Why do we fear democracy?
Literally democracy is 'the rule of the people' from the Greek, demos-kratia. In its purest sense each individual has equal voice and voting power. A true democracy would have little chance of succeeding in society since it lacks a mechanism for decisive decision making. The United States began as a Republic: that which is ruled by elected officials representative of the whole of the people. The Articles of Confederation were believed to give too much power to the individual. It was feared that people would become self serving with such power. The Constitution was thus drafted to set in motion a system of checks and balances so that both the local and National governments would work in unity, strengthening our country. We are now referred to as both a Republic and a Democratic Republic.
Specific ideals of Democracy: discussion, debate and eventual consensus can be explored in small group settings such as classrooms. Here we can become involved in strengthening our community by directly affecting a change. So why is it that this type of interaction is often viewed as unimportant? Educators are employed by the city government. They have accepted a position that regulates their life with set hours of student contact time, staff meetings, unions guidelines and expectations. If educators honestly spoke to their own beliefs, the security they have created in their lives would be jeopardized. I believe they fear such activity in their classrooms will interfere with the expectations of the city government, their employer. The city government in turn is reacting to the expectations of the state. Each group wishes the best education for their students but can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of their jobs. To justify silencing the voices of the students, the experience of free speech is not encouraged in the classroom setting. It is a delicate balance between educating and training. We can train to take tests, but we must be educated in order to think critically .
To quell fears of unrest among the masses many teachers count on the "BANKING MODEL OF EDUCATION". (2) This model encourages students to conform and follow authority, a path that many educators also follow. The ideal student is often the one that takes on a passive role imposed upon her, ultimately becoming dominated by the governing institution. At this point it is easy to deposit information and have it returned exactly as it was given. Schools would like to think they are just representing the common culture when in fact they are supporting the dominant culture. This can change. Infusing democratic values would encourage free speech, debate, recognition of the majority and ultimately the ability to promote change. All of which can threaten those in power.
What is the role of the teacher in a democratic classroom?
To assist each student as they become critically literate individuals.
As An Educator
To facilitate the establishment of principles and morals which can then be applied to real life situations in many different settings.
As An Instructor
To impart knowledge while teaching can be viewed as the same but in more familiar terms.
As A Trainer
To furnish students with the opportunity to practice a skill, mental or physical until mastered.
According to Freier,(3) literacy has three levels:
Functional- understanding and decoding print images
Cultural - understanding the print in relation to one's cultural background
Critical - applying the understanding and interpreting the results
Unfortunately we often focus solely on functional and/or cultural literacy. It is possible for a non-reading individual to become critically literate through conversations and audio taped information, since it is dependent upon the ability to understand, interpret and apply results . Often if a student cannot read we pull them out of a classroom for extended periods of time with an outside resource. Teaching of general knowledge is then often missed, that student lacks information needed to make critical analyses at a later date. The importance of general knowledge and classroom discussions is not always acknowledged.
Educators must be models of social activism and life long learners if we want our pupils to become critically literate. In order to infuse democratic values into the school culture and introduce students to a proactive process for change we must always be striving for cultural literacy at all levels of education.
What is the students' role in the democratic classroom?
Students must become active participants in their personal history. As Freire believes, they need to be able to "read the world critically" .(4) Observation and discussion of situations need to modeled and encouraged rather than making quick decisions. Here is the moment that they can gain control over the process of change, thus their lives. Infusing discussion, debate and consensus into classroom settings creates the environments necessary to effect proactive change. Although this demands extended periods of time initially, the advantages will be great once students become comfortable with the process.
The students work with individuals, not independently of them.
Change can not properly be done for others. Students must recognize and respect the diversity of their community. If they want to facilitate change they will have to address the needs of all community members and assess how the change will effect each of them.
Responsibility for decisions must be accepted by the students.
Once a change has occurred the students need assessment tools in place to insure their vision has been successful. If they find it created unexpected problems, those must be addressed immediately.
To assist others in the process of change.
If one understands the power and importance of effecting change they need to insure others will be able to do the same. Sharing what one has learned is the most direct route to create a positive culture of change in a community.
A culture that infuses democratic values and change will promote ownership of curriculum with the students themselves. Once they accept these responsibilities educators will be working with, not for their students. Such a partnership fosters strong bonds between the student and the educator. This in turn strengthens the community at large. In order for democratic values to succeed in the classroom, students must work with individuals, accept responsibility for their actions and ultimately share their journeys with the community at large. This personifies John Dewey's idea that people learn by doing. (5)
Setting the stage for democratic values.
Whitehead discusses three Stages of Mental Growth. (6) This model of education can be used for infusing democratic values and proactive change.
Romance: introduction of 'newness'
Precision: the how and why
Generalization: application of knowledge
establishment of a Peaceful Room
The romance can begin in September as the class establishes what a Peaceful Room needs to function productively. The semantics here are important since we want the students to use these principles later when discussing, debating and forming consensus. If the term "Peaceful" is established in September it sets the tone for the year. A peaceful room allows for all students to have a voice and be counted as equals in decision making. It also has regular meetings held to foster discussion, debate and consensus. Students must decide what mechanisms will be used to ensure all are heard and counted. Creating a process to be heard with respect and equality is empowering to all individuals. The students must work in partnership with the educators in establishing this process. The class, to include the educator, should take full advantage of this forum.
establishment of the hows and whys
Students will quickly want opportunities to vent emotions, problems and inequities they perceive happening in the school community. All too often the classroom can not handle the barrage of requests to be heard. At this point teachers should pose the next question: How will we handle the amount of discussion the class needs and wants? The students now must decide how to stream line the process. Are there issues that can be handles in a less formal setting now that we know how to listen to each other? They will devise a system that supports the class as well as the curriculum materials that need to be covered each term. (One group I had taught decided to report out in the form of a log each week important issues to discuss. Once they were all logged we found out many students shared similar problems. They decided to have problem solving sessions before our class meeting and report their solutions as a group. This cut down on repetitive discussions and arguments.)
application of the process
There will come a meeting that you no longer need to run . A student will ask if they could facilitate the session. The process has become a part of their thinking, their learning, their heart. You must now guide your partner. Many more will want the chance to facilitate meetings. A new problem to solve. How will we decide who facilitates fairly?