Thursday, September 04, 2014

Deep Democracy

As our daughter Josephine approached school age we seriously considered homeschooling. Our three years of cooperative preschool had been wonderful, but as we stood at the threshold of kindergarten, I had a choice to make. Either I was going to send her off to school, with me staying behind to teach cooperative preschool or she was going to "stay home" with me and we would continue our educational journey shoulder-to-shoulder. I'd not yet become as radicalized about education as I am today, but even knowing what I know now, I'd have made the same decision.

We were, blessedly, a one-income family, which meant we were in a position to make this sort of choice. We had begun preschool when she was two, not out of a need for childcare, but rather because it was clear that Josephine had a stronger social drive than my own. Whereas I might be happy to spend a day puttering around the house, she insisted that we get out and "do something," even as a toddler, and for her, that meant finding some other kids with which to play. I know now that this was her educational instinct.

Learning, true learning, can really only take place in the context of others, or as author Alfie Kohn writes, "marinated in community." As a fundamentally introverted person, the chore of daily cobbling together a child-centric social life for my daughter and me, making arrangements to meet people here or there, signing up for classes, and organizing outings began to weigh on me. The idea of a place to regularly go, where we would find people we recognized, where we could build community together, began to appeal to me because I knew it would appeal to Josephine while relieving me of that weight of social organizing. Not that long ago, during my own childhood, extended families and more closely-knit neighborhoods largely filled this role, but we live in a world in which it is no longer acceptable (and in some places even illegal) to simply send one's child outside to play, for hours on end, with the children they find there. 

It still makes me sad to know that Josephine never had the experience of walking up and down the street knocking on doors to ask if Pheobe or Johnny can "come out to play," but our cooperative preschool, with its emphasis on play and community was a happy alternative, and she dug right in, every day, working, working, working on her relationships with the children and adults she found there. For our family, the idea of homeschooling or unschooling, would have been a kind of cruelty to both Josephine, who to this day is driven to get out there and mix it up with the other people, and me, who would spend my days, if left to my own devices, puttering in my jammies.

In other words, I never felt either of us needed school for the "academic" learning -- I'd long ago witnessed that literacy and numeracy and the absorption of scientific and other facts emerged as she was ready for them -- but rather for the opportunity to engage in community. This is why I've never once, in her 12 years of "real" school, asked a teacher a question about her grades, test scores, or transcript. I've listened to teachers tell me about these things, but when it came my turn to talk, I've always asked some version of the questions, "How does she treat her friends?" and "How do they treat her?" This is why we send her to school.

There is so much talk about school "reform," from all points of view, but as author Ken Robinson writes, we would be better served to be talking about "transformation." For many, this transformation involves getting rid of schools altogether, and maybe they're right. But from where I sit we will still need something like schools to replace them: places where children of all ages can come together and practice the skills of building community, to develop the habits of cooperation, to work with others, to be sociable, and to learn to walk the balance between personal freedom and honoring the agreements we make with one another. In other words, to practice the skills and habits of what I think of as deep democracy.

The children at Woodland Park make their own rules, by consensus. Several years ago, my friend Henry was walking around the classroom with his hands over his head, palms forward, wiggling his fingers rapidly. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied, "I'm the police." His hands were the flashing patrol car lights.

I asked, "Oh, so you're giving people tickets and stuff?"

"No," he answered, "I'm reminding them when they're breaking the rules." And sure enough, he was siddling up to his classmates and saying things like, "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no running inside," and "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no hitting." And his friends were thanking him. This is what I mean by deep democracy: not the superficial winner-take-all horse race of modern electoral politics, but the notion that free and equal humans are fully capable of self-governance, of making agreements with one another, then abiding by them. That really is the core of community: our agreements are sacred.

Children naturally understand deep democracy. Most adults have unlearned it even while we honestly believe we are the beacons of fairness. For instance, our playground has only two swings over which there are regular debates. When adults get involved the solution is invariably some version of enforced turn-taking, usually with a timer set to strictly limit each child's turn in the name of "fairness," leaving no one entirely satisfied. When children are left to their own devices, however, as we were as children, when not imposed from on high, our agreements, more often than not, result in mutual satisfaction.

