Yonatan Gher
Full time peace, human rights, environmental, social and religious-pluralism activist

How a democratic school works, and how it improves society

Because education does more these days than prepare kids to be good factory workers

A couple quick disclaimers and a credit: This article is going to be a little different from my usual writing, in that it does not address current events. Also, keep in mind as I describe democratic education, that I am writing from the perspective of a parent, and am in no way an expert in pedagogy, democratic or otherwise. Maayan Liron, who is an expert in democratic pedagogy, inspired the writing of this article.

Our older son, Evyatar, going on 10, goes to the Democratic school, Kehilla, in Jaffa. Before I get into what a democratic school is and why we chose to send him there, I’ll start with the fundamental question:

What’s wrong with the traditional education system?

When my younger son, Uriah, who is one, deconstructs the bookshelf, we call it playing, but for him it’s learning. That passion to explore is his foundation to learning throughout his life. Good education builds on that, offering him guidance and tools. Bad education squashes that, to get him to shut up and listen in class.

The current school system was designed at the start of the industrial era, with the explicit purpose of preparing kids to be good factory workers. There are sets of knowledge required for this, and the skill of obeying orders was critical to their success. Times have changed. The tools for success are now different, and yet schools have not changed. The main form of teaching is lecturing, and the main form of assessing success is tests, which check how much of the content of the lectures has been retained. Kids are told what they need to learn every step of the way and are taught to obey, which in Israel also serves the purpose of preparing to be a good soldier. Once you’re done with all that and enter the world as a young adult, you’re suddenly expected to choose: what do you want to be? But you haven’t learned how to make choices.

Many educational approaches have developed to try and and adapt education to the needs and values of the 21st century, such as anthroposophic education, Montessori, Waldorf, which focus primarily on the methods of teaching. High Tech High,and its Israeli equivalent Tichonet, use technology to inspire authentic learning, adapting the hole in the wall theory which builds upon self-organized learning. That means learning that comes from a place of the interests and talents of the child, rather than, “You gotta listen to this here material right now.”

Democratic education explores and combines many of these methods, but puts more of an emphasis on individual choice, as well as on the development of a model society within the school, looking not only at the individual child, but also at the community in which the children learn, and the values that guide this society.

With all that in mind, here is how my son’s school works, noting that this will differ from one democratic school to another:

The (non) homeroom
There is no homeroom class, the way there is in a traditional school, of kids of the exact same age which in Israel typically consist of around 40 kids. Instead of a homeroom teacher there is an educational mentor whom the child chooses, thus joining a mentorship group ideally of 16-17 children, of roughly a three-year age range. As a group they meet at the beginning and end of every day. The rest of the day is spent throughout the school, in different groups from hour to hour. These groups, as designed by the curriculum are interest-based, rather than the rigid criteria of the child’s age and the arbitrary assignment to a grade.

The curriculum
At the beginning of the year the children are given curriculum options, which offer about five different lesson possibilities for every hour of every day. Most of these are taught by staff, but some are taught by children or by parents. Each kid spend the first three weeks checking out classes they found interesting, and then choose which classes they would like to sign-up to for the year. You’re not obligated to choose anything (and in fact free time is also encouraged), but once you choose you are committed to that class for the year, and you accept the rules and requirements of that particular class. Such rules might include things like eating in class, bringing a phone into class, homework requirements, equipment requirements — all of which will vary from class to class and from teacher to teacher.

By signing up, the child is committed to showing up, and deciding to discontinue a class is an ordeal. The purpose of this is to allow children to choose what they want to learn, but also to learn how to choose: how to stand by their commitments and the consequences of their choices.

So a first-grader can choose not to learn language and math‽ Kind of nerve-wracking, isn’t it?

Yup. However, two things: First, there are a lot of super cool classes, such as “Dungeons & Dragons,” which require a certain level of reading and math, creating positive motivation to advance in those. Second, there are a lot of classes in disguise: “Business Center” is a class where kids learn about running a business, involving much adding, subtracting and multiplying shekels as they go. “Genesis Theater” is a class where the stories of the book of Genesis are used to create plays. Between those, and under the close watch of the child’s mentor, no child goes through the elementary-school years without the ability to read or do math. They do however develop far less resentment towards these subjects, as the subjects were not forced upon them, and they found them practical and useful (as opposed to “Dad, when will I ever need this math in life?”).

