In 1779, Thomas Jefferson “charged that public schools should be considered a means for educating students about democratic citizenship” (Pass, 2007, p. 75). Educational philosopher John Dewey echoes this idea when referring to early childhood settings as training grounds for democracy (Goss, 2009; Wisneski, 2007). Including social studies in American public school curriculum educates children about democratic citizenship, but Dewey proposes that children live principles of democracy in their daily school community (Pass, 2007; Schultz & Oyler, 2006; Wisneski, 2007). Gartrell (2006), Goss (2009), Pass (2007), Salopek (2011), Schultz & Oyler (2006), and Wisneski (2007) are teachers and researchers who document ways they create these democratic communities in schools, however children in the United States are entering democratic society unable “to make meaningful contributions” (Pass, 2007, p. 87). Internationally, Ministries of Education in some countries require preschool children to be involved in and taught democratic practices (Moss, 2007). Due to school communities in the United States teaching children to silently obey and conform to adult authority, principles of democracy are not always experienced (Pass, 2007; Wisneski, 2007).
The trend toward authoritarian management in American schools may be due in part to lack of time, standardized testing, or not knowing how best to exact adult authority (Moss, 2007; Schultz & Oyler, 2006; Tzuo & Chen, 2011). Moss (2007) writes about democratic processes taking time and bringing conflict that can threaten equality. Many authors also write how taking time to include children in democratic decision making actually frees teachers from constant rule enforcement and allots more time to meaningful instruction and learning experiences (Gartrell, 2012b; Pass, 2007). Regarding complaints of standardized testing, Schultz & Oyler (2006) go against norms and recognize children as “agents [who] create and re-create the social institutions in which they live, by acting and making choices within the constraints they face” (Valentine, 2009, p. 350). They choose to engage children in an integrated social action project in which the children lead a campaign to bring about a promised remodel of their school building.
Being intentional about creating democratic opportunities is necessary (Moss, 2007). United States educator Gartrell (2012a) gives guidance to teachers about bringing democratic principles and practice into early childhood settings. For instance, from democratic practice with school children come critical reflection, questioning, intelligent thinking, and creative problem solving—abilities needed “to be productive citizens” (Gartrell, 2012a, p. 78). Democracy in the classroom does not silence adult authority, rather teachers “exact authority for purposes of facilitation, freedom of intelligence, empowerment, equity, and reciprocation” (Tzuo & Chen, 2011, p. 2). Moss (2007) describes classroom democracy as “a means by which children and adults can participate with others in shaping decisions affecting themselves, groups of which they are members and the wider society”—one that “offers the best environment for the production of new thinking and new practice” (p. 4). Research shows that when teachers exact authority as facilitators, mentors, negotiators, and inquirers with children democratic environments become authentic (Schultz & Oyler, 2006; Wisneski, 2007). In her study of community in a U.S. third-grade classroom, Wisneski (2007) writes:
classroom community can become more than practice and procedure, more than a veneer of ease and comfort, more than a definitive answer to build a better society, but the beginning of a search for a multitude of possibilities of living in a larger diverse democratic community. (p. 55)
Democracy in classrooms happens when teachers include children in making decisions and give them the “opportunity to act independently or to demonstrate that they can behave ‘responsibly’” (Smith, 2009, p. 258). Actively engaging children in classroom community is found in Dewey’s description of school being “a form of community life” and curriculum “a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (Wisneski, 2007, p. 18 & 39). When misbehavior happens in the classroom, a democratic community provides the foundation for turning problems into learning experiences (Pass, 2007) and incorporates children’s solutions to problems in the response (Smith, 2009).
Discussing models of youth justice practice, Smith (2009) writes about creating space and opportunities for children to act responsibly, instead of following adult created rules. On the educational front, DeVries & Zan (2003), Pass (2007), Gartrell (2006), Goss (2009), Edwards & Mullis (2003), and Frey & Doyle (2001) all write about different ways to create opportunities for responsible behavior in classrooms. To support democratic thinking, Pass (2007) has her children create behavior contracts in which they consider how they want their classroom to be managed. Other teachers engage children in informal conversations to decide how and what should be studied (Goss, 2009; Schultz & Oyler, 2006; Wisneski, 2007). While for some, democracy comes about through conducting class meetings that provide opportunities for open discussion and collaborative problem solving (Edwards & Mullis, 2003; Frey & Doyle, 2001; Gartrell, 2006).
