Students at democratic schools are given control and responsibility over how they use their own time.This is simply respect for their autonomy. But one could also think of it as training for one of the biggest challenges of our age. More than ever, we are bombarded with choices from all directions. This is no secret. However, of all approaches to education, only radically democratic schools (like Sudbury schools) seriously address the issue.
Traditional schools control students’ time almost completely. Their intention is to make sure a well-designed curriculum is delivered fully to all students within the time available — an admirable goal, if we make believe a curriculum could possibly be relevant to an unknown future, when it so often seems more appropriate to some point about ten years in the past.
In alternative education, two very big, old names are Waldorf and Montessori. Waldorf schools have a different kind of curriculum to that found in traditional schools; otherwise they follow the same basic principle: manage students’ time for them to make sure you get your content across to all of them within the allotted time. Montessori schools take a somewhat different approach: they allow the students to manage their own time, but the environment in which they are placed is filled with covert curriculum in the form of specially prepared materials which give lessons in different areas. Of course, the adults exert effort to make sure all children can easily access the materials. The Montessori approach still stems from the basic formula behind traditional schools and Waldorf schools alike: the adults are responsible for certain (adult-created or -selected) content getting to the students; the difference is the way the adults achieve this.
But what are we preparing students for? As soon as the school years are over, things are very different. You set your own priorities. You decide what content you want or need in your life. Difficulties arise on the way to what you want, and it’s up to you to find out how it can be done or find your own way of doing it. Traditional schools and traditional alternative schools like the Montessori and Waldorf types remove these challenges by solving them for the student: prioritizing ideals (“work” before play), choosing content (curriculum, “materials”), overcoming difficulties (“removing obstacles”) or flat-out providing solutions. They protect students from true challenges rather than allowing them to deal with them, get comfortable with them, and get good at overcoming them.
A democratic solution
Sudbury schools — exemplifying democratic education in a particularly strong form — follow an entirely different formula: students are responsible for their own education. As a result, adults do not make efforts to introduce certain content for the students’ benefit — it’s not their responsibility. Generally they also won’t try to motivate students towards particular educational content — also not their responsibility. They even don’t secretly work to make sure the path is clear for a student to get what they want — again, not the adults’ responsibility.
As a result, it’s up to the student. As a student, you have to decide what to do with your time. This means setting your own priorities. This means setting your own criteria for success, so you know when you can stop and move on to the next thing. This means learning how to get help when you need it. Ultimately, it means getting practice at having a huge variety of choices in front of you and being the one who has to choose. Ultimately, that is what many adults today have a hard time with. Ultimately, no school but a democratic school can prepare you for it.