Andrew Freeman: Participatory Education Engages Students With Real Life – October 4, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An important question we need to be asking ourselves is how democratic are our schools? What does it mean for a school to be democratic? How can a public school be democratic when faced with the burdens of state mandates and standardization?

The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) states that the goal of a democratic education is to, “empower young people to be autonomous, responsible members of their community and the larger world.” Furthermore, the concept behind a democratic education is not just to teach young people what real democracy is all about, but rather to embody that as a school community.

As a high school Social Studies instructor, I’ve always found it unfortunate that the state of California does not want us to teach deeply about civic responsibilities, our rights as citizens, and matters of justice until the Senior year of high school. I find it even more disturbing that schools are only allowed one semester to cover all of these topics. Meanwhile the state requires three years of glorified United States History courses (5th, 8th and 11th grade).

The second semester of Social Studies in the Senior year, by the way, is dedicated to economics. The lack of economic education in secondary schools is a whole other travesty which I will save for a later column.

California State Standard 12.2.4 in Social Studies states that students should:

“Understand the obligations of civic-mindedness, including voting, being informed on civic issues, volunteering and performing public service, and serving in the military or alternative service.”

Within the semester long course on civics, this is one of the only standards that addresses what it means to be an active member of society. The other 51 standards expected to be covered by the state in a semester (which is impossible to do well) are absolutely important, but are more focused on understanding the Constitution, how the judicial system operates, and the differences between levels of government.

So, direct instruction on what it means to not just be a part of, but to participate in a democratic society is clearly lacking.

However, the concept of a democratic education goes beyond just learning about what active civic participation looks like. It even goes beyond young people following through on various service or volunteer opportunities in our community. Rather, a democratic education is one where many facets of the educational experience itself are based on democratic principles.

I have tried to make my classes democratic and feel I still have major improvements to make. As soon as I recognize one way by which I have given students in my classes more say over their own education, I realize all of the ways that I am still dictating over them.

For example, I give one of my International Baccalaureate History classes the option of studying one of four regions of the world in depth. Instead of choosing one of the regions that I want to teach (or am most adept at teaching) I spend time in class presenting to them the four options. They engage in a discussion on the options. Finally, I take a vote and whatever course they choose, I will teach. The first two years was History of the Americas, which fortunately, was my strongest suit. The three years after that was a History of the Middle East course. This course challenged me greatly as a teacher. I even shared with the students that this would be difficult for me to teach, but we agreed that we would all learn together. I had great success with those classes. This year they want History of Asia and Oceania. It’s a whole new curriculum for me again, but I am dedicated to this process by which the class chooses what they want, not what I dictate.

Still, this could be argued as undemocratic because while I may be giving them choice, the choices are limited. I met a teacher from a school in Bellingham, Wash., called the Explorations Academy where curriculum topics change annually and are almost completely based on student interest. This teacher told me it was a lot of hard work to keep creating new curricula every year, but that the high level of student engagement that followed was well worth it. Explorations Academy is a private school and therefore has the complete freedom to offer such a program.

Dana Bennis, co-founder and research and policy director of IDEA writes, “Democratic education sees young people not as passive recipients of knowledge, but rather as active co-creators of their own learning. They are not the products of an education system, but rather valued participants in a vibrant learning community.”

So, what would it look like if we allowed students to be active co-creators of their own learning? When I ask young people in Humboldt County what their education would ideally be like, they often mention having more hands on experiences and getting out of the classroom more often and engaging in their community. Interestingly, when I’ve spoken with various business, political and social leaders in our community they mention that they would love to engage more with youth.

This would require, at least in public schools, a major paradigm shift. While the idea of young people learning experientially and engaging with their community is amazing, the reality of making it happen is easier said than done. It will require us asking big questions about the structure of our education system and taking even bigger steps to change it.

I’m interested in exploring the possibilities. Are you? Contact me at to continue the dialogue. Also, learn more about the work IDEA is doing to help schools become more democratic by visiting

Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school.