Non-coercive Education–Is it possible?

Most successful urban public schools seem to be pretty good at getting students to do what teachers want them to do, and TIS is no exception. We have developed a clear all school behavior plan that is positive in approach, has clear expectations, and defined consequences. In general students behave well and comply. However, they truly have not taken the next step toward inner governance. In a democratic level of behavior, we don’t do the right thing because someone in authority is there making us do it; we do the right thing because it is good for both us and the greater community of which we are part.

We greatly fear for our students who are not able to achieve this final step, especially before high school. There, they will have many choices to make, both behaviorally and academically, that will either keep them on the path to academic and life success or derail them. We feel an urgency about instilling this capability in them.

We sometimes explain the term character to students by using the definition that character is what you do when no one else is looking. Our students are generally great when the teacher, visitor, mentor, or principal is looking, but things can quickly go awry when a responsible adult is not right there “looking.”

Academically, we have the same worries. Sure we can coerce most (or at least many) students to complete their classwork and homework, but to what end? It is coercion, pure and simple. You complete these things because you don’t want the bad grade, or your parents will put you on restriction, or some other bad consequence will result. But where is the joy and interest in learning?

At times it has seemed that our students don’t have any interest in learning anything–or at least anything that is part of the expected curriculum. Yet all children are born with a compelling drive and need to learn. Even newborns actively explore their environment. From the moment they can ambulate, toddlers seem to have a drive to get into everything. A kitchen cabinet filled with pots and pans can be an endless source of exploration and active learning. Toddlers crawl, climb, put everything into their mouth, bang, throw, sniff, examine, and , once they can talk, ask endless questions. All children have this innate impetus to learn.

School seems to wring this joyful exploration our of them. While most kindergartens still are places of exploration and wondering and constructing and experimenting, increasing standards and the accompanying tests are forcing schools to cut down on those kinds of activities in favor of experiences that will produce good test results.

The essence of “lifelong learning” is not in stuffing kids with a lot of content (as the test makers would have us do) but in teaching them the process of learning. No matter what their learning passion, a student should have effective tools for exploring that passion. And, most importantly, they should know how to recognize those passions and how to pursue them.

Before starting the Urban Democratic School, we asked students, “If you could come to school and learn anything you wanted, do anything you wanted, what would you want to do.” They were dumbfounded. Some said they would “do their work,” but when asked “what work would that be?” were unable to give any ideas. Most seemed unable to identify anything at all that they would like to learn about. This is frightening. Has education become so dysfunctional that is literally squeezes the inclination to learn out of children? Is this also a part of their toxic environment, in which electronic entertainment in all its various forms has replaced conversation, creating, pondering, and learning?

What we know from past years, is that our students work very hard to review and prepare for the state tests and THEN THEY ARE DONE. The remainder of the school year is a fruitless exercise in attempted coersion. So we decided to turn this into an opportunity rather than a daily battle and hence the birth of the Urban Democratic School, where students would direct their own learning (within a few broad parameters), teachers would facilitate that learning, and students would create a system of self-governance through the use of democratic principles and processes.

We, as teachers, will document this process and see if we have been successful in rekindling that innate curiousity and desire to learn that we know is lurking inside of each student.


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