Can teachers promote democracy school

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Democracy is more than just a set of specific government institutions; it rests upon a well-understood group of values, attitudes, and practices, all of which may take different forms and expressions among cultures and societies around the world. Democracies rest upon fundamental principles and not just uniform practices. [1] The core characteristics of any democratic setting may include the following; a government in which power and civic responsibility are exercised by all citizens, directly, or through their freely elected representatives and it rests upon the principles of majority rule and individual rights. One of the prime functions of a democracy is to protect the basic human rights of freedom of speech and religion, the right to equal protection under law, and the opportunity to organize and participate fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of society. Democracies conduct regular free and fair elections open to citizens for voting. Citizens in a democracy have not only rights, but also the responsibility to participate in the political system that, in turn, protects their rights and freedoms. Democratic societies are committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation, and compromise. With reference to what Mahatma Gandhi had said, 'Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.' [2] 

There are numerous visions of what a democracy is, each based on different values and which bring about different implications, yet we will now be looking at two main perspectives; the Liberal Perspective and the Participatory Democracy.

The Liberal Perspective

According to proponents of the Liberal Perspective, democracy is a system in which citizens have freedom of speech and government intervention is kept to the very minimum. Some of the problems of such a democracy would include the competition that arises between the groups that constitute the majority and those that form up the minority. We get to question whether this type of democracy actually looks after the will of the people against the will of the individual. This brings to mind what the public good is and whether this is realistically being looked after.

The Participatory Perspective

The other perspective looks at democracy as a Participatory one which enhances participation in the classroom. Participatory democracy strives to create opportunities for all members to make meaningful contributions to decision-making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities. Because so much information must be gathered for the overall decision-making process to succeed, this may slow down the general school routine.

Democracy in education

Democracy is a highly desirable but contested concept in education, argues Paul R. Carr. [3] Little is known about how current and future educators perceive, experience and relate to democracy. This would have a significant impact on how students learn about it, and how they would become involved in civic engagement and democratic institutions later on in their life. [4] 

Democratic education refers to democratic strategies which would be practiced within a classroom a school, or even at campus level. In democratic educational institutions, all those directly involved, including professional educators, students, their parents, and other members of the community, have the right to be engaged in collaborative planning, reaching decisions that address aspirations, concerns and interests of all participants. 'This kind of democratic planning, at both the school and the classroom levels, is a genuine attempt to honour the right of people to participate in making decisions that affect their lives.' (Apple & Beane, 1995) [5] 

Study at a university in northeast Ohio in relation to democracy in education

This study was aimed at exploring the perspectives, experiences and perceptions of current and future educators who are students at a university in northeast Ohio. This study focused on two themes; attitudes towards democracy and attitudes towards democracy and education.

With regards to the first theme, when asked to define democracy, respondents, most frequently, referred to a form of government, often alluding to elections and voting. Many answers contained similar combinations of words about it being a 'government by the people and for the people' or a 'government in which the people hold the power rather than government officials'. Voting seems to be the central focus for the majority of respondents.

With regards to the second theme, a large number of respondents did not make a direct connection between education and democracy. Part of the reason for this is perhaps the discomfort some respondents exhibited vis-à-vis politics. Most respondents admitted to not having a truly democratic educational experience during their high school years. Of particular note is that most of the students viewed democracy in education as being uniquely or primarily associated with elections. A number of reasons were provided to explain why the respondents' educational experiences were not considered democratic, including the curriculum and minority issues; such issues were ignored by the school. In a democracy, the majority rules, yet the minority groups would not be ignored. One prevalent comment postulated that; 'The students do not govern the classroom; the teacher is the dictator. The students do not vote for the teacher; the teacher is appointed'. Given that in a democracy the people hold the power, the students are correct in saying that the school that they attended was not democratic. Racial discrimination was highlighted by a student, who contributed that 'There is no fairness in the classroom; the teachers expect African-Americans to do poorly; they don't challenge us in advanced courses'. In a proper functioning democracy, all the students would be given equal opportunities.

