Democratic education theory acknowledges that learning is better achieved when learners are equally and freely allowed to participate in the school governance. In democratic education, both the learners and the teachers are involved in decision-making concerning learning, living as well as working in the school.
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According to Shor (1996), democratic education is founded on the belief that ideal learning normally starts by considering the learner’s needs, goals as well as desires and can not be enhanced by the societal demands or any hypothetical body of knowledge. Democratic education focuses on the learner’s self-motivated exploration of the world around him or her (Croall, 1983).
According to Neill, the school learning environment should be organised to fit the child. The child should be given the freedom to play as he or she pleases as long as his or her actions do not interfere with others.
Neill stresses that the child be given freedom and not license (Croall, 1983). He believed that learners should be given the freedom to choose the lessons they would want to attend. According to democratic education theory, classes should provide learners with opportunities to experience autonomy and freedom of choice in what to study, how to study it and when to study.
Neill’s Summerhill School, is considered a democratic community where learners are given the opportunity to discuss and decide on matters affecting their stay in the school. This is done through formal meetings where every learner or staff is allowed to attend and each person has an equal vote. These meetings serve legislative as well as judicial functions; however, matters deemed too critical to be solved by the learners or those that are above their authority is left to the staff and the headmistress (Croall, 1983).
According to Neill’s democratic education theory, some of the subjects in the curriculum taught in the other schools can be better learnt through proper socialization processes (Neill, 1960). Thus Neill’s democratic education theory puts much emphasis on freedom of choice, democratic governance and socialization.
The philosophy of the school is built on democracy, equality as well as freedom. Summerhill School is founded on the belief that children tend to achieve optimum learning if given freedom from coercion. Therefore pupils should have the freedom to plan what to do with their time. This, he believed helps develop self-motivation in learners as well as self- discipline to learn. He believed that freedom enhances development of critical thinking skills as well as greater self-discipline as compared to children whose educational life is controlled.
In Summerhill School, all lessons are optional and the pupils have the freedom to choose which lesson to attend. According to Neill, the child has the freedom to live his or her own life and therefore the parent or the teacher can not decide on what the child should do or learn and at what time. The child should not live his or her life as perceived by the teacher or the parent (Neill, 1960).
Democratic education is founded on the idea that learners are naturally curious, besides, they have an innate desire to acquire knowledge and skills as well as to grow. Thus, learners should be left un-manipulated so as to give them the opportunity to learn and construct meanings to what they learn on their own without being coerced. According to the theory, freedom to control one’s own time enhances the pupil’s participation in the school’s self-governing community.
In Summerhill School, meetings are held every Saturday or as may be required by the pupils. The pupils plus the teachers discuss the problems they face in the school and each individual has an equal right in decision-making and in formulating as well as in changing school laws. These meetings provide the school community with the opportunity to make decisions for a course of action to be taken by the power of the vote in case of unresolved conflicts (Neill, 1960).
The School Curriculum
Neill’s Summerhill School has no compulsory uniform curricula. The school places more emphasis on learning through school activities and games. Neill believed more on social development as the mode through which pupils should acquire most of their knowledge and skills.
The curriculum is based on the actual lived experience in the school. He assumed that the free interplay of learners provide enough exposure to most areas that are relevant or interesting to learners. The learners have greater voice on what to learn and are involved in discussing the content and the structure of their curriculum (Shor, 1996).
In Summerhill School, the learners and the teachers are the curriculum resources (Croall, 1983). The teachers are expected to contribute more than their subject areas. They are supposed to coach the learners and help them in whatever areas they are interested in. Teachers have the freedom to choose the teaching methods as well as objectives guided by the provisions of the national curriculum.
Senior teachers teach their subjects to the level that meets the standards of the national exams for learners of age sixteen. Just like the normal schools, Summerhill School has a timetable to guide the learning process; however, classes and projects are not compulsory to learners. The school offers almost the same subjects offered in the mainstream schools. The teachers provide a wide range of projects and activities which learners can choose from the timetable.
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These projects may include airplane construction, making a radio play among others. Whenever each term begins, every learner is issued with a blank timetable to help him or her design his or her own lesson plan. Teachers provide tables for each week showing activities corresponding to the learners’ needs and wishes. On the other hand, older learners are expected to sign up for subjects and projects of their choices at the beginning of the term (Sliwka, n.d).
In Summerhill School, pupils do not move through classes or form but instead, their ability is used to place them in their preferred subjects. This implies that a given subject may have children of varying ages. This way, younger learners have the opportunity to learn from the older ones and vice versa. Older learners offer mentorship to the younger ones in social skills. Teachers do not apply any pressure on learners to learn anything specifically. The learners have the right and are also given the responsibility to control their learning (Gutmann, 1987).
