How should the US education system best prepare students to engage in the democratic process?

It’s already being done:

SudburyThe Sudbury Valley school was founded in 1968 by Daniel Greenberg. There are now over 60 schools worldwide which operate on the Sudbury Valley model.

A Sudbury school is completely democratic. Everybody in the school has a vote in establishing school procedures and policies, both adults (coordinators) and children. Parents have no vote or voice in administration of the school. Staff are employed on a one-year renewable contract. The staff and students vote each year at a school meeting, and decide which staff contracts will be renewed.

There are no formal classes. Classes form only when students request them, and last only as long as needed, or are desired.

In his book Free to Learn, and in numerous other papers and articles, Dr. Peter Gray discusses the Sudbury Valley model at length. He (and other researchers) have documented the overwhelming success in fostering engaged learners who go on to great success in various fields. One study indicated that 42% of Sudbury school students went on to become self-employed or are involved in entrepreneurial situations, and 87% pursued further education.

For those of us (like my family) who do not have access to a Sudbury model school, the next best choice is to reproduce the democratic environment in the home.

Unschooling is inspired by the writings of John HoltAlfie Kohn, and Peter Gray. Unschooling shares a similar philosophy to that of the Sudbury school method, in that education should be inspired and guided by the child’s curiosity and desire to learn about specific topics. In this manner, unschooling encourages deep dives into particular topics.

In a series of articles in Psychology Today, Dr Gray discusses the outcomes of unschooling. I find it interesting that 53% of the unschoolers in the studies pursued entrepreneurial careers.

Personal Experience

We have been homeschooling our daughter for over a year now. I have to admit that the first couple of months made me very nervous, as she obsessively became a “Minecraft Ninja”.

However, since that episode, it has been fascinating to observe unschooling in action – for example:

  • We watched a YouTube series on Ancient Rome. Since our daughter was interested, we followed up by reading Mary Beard’s SPQR. This led to discussions of history, geography, politics, nation-building, archeology, etc. She is currently studying Latin online (via Skype).
  • Our daughter was reading a series of fantasy books. She started drawing the series characters (digital art). This led her to become involved with an online community of artists, and she eventually participated in collaborative drawing and animation projects. She also wrote a couple of fan fiction novels (based on the same series), which she published online.
  • She expressed an interest in Astronomy. We have visited a local observatory, attended a conference of the American Astronomical Society (fortunate that it was held in our area), and completed an Astronomy course on Coursera. She has asked to attend Astronomy camp at the University of Arizona this coming summer.

The key to preparing students to engage in the democratic process … is to engage them directly in the democratic process. Treat them as responsible, and equal. Allow them to make decisions about their education, and about the environment and society in which they live.

They will naturally become engaged in the larger democratic dialog and processes of our society.