What is a “democratic classroom”?

By Tyler Schelpat

Classrooms are places that, ideally, should mirror the sphere outside of school that we and our students inhabit. If we are to teach students to be civically-minded participants in the American republic, then it follows that our classrooms should serve as a training ground, of sorts. Our classrooms should be makerspaces not just of ideas and products, but of democracy itself.

The idea of a democratic classroom works like this: students are given a nontrivial voice and choice in how they are educated. Democratic classrooms may appear different, but they share this underlying premise.

Democracy in the classroom is not a new idea. While it has not traditionally been a focal point of entire schools, it is deeply rooted in the intellectual tradition of American education. Nearly one hundred years ago, Columbia University philosopher John Dewey recognized that students learn better when they are given a choice in what and how they learn and to learn in practical, relevant ways that require them to apply knowledge and understanding from school to their passions.

Democratic classrooms vary in the degree to which democracy is prioritized. In some classrooms, students provide input to the teacher about what topics they want to study, and what type of instruction would be best suited for those topics. Sometimes, they are allowed to choose their course of study, or determine the policies, routines, and assessment criteria in their classes.

In more advanced schools and classrooms, students run their classes and schools alongside (and with guidance from) expert teachers and administrators: student government is not a benign committee, students have representatives and vote on relevant issues, from the curriculum to budget allotment, and students are active in the hiring and assessment of teachers.

Democratic schools and classrooms are inherently student-centered and rebalance the power that is often wielded exclusively by teachers. When students are given a choice and voice in their own education, they tend to perform better on assessments of their understanding and tend to be more engaged in learning for learning’s sake.

When students participate in a democratic space, they also learn about democracy as a concept. They refine their understanding of the power and limits of choice and voice, they develop an awareness of the challenges faced in representational democracy, they build self-efficacy and an internal locus of control, and they learn to compromise and problem-solve in the spirit of authentic democracy.

Democracy in the classroom is a tricky subject. There are many caveats to its implementation, and my next installment will focus on some of the challenges and pitfalls of implementing such an inherently complex and nuanced concept in the classroom.

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