Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Developing a democratic curriculum.

  Posted by Picasa Education and Democracy: James Beane

I visit a wonderful school that makes use of an integrated learning approach based on the ideas of James Beane.

Beane's (and others) ideas fits into current talk of personalizing learning but within an environment based on democratic ideals.

Relating back to the ideas of John Dewey he believes that if people are to live democratic lives they must have the opportunity to learn what that way of life means. His ideas are based on the ability of students to participate in their own education. Democratic schools share a child centred approach but their larger goal is to change the undemocratic conditions of school themselves and in turn to reach out to the wider community.

Beane believes that teachers have an obligation to help young people seek out a range of ideas and to ‘voice’ their own. Beane believes that imposed standardized curriculums actually ‘deskill’ teachers as they are forced to follow approaches imposed on the school.

In Beane’s school teachers live with the creative tension of continually seeking a more significant education for their students while still attending to the knowledge and skills that will require continuing learning.

I believe it is an approach that has real relevance for teachers and students in the middle school where fragmented specialists teaching seems unable to cater for all students. At this level there is a real need to develop more coherent, and engaging learning challenges. This is all the more important for students who are currently failing school – or in Beane’s philosophy where schools are failing their students.

Beane defines several approaches to integrated learning to replace traditional separate subject teaching. Multi-disciplinary where two or more subjects are organized around a theme – in this approach subjects can still retain their separate time slots. Curriculum Integration without regard to subject areas lines. This project based education can involve students selecting/negotiating their own tasks and content.

Beane however takes integration one step further.

In this variation teachers and students plan together through a carefully guided process to create thematic curriculum based on questions and concerns students have about themselves and their world. Student questions are clustered into themes and teachers collaboratively plan activities which are designed for students to take a greater responsibility for their own learning in the context of democratic community.

In this way a school, with student input, develops its own curriculum based on two question asked at the beginning of the year.

What questions or concerns do you have about yourself?

What questions do you have about yourself?

Beane calls this a democratic curriculum. Although the class, team, or even the whole school decides on the themes there is plenty of time for small groups and individuals to create their own projects around the themes.

It is works wonderfully at the school I visit - more about that school later!


Anonymous said...

Having to follow, and be accountable, to an imposed curriculum, has aways been a 'bugbear' for creative teachers - the approach you outline gets around the problem. Learning 'how to learn' needs real content or learning is at risk -this approach solves this as well. And as for schools being democratic that's a joke - currently Secondary Schools are based on a power structure based obedience and control.

Anonymous said...

The idea of an 'emergent' curriculum would not be new to, parents of pre-schoolers, those who teach younger children - or creative teachers. There is an approach called 'Emelio Reggio'?, based in Milan, for 4 to 7 year olds I think, that bases learning on such an 'emergent' interest based approach. It is what intelligent people do when they leave school - it is called life.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Let's hope that the new 'radical vision' of our Education Minister of 'personalised learning' will free the creativity of schools.

Democracy will be a strange word in most secondary schools - and a few primary ones as well!

It is demcracy that I see in the school I visit - the principal is 'the first amongst equals'. A real leader by expertise not authority.

Anonymous said...

We have been running a school based on the Beane model of democratic curriculum for three years now and have found it a great way to teach, but a challenge to teachers sometimes to share their power with children, by allowing them to select what they learn. I would highly recommend this model. We have had the advantage of being a brand new school which helps hugely! BP, Principal

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Being in a new school gives you a great chance to develop such innovative ideas. Would love to visit to see.

lucy said...

I am a university student very interested in researching the concept of a democratic curriculum and whether this is something which can ever be fully implemented in a school with the tensions between democratic values and things such as age/ authority. I would love to find out more about your school and perhaps i could use it as a case study? I would also welcome any suggestions of relevamt research questions. Many thanks.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Lucy.

Which part of the world do you live? You would think that democratic values would underpin schools in a democratic society? As John Dewey wrote, over a century ago, you can only develop democratic values by living them -and schools certainly aren't democratically run in my experience.

I would recommend you get hold of 'Curriculum Integration' by James Beane. Its sub-title is 'designing the core of democratic education'.

I am not in a school so I can't help you in this respect. I believe developing a democratic school would be posible but it would require a certain kind of leadership.

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student of education at Loyola University Chicago, USA. I am very much interested in democratic curriculum development. Currently I am writing a research proposal for my PhD study. I'd appreciate if you give me some insights in the topic of democratic curriculum.
Thank you.

Unknown said...


How can we develop a democratic school curriculum? Can you offer a list about this topic?

thank you

Unknown said...

How can we develop a democratic curriculum? What are the steps?

Anonymous said...

I am the principal of a school that has a Reggio Inspired approach to learning across all year levels. It is certainly fraught with challenges as we meet 'standards' each year. We have been developing our approach for the past four years and while it is not completely seemless ( i.e we still have one or two teachers who struggle with the supposed loss of control) the benefits, for the children are HUGE. They LOVE learning and coming to school, they create a myriad of things and learn in ways that matter to them. It has required courage on my part as the leader to put the chidlren first and to defend this to those who would judge without knowing.The work of Elwyn Richardson has also been part of my 'mantra'.