Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Case For Democratic Schools

Annotation by Bobby Shaddox

Apple, M., & Beane, J. (2007). The case for democratic schools. In M. Apple & J. Beane (Eds.), Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education (pp. 1-29). Portsmouth: Heinemann.

This essay is a fantastic starting point for understanding democratic schools and really helped me frame my action research inquiry. Apple and Beane’s essay is an intro to the compiled volume Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education, which documents various efforts by teachers and students to pursue the idea of democracy in education. According to the authors, democracy is not only a process, but also a way of life that includes values and principles that can be utilized in schools. Examples of these ideas range from:
·      Concern for the common good
·      Allowing ideas to flow freely
·      Trusting in people individually and collectively to generate solutions to problems
·      The formation of social institutions that work as mechanisms to extend a democratic way of life (p. 7)
I already knew that collaboration, choice and equitable participation in decision-making were aspects of democracy in the classroom. Their list of values and principles are solid ideas for developing democratic practices.

The authors identify contemporary approaches in education like “tighter centralized control, standardization of content, reductive testing, authoritarian and sterile teaching methods, and so on” (p. 9) as hurdles for the extension of democracy in education. Instead, they offer a picture of the classroom that emphasizes offering a wide array of resources and information to students and their right to have their viewpoints heard. Students are also encouraged to look at sources critically and ask questions like: “Who said this? Why did they say it? Why should we believe this? And who benefits if we believe this and act upon it?” (p. 15) The educator in a democratic setting plays a role of guiding students in seeking out a variety of ideas and developing their own voices (p. 14). Additionally, teachers and students collaboratively design the curriculum by listening to each other’s interests, hopes and concerns (p. 10). As I read this essay, I couldn’t help but think of ways that I could immediately kick-start this type of philosophy in my classroom. I’m particularly struck by the notion of helping students develop their voices.

Throughout the essay, Apple and Beane provide a spectrum of democratic examples in classrooms, ranging from simple to extremely complex. A classroom discussion on mudslides in South America where the homes of poor families had been destroyed prompted students to view the current event from multiple perspectives. This helped reveal the inequality of economic structures at the heart of the problem and perhaps a “richer and more ethically committed sensitivity to the societies around them.” (p. 16) A democratic notion! Further, more intricate examples feature students identifying problems in their communities and working to resolve them through student-centered projects. I like the idea that the virtues and ideals of democracy can play small or large roles in a curriculum. It seems like democracy can be a way of thinking in the classroom, much like differentiation.

Quotes & Comments
“As Maxine Greene (1985, 4) tells us, “Surely it is an obligation of education in a democracy to empower the young to become members of the public, to participate, and play articulate roles in the public space.” (p. 8)

This makes me think that if we’re not empowering young people to “play articulate roles” then we’re setting them up to become tools of the system who might further denigrate the democratic values of society. This also reminds me of things Alfie Kohn and Neil Postman talk about in their books and essays.

“… (the essays in this book are ) concerned primarily with cooperative learning as a crucial aspect of the democratic way of life, not with the current popular focus of cooperative learning as a specific strategy for academic achievement.” (p. 22)

I’ve mostly seen cooperative learning as a strategy for personal and academic success – simply thinking, “Adults have to work in groups in the workplace so students should learn these skills too.” However, this essay has made me reevaluate the important role of cooperative learning. Rob Riordan once mentioned that project-based learning was a seen as a means for bringing students of different backgrounds together to work side by side. It seems that projects and group learning is at the center of what Apple and Bean identify as the “democratic way of life.”

“… a democratic curriculum includes not only what adults think is important, but also the questions and concerns that young people have about themselves and their world (Beane 2005). A democratic curriculum invites young people to shed the passive role of knowledge consumers and assume the active role of “meaning makers.” It recognizes that people acquire knowledge by both studying external sources and engaging in complex activities that require them to construct their own knowledge.” (p. 17)

Indeed! I’ve dabbled in inquiry-based projects this year with my 6th graders. I love the notion of my students leaving behind their role as “knowledge consumers” and becoming “meaning makers!” This quote will be my mantra throughout my action research.

“In classrooms, young people and teachers engage in collaborative planning, reaching decisions that respond to the concerns, aspirations, and interests of both. This kind of democratic planning, at both the school and the classroom levels, is not the “engineering of consent” toward predetermined decisions that has too often created the illusion of democracy, but a genuine attempt to honor the right of people to participate in making decisions that affect their lives.” (p. 10)

This will be important for me to remember throughout my action research. I’ve got to keep the collaborative design authentic and make sure that I’m playing the role of facilitator and guide. It’s too easy to provide what Alfie Kohn calls “false choice” through contrived situations and predetermined decisions. I want to honor my students’ rights to make real decisions and give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

No comments:

Post a Comment