When asked about whether their high school experience had an impact on their thinking about democracy, a small minority indicated in the affirmative, whereas most of the respondents were less positive. Many more respondents, however, echoed the sentiment that their high school had avoided the subject or even, more drastically, failed them in not preparing them to deal with such issues. As a middle-ground response to the question about a democratic experience in high school, a number of respondents highlighted that this consisted of a single class on government or politics.

When asked about whether teachers should strive to inculcate a sense of democracy in students, the vast majority of respondents agreed strongly. Yet students are not to be indoctrinated by a set of values which the teacher decides to be the best; they are to be left free to abide with and live their life in line with any values that they choose. Some of the respondents stated that teaching about politics is not the teacher's job, but the government should take care of that. Furthermore, there were some who stated that politics was not part of their area of study, thus there was no need to study about democracy. [6] The fact that there are students at university level whom are not interested in democracy is quite worrying, especially when this reality is tied to the fact that they do not put pressure on the governments and the school administrations to practice democratic practices in the classrooms. In this case, the teachers would find themselves in a dilemma; should they or should not they work towards democratic practices in the classroom?

Is it possible to transfer democratic characteristics into the classroom?

When speaking about educational democracy we are discussing the adaptation of social democracy within the school context. Keeping in mind that children have different needs than adults, we can still implement democracy within the school boundaries such that we prepare our students for the outside world. We will now be looking at ways in which teachers and students can collaboratively work in order to attain a democratic educational environment.

Classroom management plan

In designing a democratic classroom atmosphere that encourages discussion, debate, and inquiry, firstly it is important to establish a classroom management plan that builds a positive community environment. The latter would include the way the teacher arranges the classroom, the way the classroom rules are established, the way the teacher responds to misbehaviour, the way he / she monitors the student activity, how rewards and reinforcement are selected and how daily routines are used to maintain a caring, supportive, efficient and productive learning climate. [7] 

Harvey Craft [8] commented that classroom management often includes a large dose of suppressive techniques intended to simply control. In recent years a movement has emerged to teach democracy in schools Dozens of books, organizations, and incentives have grown from the new emphasis on democratic schools. Democratic schools emphasize the development of mutual respect and trust between students and teachers.

Norms and rules

Classrooms cannot function without having a set of norms and rules which would direct behaviour. Instead of the teacher setting and enforcing the norms, it is essential for all students to participate in the creation of the class rules. Unfortunately this might not be so easily achieved, yet with the cooperation between teacher and pupils, a harmonious classroom environment can be gradually attained. According to Craft, the teacher should explain that rules must encourage free and honest exchanges in an orderly manner.

iii. Class discussions

The teacher should engage students in discussions about the value of mutual trust and respect, and discussions about rights, responsibilities, and privileges. Another discussion that students should be allowed to participate in is that regarding the limitations of freedoms, particularly freedom of speech, and discussions about moral behaviour. Students are to be given the opportunity to develop their 'bill of rights', in this way it would be clear, both for the students and for the teachers, what their rights and obligations are. The teacher should plan regular lessons about character development. The students are to be prepared how to behave and act in a democratic society.

Craft continued to argue that students should have the right to call for discussions whenever an issue that affects the whole class crops up. They should also have the right to vote on matters that affect them. The teacher should set goals for the class that reflect the development of responsibility. Moreover, students are to be given opportunities to practice responsibility. An example might be to allow students to sharpen pencils without asking permission, provided they can properly determine a time that does not interrupt or distract others. [9] 

iv. Lesson planning

Other ways to implement democracy in the classroom may include core practices such as work initiated by students' interest about a particular subject or topic.

