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Democratic Education systems as practiced by Sudbury Valley Style Schools offer an alternative to Traditional public or private school curricula. With the growing concern over the effectiveness of Traditional Schooling, especially in public schools, is Democratic Education a possible solution?

Democratic Education is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff participate freely in a school democracy. There is typically shared decision making among students and staff on such matters as living, working, and learning together.

The works of psychologist John Dewey (1852-1952) on the relationship between democracy and education were the foundational literature for the democratic education movement. Dewey believed that how children learned democracy was reflected in how they participated in a democracy.

A Sudbury School is a school that practices a form of democratic education in which students decide for themselves how best to spend their time. Learning is thought to be a by-product of ordinary experience rather than by following a syllabus or structured classes. The name “Sudbury” refers to Sudbury Valley, in Frammingham, Massachusetts, where the original Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968.

Rooted in Nineteenth Century Philosophy, the Democratic Education Movement’s origins lie in moral and ethical development. At the core of the movement are the ideas of attachment to social groups and self-determination. Children learn how to interact with each other and that there are consequences to their behavior within their social group.

Students are encouraged to participate in a justice system governed by their peers which oversees the culture of the school. They are given the power to put other students up on trial for their actions and to have their peers determine if the actions are punishable or not. Generally, each student is encouraged to participate either as a “juror” or a witness.

Learning is secondary. Self determination is the rule, even if a student chooses to do nothing all day. Structure plays almost no role, although there are usually very extensive rules of conduct for interacting with other children and staff.

There are only about thirty or so Sudbury Style Schools in the United States. Research on the effectiveness of this method of education is very sparse. Most of the knowledge of how successful it is comes anecdotally, from people affiliated with one of the schools.

There are some indications that about 70-80% of graduates of a Sudbury School go on to higher education. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 68% of public school graduates enrolled in colleges. Statistically, these numbers are not far off. Sudbury Schools are private. It is possible that the variation stems from the ability of parents who send their children to a Sudbury School to afford college. Many public schools children do not have that ability.

Independent research needs to be done in order to determine if these types of schools are successful. A true choice between Traditional Schooling and democratic education cannot be made until verifiable numbers are available to the public.

How does the Democratic Education System hold up to modern cognitive theory? Understanding of how human brains develop and learn has grown considerably since the movement evolved from 19th century psychological principles.

Modern understanding of how our brains work shows us that we learn best through making connections. How one thing affects another, or what relationship something has to its environment is important to learning about the thing itself.

Each child builds his or her own mind as they grow by taking in and interpreting sensory information. The sensory information can come from many sources, including play. Imaginative play especially is seen as a great tool children use naturally to help make connections.

However, modern cognitive studies have shown that students learn best when three cognitive strategies are used: rehearsal, elaboration, and organization.

Rehearsal involves being shown facts, copying information, reading texts, et. Elaboration is best described as summarizing material in their own words, or reiterating information given. Organization takes many forms, but is best described as a method used to categorize information to be learned into relationships easier to digest.

Cognitive Psychologists have found that organization is pivotal in a child’s ability to learn. Too much organization (such as the teacher structuring the lesson, and children having no say) has a negative effect on learning. Too little organization (such as the student self-determining their activities and being left alone to establish relationships) can also have a negative impact. What appears to work best is a system that combines guidance with the freedom to make their connections themselves.

By combining the three cognitive strategies educators get the best results. Showing children how to cluster material into relationship groups and then letting them make use of that knowledge is a more natural way for humans to learn.

In the Business Community people are trained using the Show Them/Let Them Do/Have Them Teach Method. This is essentially rehearsal, elaboration, and organization – you need to have your knowledge of something organized in order for you to show someone else the steps involved in doing a task.

Democratic Education, founded on 19th Century ideas, skirts closely to how humans learn, but misses the mark. The lessons learned intuitively from such an education are moral and ethical, centering on participating in a democracy.

While being exposed to solving moral and ethical issues in social group is a kind of problem solving, the system does not promote understanding and solution creation any better than Traditional Schooling.

The best Education system would appear to be one which combines elements of democratic education with the use of a structure that directs children toward following connections relating the material to be learned to how their own brains are organized.


Learning Is About Connections – Patricia Cross – 1999

The Moral Behavior of Children and Adolescents in a     Democratic School – Jay Feldman – 2001


One Comment

  1. I didn’t know that.

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