Knock, knock: is there room for Democratic Schools?

The Democratic Schools model has had a lot of impact at the WFD, but is it just a fad? Here’s a reaction from the openDemocracy youth newsroom.

Arleen Pimentel
9 November 2016

Democratic School, Hadera. Flickr/Naaman Saar Stavy. Some rights reserved.

Democratic School, Hadera. Flickr/Naaman Saar Stavy. Some rights reserved.Imagine yourself in your classroom, hearing a teacher repeat the same subject once again, even having to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. Now, imagine yourself free of all of it, in a school where you can make collective decisions, where you have the same power as your teacher or mentor, and most of all, where you need to ask yourself: where do I want to invest my time?

Democratic schools are the new great thing; they hear the student; the student even becomes the teacher. Yaacov Hecht, an Israeli educator and promoter of this philosophy, spoke yesterday at the World Forum for Democracy, about the benefits of this concept, and exposed the disadvantages of traditional schools. Just next to him was the President of Paris 1-Sorbonne, Georges Haddad.  In this context, you could clearly see the contrast of ideologies, even in the way of presenting themselves.  While Haddad had a prepared speech, Hecht had to ask for a microphone so he could walk around the hemicycle and feel more connected with his audience -- and by doing that, he captivated the room.

This whole new concept of democratic schools is about community improvement, as well as individual development. Hecht described it as a football team. Students do not get an individual grade but a group one: Hecht says even in mathematics it is possible. Also, students are the ones who choose their mentor, which is in my opinion a way to guide our thoughts and beliefs according to our values.

“I feel traditional schools prepare us for the past, while democratic ones for the present and therefore the future” says Hecht. In a world of constant change in a global society, everything is interconnected. Then why are we still thinking that the Industrial Revolution educational model is still an option? People were, and by that, I mean are, being educated to be part of a great machine, which is the economy. Dividing tasks to help increase productivity is still a big part of this whole engine: we are just some of the cogs in the machine.

When in industrialized countries teachers are tired of being limited to a pre-established programme, the drop-out rate is increasing, and students are not prepared for the labour market, something isn’t going well. Hence the question is what is the alternative solution?

Hecht thinks he has found the solution, the next question is how are we going to implement it? Who is giving out the rules to keep the engine working? Even though democracy has demonstrated to be the system to represent the people, sometimes the limited choices aren’t exactly what we need. Georges Haddad thinks that a democratic school system “can be possible in a little country like Israel but in France it’ll be difficult, it just a tendance”. The interesting fact is that he tells us to think outside the box, to “chercher ailleurs”, and to go catch le savoir on our own. “You’ll get what we give you but you need to look outside for yourself”.  Isn’t looking outside for ourselves what democratic schools are about?

I’ve been studying in a French University and we are exposed to a six-hour nonstop course while the teacher changes after three hours. Is the student more capable of following? Despite Mr. Haddad’s scepticism about Democratic Schools, in the case of France, Céline Alvarez is showing an alternative to traditional models based on Montessori pedagogy. And even though she might not have succeeded on behalf of the public system, more people are questioning her propositions and starting to interrogate the overall structure. In times like this, having interrelated fields requires a radical change in all of them, as well as making decisions involving civic society linked to the different areas. Students are willing to be part of that change as well as NGOs and other forms of democratic participation. I deeply invite all the youth to follow and trust in their capacities to change this in their level, even when you think you can’t, because as Erasmus said, “the main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth”.

openDemocracy is at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a youth newsroom. More here.

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