When students are consulted about the goals which will determine the kind of activities held in the classroom, how such activities will be organised and evaluated, how they are expected to behave and consequences of their behaviour, pupils make an investment in their own learning. [10] 

What Cefai is highlighting above is that whenever we give the opportunity to students to take an active part in planning, implementing, and evaluating the learning activities we are moving towards a happier environment within the classroom. In this case learning is no longer a one-to-many exercise where the teacher preaches numerous theories, yet it becomes an interactive experience where both students and teachers invest the same amount of effort to make the lesson a success.

v. Peer tutors

Peer tutoring and collaboration between the students is another way to implement democracy within the classroom. The latter mostly includes time dedicated for group work where the students are given the opportunity to work as a team, thus they share their assets and learn from one another. In the case of peer tutoring, some of the students who would be very good at a particular subject would help their peers when the need arises.

vi. Circle Time

A democratic classroom setting is that when the class is set up in the form of a circle. In this way, people get to talk democratically about problems with equal respect for everybody. When circle time takes place, students and the teacher are to be seated on the same level so as to represent their equality. Sometimes there needs to be a spare chair / space so people can move into the space and meet people who they have not met before. Often circle time starts with something quiet like talk but later there can be games so you can move round and meet new people. Wherever possible, the teacher adheres to the same rules as the students so as to express the equality between the two; teacher and students.

In the initial stages a special object will be passed around, only the person holding the object will speak, the others would listen. Everyone gets a chance to speak, yet no one has to if they do not want to. Usually the teacher will ask for a volunteer to start a new topic. Children will be encouraged to talk clearly and speak to the circle as a whole and not just toward the teacher.   Any criticism passed is to be constructive criticism. [11] 

vii. Teachers as facilitators of learning

In a democratic class, the teacher takes the role of facilitator of learning rather than as the sole source of all information and authority. This decreases the element of dictatorship within class, where students must sit down and listen and in the event of the contrary they will be punished.

viii. Classroom parliament

The classroom parliament would consist of a number of students who would be elected by their peers for an agreed period of time. When the term finishes, the members of parliament would be replaced by other students, thus everybody has equal chance to be one of the representatives of the class. Parliament would hold regular informal meetings with the class teacher and more formal, but less frequent, meetings involving the whole class, with the other peers in the strangers' gallery. The discussion taking place during the parliamentary sessions would refer to issues such as; improving the teaching and learning process, classroom environment, classroom activities, homework, relationships, classroom rules and social activities. When the issues are of a more important nature, a referendum would be called. In this case the democracy applied is direct democracy, while in the former case the democracy is representative. The teacher should have the right to veto any decision, but he/she is to use this power only when no other solution can be found and when he/she thinks that the behaviour being proposed may be inappropriate, for instance when they propose no homework. The members of parliament would keep a very close relationship with their classmates and many of the issues raised in parliament sessions would be suggested by the other pupils. The teacher could take the role of the speaker to keep order and to make sure that parliament could function. When this idea was practiced in some classes, the teachers remarked that the pupils became more engaged and enthusiastic, they participated more in classroom activities, their relationships and behaviour improved, there was less quarrelling and fighting, and pupils felt more confident in communicating their ideas. [12] 

Moving away from suppressive disciplinary techniques

Harvey Craft commented that classroom management often includes a large dose of suppressive techniques intended to simply control. In recent years a movement has emerged to teach democracy in schools by being democratic. Dozens of books, organizations, and incentives have grown from the new emphasis on democratic schools. Democratic schools emphasize the development of mutual respect and trust between students and teachers. The process of transforming a school to a democratic school requires special training for staff members. Teachers will learn some management skills that reflect democracy and mutual respect.

There is a list of management techniques for teachers that promote democracy and give students an idea of what democracy is all about. According to Craft, the teacher should explain that rules must encourage free and honest exchanges in an orderly manner. The teacher should engage students in discussions about the value of mutual trust and respect, and discussions about rights, responsibilities, and privileges. Another discussion that students should be allowed to participate in is that regarding the limitations of freedoms, particularly freedom of speech, and discussions about moral behaviour. The teacher should allow students to participate in the development of rules and consequences. The students are to be given the opportunity to develop their 'bill of rights', in this way it would be clear both for the students and for the teachers what their rights and obligations are. The teacher should plan regular lessons about character development. The students are to be prepared how to behave and act in a democratic society.

