Just on the eve of September 1st, various stories relating to school come involuntarily to my mind. Just the other day, I remembered my encounter with a phenomenon known as the “democratic school.” It was in Israel, many years ago. I was at a seminar dedicated to informal education training for people working in Jewish programming, and one day we had a field trip. We had the ability to choose one of several offered excursions, all of them with a professional educational factor, and, by chance – as I honestly have no memory of why I made my choice not knowing anything about these education systems – I found myself on a bus going to a mysterious democratic school. Now, I must note that ever since then I have told all my students at madrich schools and educational seminars all about this experience.
The democratic school system is based on the principles of a democratic state: that being the separation of powers, equality of all before the law, and the right to choose. All this is realized within the walls of the school. Well, also at the center of all this is mankind, for the main principle underlying everything at these schools is humanism.
How is this implemented in practice? First, the school has an elected legislative body in the form of a council. This council has all three major parties of the school represented: the students, teachers, and parents. It is this body that makes “laws” that apply to everyone. The school also has various committees with different functions, including a judicial committee. For example, students who are members of the welcoming committee gave us a tour of the school. The most unusual thing about this school is that nothing was considered mandatory! There are no compulsory subjects, no compulsory timetables. You, the teacher, decides what to teach, when to teach, and how deep you wish to dive into the subject. Also, there are no grade levels! Instead, there are several large age groups, but in each course you will find a wide variety of students across different ages. There is a large menu of courses to choose from, and if the students cannot find something they consider important, they can take the initiative to introduce a new subject. Finally, the school fully adheres to a non-judgmental approach, meaning students do not receive standard grades for their work.
When I began to delve more into the topic, I noticed that very often in such schools parents are heavily involved in various processes. When discussing it with my friends with children, I often received negative responses in the realm of “I don’t have time for that.” Nevertheless, I view such involvement as possibly a great benefit to parent-children relationships. Every one of us has spent years of our lives in a school system where we spent most of our day, week and year at the school. Whatever one may feel towards this, school is the center of life for more than a decade of our lives, and parental involvement in school can help integrate the parent by allowing them to speak the same language and on the same topics.
I remember well how we, as visitors, bombarded the students with questions, trying to find the catch. We, people who call ourselves humanistic and Jewish educators, could not believe that a democratic approach objectively works. I suppose that this could be a feature of our coming from a post-Soviet mindset (the seminar I attended included participants from different countries of the former Soviet Union) and a consequence of our education system, which makes it difficult to believe that such freedom within the walls of the school is generally possible.
In some ways we were correct to have such doubt. We should emphasize that this system, like any other, is not actually suitable for everyone, and I know children who were uncomfortable with this non-judgemental approach. It is important to note that we should not elevate any system as objectively best or to hang upon labels, which can be useful and dangerous. Rather, it is important to listen to each student and seek a solution that works for them.
I remember all the doubts we had, which we shared by asking questions to the students who received us. I think each of these doubts could be explored in their own articles on education. For example, it is hard to believe that students would come to lessons if they know that they have the opportunity to come and receive no punishment. Just this one concern has pushed me to a deeper study on the issue of motivation in education, one that I am still digging and digging deeper into.
The model for democratic schools originated in England, but they are now found almost all over the world. The oldest democratic school in Israel is located in the city of Hadera and was opened in 1987 by Jacob Hecht. The school in Hadera is one of the most famous in the world, alongside the American Sudbury Valley school and British Summer Hill school. I’ve not yet been able to visit the Hadera school yet, but I will definitely do so as soon as the opportunity arises.
All of these schools are different from one another. Schools located in different countries build different legislative frameworks for themselves. This is why democratic schools are not as popular in Russia, and are slightly modified compared to their foreign counterparts. However, in my opinion, diversity is powerful because it expands the field of choice for everyone: parents looking for a new school for a child, teachers who want to work in such a system, and researchers or educators looking for inspiration, new forms and new vectors.