At Phoenix Education Trust, we believe democratic education empowers students through giving them ownership of their education and making them active citizens within it.
We work with schools of various sizes and ethos’ who try to apply this in various ways. Not every school can or wants to be a ‘Sudbury’ style school with direct democracy, but even some small adjustments to how you teach can have a massive effect.
Here are some ideas we have developed by working with schools, teachers and pupils alike:
1) Get to know your students at a personal level
This is obviously easier said than done in many cases, due to various factors like class sizes and workloads. However, when you engage with your students on an individual level, they not only feel valued, but they will likely feel respected and want to reciprocate that.
Find out their interests, favourite subjects, areas of interest within your subject or anything else important to them. Bringing these up as they enter or leave the classroom is a great way to engage and make them feel valued.
2) Let students make the classroom rules
Either as a form-group or a subject class, asking students the environment they want to learn in can be important. Letting students decide what is and isn’t acceptable means they can be easily held accountable for breaches, because they were the ones to decide the rules in the first place!
Students may also be more likely to listen to the rules when they haven’t been dictated at them.
3) Ask ‘What do you want to learn today?’
Again, this may not always be possible, but when you’ve got flexibility it’s always a good idea to ask a class what they want to learn and give them options between a few different things. This allows you to be responsive to the mood or needs of a class.
More broadly, this approach allows a class to collectively take ownership on what is important to them.
4) Give your students responsibility
Encouraging leadership is one of the key things we do when we work with students. Outside of the student council, empowering individuals or whole classes with upholding standards, combatting bullying or simply collecting views of their peers can be powerful.
When you trust your students, they will feel like their views matter and this is a great way to make the school environment more of community.
Great examples of student leadership include Corelli College, who have developed a large scale student leadership team.
5) Give students a platform to express themselves
Deliberative space is vital and your role in this should be helping to develop their communication skills. An important part of being an adult or further study is the ability to critically communicate a problem and to find a solution and teachers can play a vital role.
Classroom debates can be an excellent way of achieving this, or spending time discussing the school community, what may be wrong with it and what could be fixed. Help students not only find the problem, but consider the issues that may be behind it.
A classic case tends to be school toilets – rather than just paying for new toilets, get students to consider the reasons why they may be unclean in the first place and get them to consider how they may be able to encourage their peers to take pride in the community.
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