Craft continued to argue that students should have the right to call for discussions whenever an issue that affects the whole class crops up. They should also have the right to vote on matters that affect them. The teacher should set goals for the class that reflect the development of responsibility. Moreover, students are to be given opportunities to practice responsibility. An example might be to allow students to sharpen pencils without asking permission, provided they can properly determine a time that does not interrupt or distract others. [13] 

Free Schools

Some believe that democracy in the education system means that the child would have a free choice whether to attend any lessons at all. If he decides to attend, he should have the choice to choose which lessons he will attend to. According to this school of thought, neither the parents, nor society, not even the government should have a say on the education of children. They are to be left completely free to make up their own mind. Following on from this it would be reasonable to expect that a child would have some say over the curriculum, the day-to-day running of the school and even the appointment of teachers. Both students and teachers would have the right to call a meeting when they feel that there is the need of one. Some would argue that this idea is in favour of anarchy within the educational field. The critics of this school believe that this idea is the perfect formula for chaos and disaster.

The people who believe in this radical idea refer to some schools which adhered to this practice. The Albany Free School in New York, USA, the Booroobin Sudbury School in Queensland, Australia, the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, USA, and Summerhill in Norfolk, England. There are some differences between these free schools, such as the degree to which students have a say over economic decisions. But all these schools have one thing in common without which they probably could not function; the spirit of community. When living in a community, children learn to respect others. [14] 

Case study of a Free School

The Albany Free School has been functioning for the past 32 years. This school does not follow a curriculum and there are not any compulsory classes. Classroom sessions that do take place are usually informal and last as long as the interest holds. There are not any tests or grades either. This school states that learning happens best when it happens for its own sake. A child's innate desire to learn is a far more powerful motivating force than any external reward or threat. As regarding behaviour, the teachers do not monitor over the pupils but the students learn to manage themselves. During the meetings, both the students and the teachers have an equal vote, thus they share the responsibilities for the decisions taken. One issue which is discussed during these meetings is the school policy within various areas. Each day unfolds organically according to people's moods and interests, to the season and the weather, and to local and even world events. They reserve the right to make plans quite spontaneously. This does not mean that there are not plenty of ongoing, focused activities and projects. On any given day students might be found writing poetry and short stories, creating books, magazines and works of art, rehearsing and performing plays, or learning French or algebra. There are daily languages and maths classes for students who choose to tackle their basic skills in a more orderly and directed way. There are also classes in areas like history and science depending on student interest. As one would expect, the word 'competition' does not exist in this school. Children with mental health problems who attend this school do not take drugs to 'solve their problem'. The system which the school uses to function renders the drugs unnecessary. [15] These types of schools have received a lot of criticism. Critics believe that these schools are to radical and so not the way that democracy should be practiced.

Is democracy in the classroom always positive? What are the implications of such a transfer?

Considering that for the past decades, the school environment has been a rigid one, where students had to listen to what their teachers had to say, having to face the implementation of democracy in the classroom is certainly not an easy task. Since students are not accustomed to democratic practices at school, and to being actively responsible for themselves and their environment, the transition might lead to some form of rebellion. Similarly students might also mistaken freedom as "a free for all" scenario hence might move away from their scholastic duties. On the other hand fearful teachers might resist the move towards more student control and hence create resistance towards the smooth implementation of democratic education.

Can a democratic classroom survive in a non democratic school?

Democratic classrooms within non-democratic sites or campuses clash with the status-quo, and the reality of balancing out institutional requirements with students' needs and wishes does not go away. [16] 

Finding a balance between what the National Minimum Curriculum implies and what the students like and dislike is a challenging task especially if this relationship building is not supported by the general school scenario. Therefore, having a democratic classroom within a non democratic school is very unlikely to succeed especially if we had to consider that the learning of students does not only occur within the classroom walls. Students learn during their break time, while they are moving from one class to the other and while they interact with their peers and other teachers. Hence, if educational democracy is not implemented throughout the school it is very unlikely that it will thrive.

Conclusion

Through a systematic review of what democracy means, combined with how schools can become engaged in democratic practices, students will enhance, not only their academic, but also their socio-cultural and political experience, thus enriching themselves and the society in which they reside. [17] 

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