Democratic lessons

Print edition : June 01, 2007

Four case studies that highlight the challenges and potential solutions in school education.

The book under review presents four case studies by four different school educators in the United States, with their experiences. The first one is of a class at the secondary level; the second is an experiment with vocational education; the third one is a case study of fifth graders (10-11 years); and the fourth study was conducted in a middle school (11-14 years). The editors of the book, Michael W. Apple and James A. Beane, have theorised the concept of democracy in schools in their introductory and concluding chapters, creating a background for the case studies. The stories are presented in an honest and simple way. The authors do not promise to solve all the problems a school faces but certainly give a broad overview with suggestions and models to follow.

The narratives explore the conflict between the call for a return to traditional subjects and models of teaching and the conscious resistance to this by people who want to bring a change in society in a democratic way. The authors believe that the examples provided might stimulate other educators to document their stories so that we know what really works.

The first case study talks about the academic programme that stresses intellectual achievement and emphasises the mastery of a limited number of subjects. It advocates learning to reason and to investigate complex issues that require consultation and personal responsibility.

Vocational education has created a dual system in which students from lower-income groups are tracked away from academic courses that prepare students for further education, higher income and white-collar jobs. In the second case study, the faculty at Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have constructed a programme that requires students to make important decisions and integrate academic and vocational knowledge through community-centred projects.

The third study narrates how, despite objections and obstacles, a group of teachers and parents created a two-way bilingual elementary school. This chapter also deals with how the school attempted to involve all parents, not just the most educated and articulate ones, in the work of the school.

In the fourth case, a middle school teacher describes how she and her colleague created a democratic learning community in which the curriculum was collaboratively planned by students and teachers on the basis of questions they had about themselves and the world.

A girl tests a project as preparations were on for the Montessori Centenary Celebrations in Chennai, a file picture. The Montessori model serves the needs of children at various levels of mental and physical ability as they learn in a natural, mixed-age group environment, very much like the society they will live in as adults.-S. THANTHONI

Several parallels can be drawn with respect to the problems in educational practices around the world. The editors point out that this is evident through the discourses in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Both say the same thing: "Our nation and our economy need to be more competitive and schools are failing both nations and its students." The authors reinforce the principle that "schools are not factories, that they must reflect what is best in all of us, and that they must embody not simply the rhetoric but its actual practice". While making a case for democratic schools, the editors bring out the paradoxical state of the political rhetoric about glorifying "local decision-making" and the hesitation in trying to make this model a viable and possible one. The education that is advocated here is not a utilitarian model but one that is all-encompassing, covering people's cultural diversity. It is a dynamic concept calling for continuous examination in the light of changing times. It provides ample evidence to support the argument that even under challenging conditions, democratic process in education is possible and is the right course. Accounts such as these would provide impetus to a larger movement to keep the energy of democracy alive in classrooms.

In the present configuration of the educational system, there seems to be a thrust on marketisation where both the government and parents endorse competition. They exert pressure on schools to respond to market demands at the cost of social justice. This pressure is transferred directly on to publishers who would publish only material that is likely to be approved and purchased by some of the d eciding parties. Thus, in a nation where curriculum tends to be the standardised textbooks, the entire nation basically teaches what sells. This is not far removed from the Indian condition. Therefore, the case studies may be helpful in many ways to understand the problems and to handle the state of affairs.

There have been several such experiments in India too. For instance, the Rishi Valley School, the sainik schools and a number of Montessori schools have also been experimenting with progressive ideas. We have a wide spectrum of schools, from panchayat, municipal, corporation and government schools to elite schools run by well-known institutions. The Montessori movement, which was started in 1907 in Casa dei Bambini in Rome by Dr. Maria Montessori (she was in Chennai during the Second World War), follows a method that is practical for bringing forth the best in young students. This is a model that serves the needs of children of various levels of mental and physical ability as they live and learn in a natural, mixed-age group environment, which is very much like the society they will live in as adults. Not many parents can afford to put their children in such schools nor do all know about the existence of such schools. While one segment of parents are very careful about children's education, illiteracy and poverty keeps another segment away from participation in the construction of the child's future. The real test is when the poorest of the poor also get this kind of education. A well-known fact is that many schools cater only to one segment of society. Admissions, curriculum building, teaching and evaluation methods still need a closer look if democratic and secular education is the target.

The challenges this book tries to highlight are mostly similar to the ones encountered in the Indian situation. However, the hierarchical social system and the high percentage of illiteracy pose challenges to the participatory model advocated here. India's problems are different and complex, it being a pluralistic society. Though American society is plural, its nature of plurality is different. Whatsoever initiatives are taken, success ultimately lies in the change that is brought in the young mind. One needs to remind oneself that one of the features of democracy is what the majority says, who form the majority, and what they want. This journey through democracy should also be seen at this time when globalisation is exerting a major influence on societies.

Democratic Schools: Lessons from the Chalk Face has been translated into several languages. The Indian edition in English is modestly priced by Eklavya, a Bhopal-based non-governmental organisation working in the field of education. It is meant for teachers, academics, policymakers and NGOs.