Collaborative class meetings with children to create guidelines for behavior can be powerful in building their autonomy (Gartrell, 2012b; Salopek, 2011). When Goss (2009), a teacher of six and seven year old children, invites her class to make decisions determining their social justice curriculum, they respond with competence and respect. Research has shown that enforcing adult created rules on children encourages children’s heteronomy and dependence rather than their autonomy and ability to act independently (Gartrell, 2012b; Kamii, 1980). Kamii (1980) defines autonomy as the ability to govern oneself. Wisneski (2007) sees children’s resistance to learning melt away when they are invited to be “autonomous, active participants” in their school experience (p. 52). Contrary to concerns of losing control when engaging children in open discussion, teachers who share authority with children actually gain more authority because children feel respected and therefore behave respectfully (DeVries & Zan, 2003; Schultz & Oyler, 2006). When children participate in generating solutions to problems, schools become “training grounds for civic involvement” and “offer opportunities for open discussion” (Pass, 2007, p. 77). Whatever forum brings democracy to a classroom, relationships between teachers and children influence the success of democratic management (Schultz & Oyler, 2006; Wisneski, 2007). Valuing different perspectives brought to a classroom community by children and adults builds relationships in which authority can be shared (Valentine, 2011).
While the teacher in Schultz & Oyler’s (2006) study follows the children’s desires, he also stays in charge during the entire project. Being aware of class dynamics and responsible for getting every child involved, this teacher uses his authority to keep children on track, while allowing them to hold ownership of the content and process of their experience (Schultz & Oyler, 2006). Teachers can share their authority with children in appropriate ways, always eager to humbly learn from children’s perspectives (Fyfe, 1998; Schultz & Oyler, 2006; Tzuo & Chen, 2011). Tzuo & Chen (2011) describe five purposes of teacher authority: “1) facilitating children’s learning, 2) fostering children’s freedom of intelligence, 3) empowerment of every child, 4) equity in classroom, and 5) reciprocity among peers” (p. 7). Each of these forms of authority are seen in the work of current teacher researchers (Gartrell, 2006; Goss, 2009; Pass, 2007; Schultz & Oyler, 2006; Wisneski, 2007). Rather than reducing teaching to “law enforcement” with rules, creating guidelines with children includes them as responsible community participants (Gartrell, 2012b, p. 57).
Children should not be required to be like adults (Valentine, 2011). Instead, teachers must recognize children as agents who are able to self-govern and “plan (rather than be imposed by) with teachers the constructive application of autonomy” (Tzuo & Chen, 2011, p. 7). Instead of being powerless and dependent, children’s roles become those of “partners in a new relationship with adults involving reciprocal responsibilities (Wisneski, 2007, p. 55). Children are often a subordinated group, “rearranging social circumstances to ensure that subordinated groups also have environments that suit their needs would mean that the agency of those groups could be better exercised” (Valentine, 2011, p. 351). For instance, if children share a solution to a problem during a class meeting, the teacher—seeing flaws in the children’s logic—still supports their application of the solution in order to learn for themselves why an idea does not work and what might be done differently (Edwards & Mullis, 2003).
“Democratic life skills are social-emotional capacities that children need to be productive citizens and healthy individuals in a modern, diverse society” (Gartrell, 2012a, p. 78). When considering public education, thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey recognize education’s role in “providing the foundation for inclusive democratic participation” (Wisneski, 2007, p. 37). Goss (2009) believes “we must give students frequent opportunities within the curriculum to discuss and refine their ability to empathize and their thinking about fairness” (p. 13). Empathy, creative problem solving, and autonomy are qualities needed to make meaningful contributions to a community (Fifield, 2012; Gartrell, 2012a; Goss, 2009; Kamii, 1980). Edwards & Mullis (2003) point out that these qualities nurtured during classroom meetings extend to other parts of a child’s experience, as well. Finally, when engaging children in democratic class meetings, teachers must “view children as competent social actors” (Vandenbroeck, 2006, p. 71). Providing opportunities for children’s autonomous engagement melts away resistance and fosters responsible, independent thinkers (Wisneski, 2007). Through a paradigm shift in educational practices, children may become meaningful contributors to our democratic society.
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