In recent years, we’ve seen a movement to participate in social change by K-12 students. Whether they are raising money to support a cause, finding solutions to problems in their environment, or actively participating in organizations and government, students are asking to have a hand in making their world better.
But most schools do not have the flexibility to allow students the freedom or time to commit to big ideas. While some require students to perform community service hours or allow certain subjects to do project learning, often the information gathered, lessons learned, never go further than the time allotted.
For example, in a chemistry class students might study the impact of certain chemicals on drinking water. They’ll learn how to identify and test for different chemical solutions and gather data, but often whatever conclusion they come to is the end of the lesson.
But what if they could collaborate with a local college research team or an environmental agency? What if they could present those finding to their local water board? Those tests and results could lead to change not only for them but whole communities.
At a democratic school, students have that freedom. They are also encouraged to pursue big ideas and solve real world problems. Every day they participate in taking responsibility for shaping their school and community rules so that sense of empowerment is already there when a question provokes them to find an answer.
There are three reasons why it’s possible.
First, they have CHOICE.
They can explore and study real-world problems that impact their lives or the lives of people they care about. When students are passionate, they dig deep and dream big. They don’t let obstacles become deterrents to solutions. And that mindset is innate to students who attend democratic schools. With the ability to structure their own schedules and the option to focus solely on one subject, students can move beyond superficial exploration and understanding.
Many of my favorite TedTalks are by kids in other parts of the world where education isn’t formalized, but where issues that we take for granted like clean water, access to food, and electricity are still daily struggles. These kids see problems all around them. Some are courageous enough to find solutions. One of my favorites is Richard Turere who grew up in Kenya and at age 15 created a flashing LED light system that deters lions from getting near villages and livestock without the need to kill them. Simple, effective, and easy to implement.
While our children may not struggle with issues like these, they are no less surrounded by problems. If given the opportunity and time, they often will initiate research, collaborate, and look for solutions. 15-year-old, Param Jaggi got frustrated with the amount of car exhaust he saw leaking from vehicles around him. He invented a filtration system that fits into the muffler and filters 90% of CO2 emissions.
These kids are game changers. And there is nothing special about them except that they had the choice to pursue answers to a problem they were passionate about.
Second, they have SUPPORT and ACCESS
Most problems do not get solved by an individual, the solution may be attributed to a single person, but often they have consulted experts, collaborated with their peers, and created solutions that require existing technology or systems to implement. Many public education systems do not have the budget or flexibility to support more than select groups of students (often those deemed gifted and talented) in individual endeavors and give them access to the people, technology, and tools they need.
However, in a democratic school, every student is supported in their individual endeavors. If the school budget doesn’t have sufficient funds, then students get together to brainstorm a way to find that support whether it is a fundraiser or asking for donations from outside sources.
At Makarios students wanted to create a tech lab. They began with the desire for a 3-D printer, but have since acquired tablets, robots, and other technological tools to increase their learning potential and ability to solve real-world problems.
At a democratic school fellow students and mentors offer support and can collaborate on projects. If no one has an immediate expertise, they have the freedom to seek outside experts and bring them into the school or to allow students to work with experts off-campus.
Beyond people, they have access to information and tools. Again because they aren’t limited to what is on-campus and can collaborate, often students of democratic schools can have hands-on learning experiences that can’t be found on a K-12 campus. A great example is students who work with local businesses. The creativity of students mixed with the expertise of people working in the field often lead to inventive solutions.
Third, but most important, they have a VOICE
Students want to tackle big projects. They want to be part of the solution. But often adults refuse to give them a voice at the table or relegate them to limited roles, like passing out fliers or organizing food donations. And while those are jobs that need doing, they don’t empower students to solve problems.
So how do we effectively give students a voice? By bringing them to the table. Democratic schools have this built-in through school meetings. Students are used to hearing what is going on in their school, asking questions, sharing their opinions, discussing, compromising, and voting whether to adopt or decline changes. Because of this, students are constantly learning and exercising the skills required to be a voice for social change.
Their voices are also supported and given space to be heard. If someone finds a problem or issue they feel needs addressing, they have a place and time to speak up and be heard. This is often where public school kids feel disenfranchised. Go to any campus and just ask “Do you feel heard by your teachers, school administrators, local government officials?” And most will shake their heads. The current generation is finding their voice outside their communities on social media, but in a sea of millions they still often get lost.
Not feeling heard, is one of the contributing issues to the breakdown of community. Without the opportunity to have a voice and contribute, people feel apathetic and disenfranchised, often blaming the system. Nothing I do matters. It is important that we allow students to have and exercise their voice early and often, so they will exercise it later in life as active citizens in their communities.