Given that each learner pursues a different curriculum, democratic education theory does not provide for ranking of students. Neill says that he does not prefer the idea of doing exams (Croall, 1983). In Summerhill School, there are no compulsory tests except for the GCSE examinations.
The pupils are allowed to drop in the art room or the workshop at any time and do anything under supervision. Summerhill School acknowledges that play is significant in the learners life particularly for the younger ones. Therefore their play is not directed or limited by anyone. Play is often seen to be more valuable as compared to academic learning as it enhances creativity in learners (Croall, 1983).
The Role of the teacher
The teacher’s role in democratic education is to provide an environment that enhances children’s play and to give the children the freedom to play. The teacher ensures that the environment is safe to allow the children to play freely.
As learners learn through play and interaction, the teachers should provide some kind of care and knowledge in a friendly manner. He or she should be caring towards all the learners and should also make them feel welcomed in the classroom. The teacher designs weekly timetables that take learners’ interest and desires into considerations and distribute them to the learners (Croall, 1983).
In the classroom, the teacher guides the learning processes and provides the learners with the opportunity to discover knowledge by themselves. He or she provides learning content or educational projects which require the use of different teaching and learning materials so as to encourage participatory and collaborative learning as well as personalized teaching methods.
The teacher sets common goals as well as expectations for the whole class. The teacher conveys knowledge and skills through lecturing and requiring the learners to do the same activities. He or she helps the learners form their learning groups. The teacher also guides the learner in choosing subjects based on their interests and their ability.
Democratic education is founded on the belief that the classroom should be constructed to fit the learner. The learner should be given the opportunity to make construct meaning to the information learnt by allowing them to explore and discover knowledge for themselves with the teacher’s assistance if needed.
The child is given the opportunity to explore the environment to enable him or her acquire practical life skills. In Summerhill School, a learner is allowed to pop in the workshop or the art room and do whatever he or she feels like under the guidance of the teacher (Croall, 1983).
The Learning Processes
Learning process in Summerhilll School is mostly through experience. Learners are given the opportunity to explore the environment and to learn from each other. Exposure to the environment allows learners to construct meaning to what they learn. Learners are presented with opportunities to learn from each other, the teacher or the environment.
This way, the learners are able to critically analyse situations and better understand them. The learning process in democratic education does not involve any homework but instead, are given the opportunity to focus on what they want to learn. The learning process is self-inspired and the teacher only enhances the learning process.
The learners have a voice on the learning content as well as the teaching and leaning methodologies and the resources (Shor, 1996). They have the freedom to choose methodologies and resources that best meet their desires and goals. The learning process involves presenting to learners innovative educational projects which cover various educational materials and which also encourage participatory and collaborative learning.
Criticism of Neill’s Democratic Theory
Some of Neill’s ideas have been used in various schools and education systems especially in involving learners’ and teachers’ participation in formulating school policies. Headteachers have also become less autocratic and have involved stakeholders including parents in the education processes of schools and management of schools.
However, most of Neill’s ideas on democratic education are not realistic. He argued that learners including the young ones are innately wise and are also realistic. This is not true and according to Darling (1992), children are potentially realistic and wise and as such, the learning environment should be controlled to enhance the possibility of increasing their chances of being more wise and realistic.
In as much as democracy in an education system is important, involving the learners in deciding the learning content is unwise. This may lead to inadequate learning in particular areas which some learners perceive to be difficult. Learners are not fully aware of what they do not know and this means that giving them a chance to decide on the curricular content may hinder the provision of important curricular information.
Learners are likely to choose contents which minimize challenges and instead choose the easier parts of the learning content. Besides, curriculum is usually meant to create uniformity in learning among schools and to make educational practices conventional. Giving learners the opportunity to decide on their learning content makes national assessment difficult.
The teachers are also not able to plan their lessons appropriately since they have to go by what the learners desire to learn with minimal reference to the curriculum. Allowing learners to take control of the learning content may compromise evaluation. National curriculum usually has conventional system of assessment and grading which may not favour the learning procedures advocated for by the democratic learning theory (Morrison, 2008).
Teachers are supposed to control the class during the learning process besides guiding the learners on what to do to achieve the set goals and objectives. Giving the learners the opportunity to decide on their learning content is likely to inadequately prepare the learners to meet the real world challenges when they finally complete their education. Besides, allowing learners to choose the subjects they are most interested in is unwise as the learners miss out on important life skills which are found in other subjects that they do not take.
Learners may also not learn subjects that the government has put in place to enhance national integration of its citizens although Neill assumes that through proper socialization process in the school, learners are able to acquire these skills. The question is; what happens in a situation where the students’ composition has no mix or in situations where the mix is negligent. In such situations, the learners’ experience is limited to their composition (Morrison, 2008).
