Sunday, November 06, 2011

Time for Democracy in Schools

John Dewey

Everybody in the modern world believes in democracy so why would anybody question the need for our schools to be democratic? Rather, the question should be why if we believe in democracy are our schools manifestly so undemocratic?

Educationalist John Dewey, writing early last century, saw implanting democratic ideals in students as the schools most important priority. Dewey believed that ‘children grow into tomorrow as they live today’.

One wonders what messages students are currently receiving from ‘their’ schools that are still controlled by the same hierarchical power relationships that worried Dewey?

The truth is that there is little evidence of democratic ideals in our schools.  Our traditionally oriented schools are places where certain information is given, where certain lessons are learnt, where certain habits are formed, and where students succeed by being judged on what others have decided is important. In this traditional model education is seen as a preparation for the future where students learn things ‘just in case’ they will need it. Obedience and conformity to requirements are the keys to success in such a system.

Dewey conceived schools differently. He envisioned them as learning communities seeing as important ‘the nature of relationships between student and student, student and teacher, and teacher and teacher’ and, of course, with the wider community. Dewey’s ideal for schools was for them to be based on participatory democratic values. In Dewey’s mind such values would be able to tap into, and unleash, the ‘immense intelligence’ of all students.  Dewey believed that ‘all those who are affected by social institutions must have a say in producing and managing them’.

Democratic ideals of freedom and creativity emerged briefly in the heady days of the 1960/70s but failed to change traditional schooling. Today there is now a new interest in a democratic education which places the needs of individual students central. This more personalized approach is implicit in the intent of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum where it states the vision is for all students to become ‘confident life long learners’; students  who are able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’.

Such ideals of creativity, freedom and personal responsibility in any organisation are currently confronted by elite power structures run by experts, bureaucrats, and administrators. In education the elite who make the most important decision are the Ministry of Education.

 As a result of their actions school principals, teachers, and in turn students, are given little power and responsibility in the schools where they spend most of their lives.

The surveillance culture, imposed by the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office, has created a risk averse culture which puts innovative approaches at risk. Compliance, not creativity, is now the name of the game. The problem is that our current standardized ‘one size fits all’ system is becoming increasingly unsuccessful as the number of students failing, or disengaging from the process, indicates. New thinking is required if we want all students to succeed, and if we want New Zealand to be a more inclusive democratic and creative society.

Developing democratic participatory ideals in schools is a difficult challenge as it confronts the ‘power down’ leadership style that is now firmly in place. As we enter what some call a ‘Second Renaissance’, or ‘Age of Creativity’, we need an education system that is able to realize the gifts and talents of all students not just the academic students as at present. To make things worse the current  government is determined to impose ‘National Standards’ in literacy and numeracy on primary schools which will determine student success in a very narrow range of intelligences.

The process of how to develop democratic schools still waits to be realized.  Sadly even creative teachers, once they become principals, morph into benevolent leaders who then expect teachers to do what they are asked of them! Most people, it seems, only want to be free from those above them!

How to provide direction, while at the same time tapping the creativity of individual staff members, is the challenge for principals – one which needs to be replicated in individual classrooms.

The success of democratic schools will depend on the strength of the shared purpose, vision, or beliefs, felt by all staff members and, in turn, their willingness to be held accountable to them.

1 comment:

Jody Hayes said...

ERO arrives at my place today Bruce.