– some notes towards defining the term.


For most of human history we have existed in hunter-gatherer bands. Such bands have typically not had the panoply of so-called democratic institutions and processes – for example courts, written laws, standing armies, voting to elect representatives, etc. Democratic education needs to be based on the more natural processes of living that we humans need rather than how democracy has evolved at the macro political level. Democratic education does not imply replicating national processes at the local level.


Macro political processes have evolved more as a way of reducing the centralising and controlling tendencies that came with the agricultural revolution. Such tendencies promoted notions of ownership – of land, of people (in slavery), of women by men. While the development of democracy at the nation state level has reduced such tendencies, in many parts of the world it has not addressed the general problems of centralised control by nation states. For instance many so called democratic countries have attempted to suppress democratic education.


An important facet of democratic education is to provide a voice for all in decision making. This means rejecting representative approaches that were established by nation states in order to exclude ordinary people. Democratic education is not about replicating nation state processes and structures. It has to be emancipatory and liberatory.


Democratic education does not necessarily imply schooling. Schooling that imposes a content curriculum on learners cannot be democratic. Democratic processes can exist in communities that promote learning. Home educating may be democratic if young people are able to decide for themselves what, how, when and where they learn.


Democratic education implies small scale entities so that all participants can be involved. However small scale institutions are not democratic if they impose rules and a content curriculum on learners.


All people can engage in democratic learning processes – it is not restricted to young people or to one social class. Unfortunately colleges and universities rarely tolerate real democratic learning. However people learn all the time in their own communities, in their families and in their friendships. People self manage whether authorities like it or not. What is explicitly taught in the undemocratic classroom is not necessarily learned. And the biggest danger is that people learn dependency on others through the hidden curriculum of the classroom.


Classrooms and lessons were developed to control learners and may have no place at all in democratic education. We know that learning in such modes tends to favour those from middle class class backgrounds. Teaching has grown up as mainly a middle class occupation and can be disconnected from the real needs of working class learners.


The language of the classroom and formal education can exclude learners whose linguistic background is not based in that language. Democratic education must be grounded in a respect for and a response to the varying language backgrounds of learners. Even in seemingly culturally homogenous contexts, the language of families can vary greatly, especially where there are large social class differences.


Democratic education responds to the fact that we become ourselves through relationships. We are social beings. Democratic education is not individualistic and self-centred. We need social arrangements that provide the space for learners to work together in community.


Informal democratic education needs no rules. However where institutions are established rules need to be agreed by all within the community of learners.

Ian Cunningham, Nov 2009
ian at stratdevint.com