Not having grades (as in first-grade, second-grade, etc, though there are also no grades of the other kind either) also helps separate the archaic connection between a child’s age and the material taught in class. If you’re the age of fifth-grade, and you’re really good at math, you can sign up to eighth-grade-level math. If you’re in third-grade and having trouble reading, you don’t get held back a year, as might happen at a traditional school. You simply sign up to Hebrew 2. Each child has their unique needs, and this system is built to to tailor to those, and to move at the pace best suited for the child.

Age range
There is an ongoing active attempt to encourage interaction between kids of different ages.
This happens in the multi-aged mentor-groups, in elementary-schoolers spending structured time with preschoolers, and high-schoolers spending structured time with elementary-schoolers. Spending time with older kids pushes you to advance more. Spending time with younger kids teaches you responsibility and patience.

How the school itself operates
The school runs in a way that mimics the three branches of government:

The assembly (the legislative branch)
School assembly is the highest decision-making body of the school. Every child, teacher and parent gets to vote. The assembly makes all the rules for the school, from deciding on the budget, through all the do’s and don’ts, to elects members to the committees.

The committees (the executive branch)
School committees run the school. The Teachers Committee hires and fires teachers, the Events Committee runs all the events, the Budget Committee oversees all the school finances, the School Trips Committee plans the trips. Each committee consists of children, staff and parents. This interaction between children and adults on things such as the school budget or conducting job interviews, is as much a learning opportunity as many other classes combined. Also, the kids on the committees often come up with better ideas.

The Dispute Committee (the judicial branch)
Consisting of children and staff, the dispute committee is the school court. Anyone can sue anyone else over any dispute or harm, for breaking school rules, class disruption and so on. Teachers and even the principal have been sued on occasion, and have been found guilty of things like making decisions which contradict rules decided by the assembly.

There is much value to this system. Kids don’t eat in the library not because the librarian said so and will punish them, but because they were part of the assembly which voted on the no food in the library rule, and their friends can and will sue them because they find the breaking of those decisions to be offensive and un-democratic. The horrible concept of “don’t snitch” which exists in so many schools, doesn’t exist here. If somebody hit you, you are encouraged to stand up for your rights and sue. As a result: hardly any bullying. This rights-based approach causes the bully to be socially excluded, rather than the kid s/he picked on.

Social involvement
A humanist world-view is central to the democratic approach to education. When asylum-seekers held demonstrations in Tel Aviv, school was closed and the kids and teachers joined in.

Kehilla school at an asylum-seekers demonstration, south Tel Aviv

When kids at other schools held protests against dress-codes that were unequal towards girls, Kehilla published a picture in solidarity, where the male and female teachers wore each-other’s cloths.

Kehilla school staff solidarity

Kids in the school have run public campaigns against Dan busses for not including Arabic in their stop announcements, and against Toys R’ Us, to cancel the boys and girls departments and just sell toys as toys.

“We don’t play with gender-separation”: protesting Toys R’ US

The high-school runs a year-long program of social involvement, which last year focused on involvement with various communities (refugees and Palestinian youth), animal rights and sustainability. Needless to say, the topics were chosen by the children.

Democratic schools are about getting kids to know that they matter. They learn how to learn, and learn how to choose. Most importantly: They grow up knowing that they have rights, and that they have an obligation to stand up for those whose rights are violated. They grow up knowing they hold agency over their own lives, and that they are able to effect change, in their own lives and in society.

In the current reality in Israel, with the erosion of democratic systems and values, democratic education could be the best investment we make towards a brighter future, for us and for our kids alike.

About the Author
The writer is the Israeli Executive Director of Combatants for Peace. He has previously been the Executive Director of Amnesty International-Israel, Greenpeace Mediterranean, and the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, and Communications Director for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. Born in New York, Yonatan grew up in Jerusalem, and now lives in Jaffa with his husband and two sons. All opinions expressed are those of the writer only.
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