The Exercise of Freedom

Reviewed by Gurveen Kaur

Democratic Schools – Lessons from the Chalk Face, edited by Michael W. Apple and James A. Beane, is an exciting book. It is a story of teachers who refuse to give up or submit to an irrelevant curriculum or an unthinking, inflexible system and instead set out to make learning in their schools an educational and meaningful experience for their students and themselves.

Democratic Schools features stories from elementary, secondary and a vocational school where certain committed teachers strive to keep the educational process alive. Through concrete examples, we are led to understand what exciting educational projects can be taken up within schools and how education can be made meaningful. It celebrates the efforts of committed educators, within the formal system, who refused to accept defeat and believed enough in the educational process and in their students so as not to get bogged down by what a predetermined curriculum declares must be done. They struck out boldly instead to find out what ought to be done. These teachers did not accept the limitations of their situation but addressed them imaginatively and with determination.

This book comes as a refreshing change. At a time when few look at teaching as a profession worthy of choice and teachers view teaching as a punishment, the book actually makes teaching seem an exciting option. It will equally motivate teachers into transforming their classes and motivate others to view teaching as a career option. The book contains ideas that would appeal even to experienced educators.

Democratic Schools does other things. It correctly points out that if a society is really committed to the ideals of democracy then it must also realise that democratic processes can only be learnt by living them – not merely hearing about them. In which case schools that champion the cause of education must allow students to have a say in what they study and in their evaluation. Likewise, teachers must be allowed to decide the curriculum in consultation with students and not be expected to unthinkingly implement orders from above. The main justification for education is raising responsible and free citizens and this can only be learnt through an exercise of freedom. The book shows clearly what a big change this makes to education within the classroom when the students and teachers evolve the syllabus together and decide what they find relevant and meaningful.

It clarifies the difference between progressive and democratic schools. Both progressive and democratic schools believe that each individual should be recognised for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity – these elements of progressive education have been termed ‘child-centered’ education. The difference is that progressive schools make provisions for a child centered education while democratic schools go further in moving towards a more participative decision making regarding the educational curriculum. The other point of difference is that while progressive schools would work also towards the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, democratic schools go further in committing and ensuring a more egalitarian access, process and outcome in their schools.

It makes a telling point against the general obsession with grades, percentages/percentiles, when quality in education is more a matter of the processes of education and the quality of experiences of the student/learner. Instead of an administrative and outsider approach demanding accountability in measurable terms, it shifts focus to an insider, i.e., learner-teacher understanding of what constitutes quality in education – that is, a shift from managerialism to letting us into an educator and learner’s perspective.

This book could not have come at a more appropriate time. Whilst most people unquestioningly follow the dominant model of education, more and more thinking people today are confused: to school or not to school their children. It is of no help to them that the educational dialogue today has broken down with people polarised into two camps: those that believe in compulsory universal elementary education and those that believe that is nothing but compulsory mis-education for all. Whilst most people in India would think it a joke if one spoke against compulsory schooling because of the current success of the universal elementary education movement, the home-schooling movement is making serious inroads and gaining momentum not just in the US and UK but in India as well.

Democratic Schools helps make sense of the debate by accepting neither side uncritically, while admitting to the valid points of both camps. On the one hand, Democratic Schools admits the point that the anti-school and/or home-schooling movement makes about mainstream schools, that they are largely places of irrelevant learning, pointless drudgery and therefore a colossal waste of time, energy, money and resources. On the other hand, through their choice of stories the authors demonstrate how schools need not be places of irrelevant and pointless learning and can provide educational experiences.

There are several concepts and issues that become clear with a thorough reading of the book. People with different interests can read the book in their own way and at different levels. It is for these reasons that Democratic Schools deserves a place amongst the must-read books of education.

It would be inappropriate to end without acknowledging the effort of Eklavya in bringing out an easily affordable Indian edition of this book. We can express our appreciation best by recommending and presenting this modestly priced book to as many parents, teachers, government officials as possible to help bring about a positive attitude change in the schools across our nation.

Gurveen Kaur works with Centre for Learning, Secunderabad.

Democratic Schools
Lessons from the chalk face
Edited by Michael W. Apple & James A. Beane
Cover illustration and design: Anita Verma
Published by: Eklavya
Pages 144, Price: Rs 110/-

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