Sometimes the children will decide to share the swing, cramming two, three or four kids onto a single seat. Indeed, at Woodland Park, this solution has evolved into hanging a plank of wood between the two swings, creating a kind of bench swing upon which as many as a dozen kids can swing at once.

Sometimes it turns into a game in which two children will alternate on their own, counting together to 10 or 20, a solution that fundamentally differs from the adult version in that it's a game they play together rather than one child standing sulkily by as a grown-up keeps an eye on her watch.

Sometimes children push one another, taking on different, but equal roles. And often they come up with complex agreements that become games unto themselves, like the time our 4-5 year olds developed a system by which one had to ask for a turn three times in succession, wording the question precisely each time, or, like a magic lock, it didn't work.

And always, over time and with the freedom to practice, the ethic emerges that when you find someone already using the swing you want, you simply call, "Next!" much the way children call "Shotgun!" to determine who gets to sit beside the driver in the car. This is deep democracy. "Next!" is sacred, so sacred that when the child on the swing is finished, he usually seeks out the rightful next in line, even if he has gone on to other things. 

Deep democracy is what happens when we agree to have a "pinecone fight," as we often did in my youth, all of us knowing without adult commands, that tacit in this agreement is the idea that no one wants to get hurt, so heads and faces are off limits, that one throws more gently at close range, that if someone starts to cry the game is on hold until that cry is over. Adults tend to muck this up by simply banning the game altogether, giving no one a chance to learn anything.

Deep democracy is what happens when the 10-year-old pitcher gently tosses the ball to the five-year-old batter instead of trying to strike him out because the unspoken agreement is to have fun, not win or lose. No one has to tell him to do that if he's had the opportunity to practice the skills and habits of community.

Deep democracy happens when children come together each day, girls and boys, friends and foes, with minimal adult interference and maximal freedom to play.

I commend and admire those of you who have managed this sort of deeply democratic educational experience through homeschooling and unschooling, but for most of us, we need schools, or something like schools. Maybe, before the transformation comes, we will need another word for it. True play-based preschools and democratic free schools, to me, are the best models we currently have for what's possible when the transformation comes. And I've purposefully repeated the words "comes," because it will come, not only because is it the right thing for education and for children, but it is ultimately in the direction of morality. As Martin Luther King famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," which is ultimately what deep democracy is all about.

I invite you to imagine for a moment "schools" in which children are free to discover and pursue their passions while marinated in community. Imagine that transformation, then imagine how all those free and motivated minds will transform our world.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Anonymous said...

I've just recently found your blog and I love it. What a world we could have if we truly wanted it. I wish I had found you when my kids were little.

Kendra said...

Thanks so much for writing this. I used an excerpted version today with some teachers who are thinking about the rights of children. We looked at some old documentation in our center to determine what rights of children we are implicitly recognizing in our pedagogy, and which we're ignoring/forgetting/squashing.

The idea of a timer (Such a precious tool for so many educators and parents) imposing an adults' will on children's natural sense of fairness and cooperation really struck teachers. We also talked about your statement that the kids in your classroom create their own rules and talked about the difference between allowing children to actually come up with their own rules, and playing at it in such a way that we compel children to come up with the "right" rules. We wondered if both a list of shared agreements and timers could be tools that can be used authentically to support children's work and play together, or used mindlessly, habitually to make things convenient or comfortable for adults.

Finally, our infant and toddler teachers always wonder about how to support this kind of autonomy in group care. Two year olds have some of the understandings of fairness and empathy that you describe, but I suggested that in order for the kind of "natural" or spontaneous justice that you describe to occur, children need to spend time in mixed age groups and mixed age play. This is very tricky for us in a center of 8 classrooms that each have children who are all within six months of one another agewise.

Thanks for such a lovely provocation.