Democratic Classrooms For Social Action Essay

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The concept of developing democratic classrooms for social action has been largely influenced by the scholarship of John Dewey. Dewey defined democracy as a way of defining a culture, a way of living together, and a way of communicating. In a democratic society, he thought, education must embrace the personal interest of those involved while at the same time encourage social change. Highlighting qualities of participation, freedom, interest, and social relationships, democratic principles must be a consistent theme within the public schools so that a democratic way of living may become a future reality, Dewey believed. Public schools, then, ought to be places that teach thinking processes rather than focus on memorization and acquisition of compartmentalized skills or facts. They should become miniature communities, helping students to be active members of society, people who understand the importance of both active citizenship and democratic participation.

Because schooling always occurs within a social context, the classroom becomes a place that instills in children ways of becoming part of the social order. Because of this reality, it is important to understand what is being taught both implicitly and explicitly in schools. It is essential to encourage students within schools and classrooms to understand and practice democratic interaction. Democratic schools and classrooms do not happen on a whim, but rather require deliberate and calculated efforts on the part of both administrators and teachers to create opportunities for the democratic ways of acting and engaging for students. To create democratic learning environments that foster social action, it is necessary to promote the structures and the processes that allow for this ideal to emerge from within the school itself. In these spaces, it is imperative that children become part of the curriculum designing, decision making, and planning in every facet of the classroom learning and school-related governance.

By encouraging engagement in a democratic experience, public schooling can avoid becoming a dehumanizing institution that depends on authoritarian structures. Schools that transcend the typical norms and promote the democratic classroom understand that student involvement at all levels of decision making is paramount. Decisions cannot be made solely at an administrative level or even by a teacher working alone in a classroom without the direct participation and inclusion of the students. Every member of the school community should have the opportunity to participate actively in the governing processes inherent to the teaching and learning structure. Furthermore, the searching for the common good must be seen in classrooms where teachers and students alike work together to plan, design, and seek out a curriculum that is relevant, meaningful, and worthwhile.

Public schools ought to be places that allow students the liberation for discovery. Students and teachers need to experience planning together and have opportunities for discussion innate to democratic spaces. Through this shared experience, schools can avoid making decisions that are only democratic in name but not truly in the democratic spirit and instead strive for an enabling climate for all stakeholders to make determinations about what will affect them. When all members of the school community cooperate and collaborate emphasizing structural equity, classrooms may go beyond being humanistic and child-centered, and foster a sort of apprenticeship in a democracy where schools are the incubators for ongoing and future participatory endeavors.

In order to create a climate that honors everybody’s dedication, investment, and participation, classrooms need to offer varying perspectives and access to a plurality of information sources, as well as encourage multiple points of view. With these attributes in place, these learning environments can begin to live up to a democratic ideal. In so doing, members of these classroom communities learn the notion that the dominant group’s knowledge is unidimensional and that a multiplicity of perspectives can and should be both nurtured and embraced. Those desiring to foster democratic schools and classrooms construct environments that realize that their democracy is constructed in their social context and allows both teachers and students to become more alive through investigation, deliberation, and inquiry.

Instead of forcing arbitrary, prescriptive standards into the classroom through preconceived or contrived curricula, the democratic classroom invites teachers as well as the children to ask questions and pose problems so that they may construct meaning from their own lived experiences. Activities in democratic classrooms go beyond functional or cultural literacy practices and engage students to make sense of, interpret, and become readers in their worlds. These classrooms seek to understand power dynamics inherent to society while challenging the status quo. Accordingly, the experiences in these learning environments are ripe with issues, contentions, and problems that are all a part of our real social surround. The lives of the people involved invite and invigorate endless possibilities, defying neutral or benign fact transmission. Those within the classroom and outside the dominant culture are invited to develop their voice and no longer be silenced while digging deeply to discover their milieu in a new light.

The democratic classroom allows a chance for everybody to be heard and goes beyond what outsiders deem important. The questions and curiosities of involved participants guide the classroom inquiry and subsequent learning. These investigations become essential parts of what is studied in the classroom. As students discard commonplace assumptions that they are merely consumers and recipients of other people’s knowledge, they gain power to pursue information revolving around what they believe to be relevant and essential. When teachers and school administrators bring democratic ideals into a classroom, the students authenticate the community concept because everyone is allowed to experience an education that is enabling.

When provided the chance, students search for meaning within their own lives. They want to work to make changes to transform themselves, their learning environments, and their communities because they are the best interpreters of their social worlds. Democratic schools can become an apparatus for students seeking to better their lives and the lives of others through forms of social action as part of the classroom curriculum. A democratic curriculum promotes more socially responsive citizens because the freedom that exists within the classroom can be replicated and transferred to the social environment in which they live. Students empowered in these sorts of classrooms understand that they are able to be agents of change even as young citizens.

Teachers who stimulate their students to become involved in issues of social action are supporting them to learn the skills and values of participatory democracy. These teachers avoid being shackled into mediocrity by being forced to standardize their teaching and forego the practical philosophizing and imaging that give teaching its strength and fulfillment. With facilitating teachers, students engaged in meaningful and worthwhile curricula learn to reach group decisions that include minority and dissenting opinions; make action plans that take into account legal issues, social norms, and public relations; prepare materials to articulate issues to each other, peers, and the general public; petition, lobby, and work to influence appropriate governmental agencies and legislative bodies; speak and engage with television, radio, print, and Internet media; make public testimony; and negotiate conflict that emerges at each of the preceding levels. To this end, developing democratic schools and classrooms provides a means for induction into the processes of social action, civic participation, and democratic living.


  1. Apple, M. W. (1993). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age. New York: Routledge.
  2. Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (Eds.). (2007). Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  3. Ayers, W. C. (2004). Teaching toward freedom: Moral commitment and ethical action in the classroom. Boston: Beacon Press.
  4. Beane, J. A. (2005). A reason to teach: Creating classrooms of dignity and hope. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  5. Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press. How It Works
  6. Freire, A. M. A., & Macedo, D. (Eds.). (2001). The Paulo Freire reader. New York: Continuum.
  7. Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury.

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