Democratic Education: Is It Possible to Let Students Take Control of Their Own Learning?

By Josephine Lister, Editor for HundrED: a Finnish-born project bringing together a vision of education for the next 100 years as part of the nation’s centenary of independence. All insights and best practises will be documented, packaged and shared with the world for free in the form of a digital platform, global seminars, a book and a short documentary.

Education is having a hard time keeping up with the rapid changes happening in the rest of the world. This consequently has a negative impact for young people who find themselves being educated for a different world than the one they actually live in, which creates both motivational and employability problems. Democratic education is seen as one of the key paths for education to maximize a pupil’s learning to combat this disconnect.

Democratic education involves teachers taking a step back and allowing a student’s voice to be just as important as their own, as well as giving them the freedom to direct their own learning, instead of being forced into the confines of curriculum requirements.

It can seem a strange concept to allow students so much freedom, as Bryan Alexander, an internationally known researcher and teacher, explains,

“Broadly speaking, most schools are still far too interested in teaching obedience and rule following, and are not interested enough in getting rid of authority and giving as much autonomy and responsibility to students as possible.”

We have this notion that we must force young people to learn, as they won’t learn by themselves. That’s why, for democratic education to become intertwined with schools, it’s important to look at how it works in real-life examples to learn how to implement this style of education effectively.

Project DEFY

Project DEFY (Design Education For Yourself) sets up self-led learning centres where people can teach themselves anything they want to learn. Originally from India, it was developed in response to the high student dropout rates and teacher absences. The project allows for those in rural communities to still access education when government officials and teachers aren’t present.

The centres have computers, access to the internet, and tools such as hammers and saws. With access to the internet, people in the community can look up anything they want to know, effectively teaching themselves and therefore helping to bridge the educational gap.

Although Project DEFY happens outside of traditional schools, education systems can learn some important lessons from their example. By providing an engaging, self-led learning centre, students are able to discover their own passions and interests, and it proves how learning can happen naturally rather than being forced.

The way in which learners specifically benefit from this form of learning vary, but the main outcome for all students is that they have the confidence to direct their own work. A great example of this is Deepika from Bangalore:

“I started doing my own projects, and learnt about a lot of things, including email and social media. I’m now planning to start a jewelry business. This is how I learnt to learn by myself.”

Following her work with the Nooks, Deepika is now the Outreach Manager for Project DEFY, further promoting the benefits of the self-led learning approach.

Traditionally the teacher is seen to be a source of knowledge, and the one who leads the lessons, but the role of the teacher is changing. With the emergence of the internet knowledge is available to all who have access to it, so what does the teacher bring to education in this environment? Sophie Deen, creator of Detective Dot, explains,

“The teacher’s role is to empower kids, to support them, to give them a passion for learning, to encourage their curiosity, and to give them confidence as human beings.”

Education Cities

Education Cities is a project that encourages this hands-off approach by teachers. Stimulated by collaboration, Education Cities links schools to the cities they’re in to provide real-life experiences and to allow children to learn anything they’re interested in. In this project, students direct their own learning, and the teacher helps them to achieve their goals and to discover their passions.

Teachers and their students collaborate together and create partnerships with local businesses in order to gain relevant experience. Those working in the city can be mentors to the students, helping them to realise their passions and linking them to real-life experiences so they’re prepared to pursue a fulfilling career once they finish school.

Big Picture Learning

Personalized and democratic education is an overwhelming idea for large schools, as it can seem impossible to cater for every single individual. Big Picture Learning tackles this practically by splitting students into groups of fifteen, which they call an “advisory.” Each advisory has a teacher they are assigned to who is responsible for helping each student identify their passions and interests so that they can then pursue them. The student works alongside their assigned teacher to learn how they might engage with their passions.

As with Education Cities, Big Picture Learning sees real-life contact as being crucial for motivation. Teachers help their assigned advisory members to get internships in their chosen fields of interest, helping them to stay motivated and to actualize where their careers after school could take them.

One student from the project said:

“The main focus is our passions, finding out our interests, what we like. My internship is at a school for mentally and physically disabled children, I go there twice a week and really enjoy it. I think I’ve found my passion.”

Another student, Eric, says:

“I learn fast when it comes to using my hands, and I observe more. If I wasn’t in [this project] those qualities wouldn’t show as it’s all about book smarts and what you can remember. It shows you how you can make your own intelligence.”

Democratized education is no mean feat, it most often requires an entire mindset change not to mention a structural change in schools. However, once these ideas start to permeate, we can create a rich and fulfilling learning environment. Through accepting that learning can happen naturally, that the role of the teacher is shifting, and that the passions and individual interests of students should be recognised and encouraged, we can help education be relevant for the next generation.

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