Achieving Maximum Learning
In my view, learning is best achieved when democracy exists in the learning process and not in deciding the learning content. Learning is optimum in situations where the learners are given the opportunity to research on knowledge by themselves as the teacher provides guidance and clarification in the processes as advocated for by the humanistic theorists.
Discovery approach is also advocated for by Neill as e believes that learners are naturally curious and should be given the freedom to explore the environment. The teacher uses the curriculum in designing the learning content and in planning the lessons.
He or she gives learners the opportunity to decide on the learning materials and in helping design the learning materials. According to Neill, the teacher has the responsibility of organizing the classroom environment to suit the learners’ learning requirements (Croall, 1983). The learning environment should enable learners acquire more knowledge through discovery by providing them with the necessary learning resources.
The teachers should also use the curriculum guide to help the learners choose subjects they would want to pursue and not leave it entirely on the learner. The teacher should help the learner to choose subjects by considering his or her ability, interest, carrier desire and not just the interest of the learner.
The curriculum has set standards for assessment and evaluation of learners. Therefore the teaching strategies and resources chosen by the teacher should enable the learners meet the standard procedures of the learning process. Learners should be made familiar with the variables tested in the exams and also given the opportunity to discover more by themselves.
Influence of the theory on my future practice
Neill’s view on the classroom environment influences my view on classroom and school environment organization. In my opinion, the classroom environment should enable the learners feel comfortable and free to participate in the learning activities in the class as well as to ask and answer questions. I intend to help the learners develop self-esteem to enable them effectively participate in group works as well as in class activities. Being friendly to all learners and encouraging any interest and ability shown by a learner will help me achieve this.
Neill also asserts that learners are naturally curious to acquire more information. Using Neill’s view as a foundation to learners learning process, I will provide opportunities that enhance learners’ acquisition of knowledge through research by providing various educational projects and research activities. Guiding learners on what to do and how to go about their learning activities would enhance their chances of grasping the knowledge faster.
The learning content presented to the learners will include the contents of the curriculum plus other important contents not covered by the curriculum but are important for encouraging learners’ curiosity and creativity. This will be aimed at making the learners independent thinkers and individuals who are flexible and are able to effectively deal with real life challenges.
I will also allow learners to actively participate designing their learning materials to enable them better comprehend what is taught. In Summerhill School, learners have made most of the furniture that they use in the school during their learning processes. This implies that it is important to make the learning content as practical as possible so as to enhance the learners’ knowledge acquisition and development.
Application of the theory on Ontario Students
Ontario’s education system almost reflects the ideas of Neill’s Summerhill School as they have many similarities. In Ontario, students have a voice in their learning processes and they meet to discuss the factors that affect their learning and life in school.
Each individual has a right to participate in the meeting and the students’ organization has a right to meet the minister for education to present their views and the problems affecting them. They contribute in influencing the direction which their learning takes. Just like Summerhill School, safe school environment is a pre-requisite for learning. Ontario’ publicly funded schools also provide healthy meals and physical activities just like it is in Summer School (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011).
Neill’s idea of grouping learners is also applied in classrooms especially at the elementary level of education in Ontario. Children are grouped in classes according to their academic needs, learning styles, socials skills among other factors. This is done to enhance the learners’ academic achievement and to provide better opportunities for the learners’ social and emotional growth.
Learning in combined classes provides learning environments which reflects the real world and as such, learners are able to develop leadership skills, decision-making skills as they learn to be more responsible. Combined classes enable learners expand their perspectives as the classes contain learners with diverse skills and interests. Teachers have been trained to provide differentiating instruction to learners (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007).
The learners are also presented with many projects to perform and learners are given the opportunities to choose the projects that they will be dealing with during the course work or term. Teachers help the learners go about their projects and also assess the projects (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011).
Neill’s democratic education theory though not fully accepted, has influenced many education processes and decisions in schools. His view that learners are naturally curious has influenced learning through discovery approach which has been applied in many schools and modern education systems. Students are also given projects and assignments to perform so as to enhance their learning and make them more able to adapt to real life situations.
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Gutmann, A. (1987) Democratic education. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Morrison, K. A. (2008). Democratic classrooms: Incorporating student voice and choice in teacher education courses. Web.
Neill, A. S. (1960). Summerhill School – A new view of childhood. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2011). Students. Web.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2007). An introduction to combined grades. Ontario: Queens’s Printer for Ontario. Web.
Sliwka, A. (n.d). The contribution of alternative education. Web.
Shor, I. (1996). When students have power: Negotiating authority in a critical pedagogy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.