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Elementary Democracy: Consensus classrooms

Elementary school children in 75 schools in 63 U.S. cities have set up their own classroom rules using what's called The Responsive Classroom approach. Since they make the rules, the children seem eager to stick to them -- and so discipline problems go down. In each class, the children start each school year with a freewheeling discussion of their hopes and dreams for the year ahead. Their teacher asks them what rules would help these hopes come true. Brainstorming produces a long list, which their teacher helps boil down to three or four positively-framed rules. In schools where the approach is being used school-wide (there are 17 now), teachers together play-act as unruly students, for their assembled youngsters -- who quickly point out the problems with the teachers' behavior: running, not paying attention to safety, not lining up properly. Watching from the outside what happens when their agreements are broken, the children learn that these agreements are significant and mean something. The results of the approach are environments in which children are cooperative, responsible, empathetic, and calmer and more supportive of one another, basically enabled to manage themselves, freeing their teachers to teach curriculum. Creating and practicing classroom rules is as much a part of education for a democracy as science and social studies.

In her "consensus classrooms," teacher Linda Sartor went even further. All major classroom decisions which she previously made, were made by consensus of all her students and her. They even decided what to do for homework and what to study to fulfill established curriculum requirements in the classroom time mandated for each subject. Although some decisions have been long and hard in the making, "once a decision is made that everyone agrees to," says Sartor, "there is 100% participation with no opposition draining energy from the activity."

COMMENTARY: One hallmark of a democratic culture is that people don't take social rules and activities for granted. Democratic citizens know that rules and much of public life arise from democratic process and popular involvement -- or at least they know this should be the case.
Since (from a co-intelligent perspective) people co-create their shared social environment -- whether they know it or not -- it helps to do this co-creation consciously. Democracy institutionalizes the process. Children raised in Responsive (or consensus) Classrooms would probably be less likely to accept arbitrary authority -- while at the same time being more agreeable to legitimate democratic authority. I find the fact that this is happening in elementary grades very exciting. What would it be like if integrated training in (not for) democratic citizenship were part of all grades, with students taking increasing responsibility for co-creating their educational communities as they mature? What would it be like if they learned how to operate in councils and conferences to wrestle with thorny school and educational issues? What would these young people be like when the grew up to be adult citizens? What would their communities be like? How would they change the world?



The Responsive Classroom, Northeast Foundation for Children (413) 772-2066.