learner may sometimes set for their own feedback and growth – which may or may not be visible to the outside observer.

This can be very hard for parents who need reassurance: There is no objective, standardised way to evaluate a child’s progress. There is only the child’s growing sense of confidence and mastery.

Many tertiary institutions have already realised that this kind of student is actually more likely to cope with advanced studies and career demands, and in places where many such learners have already graduated, learners are increasingly able to access tertiary courses even without any kind of final certificate.

Those learners who do choose to, are free to sign up for any kind of external standardised certificate at any point they choose. They will be supported in this personally chosen endeavour as in every other.

  1. There is a vast quantity of research and literature to support the statements made here.

If you would like to read more in order to reassure yourself, more deeply understand this model, and more completely support your child, please do ask if you need help in finding material.

The LINKS page of this website is a good place to start.

Why even happy “unschoolers” join Democratic Education Communities


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…

3) Resources

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… 

  1. 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… 

  1. 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 … 

  1. 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…

  1. 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”…. 

  1. 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