Creative problem-solving. Communication skills. Leadership skills.
According to a 2015 Bloomberg survey of job recruiters, these are the “less common, more desired” traits that today’s recruiters are looking for in job candidates. Of course, these traits are less common in a society where you’re taught for thirteen years in a top-down approach with limited communication, under the leadership of an adult one hundred percent of the time, doing what you’re told and only what you’re told. In this system, correct answers are even marked wrong if a student uses an alternative method to find it. Where is there room to grow skills like communication, leadership and creative problem-solving in such an environment?
Fortunately, democratic schools offer an alternative.
In regards to creative problem-solving, democratic school students are afforded daily opportunities for informally crafting solutions to various real life problems. In the formal settings of Judicial Committee and School Meeting, students have the opportunity to responsibly participate in problem-solving at the community level.
During Judicial Committee (JC), students hear both sides of conflicts and rule infractions, then collaborate to come up with solutions and reparations for those actions. For example, when a student continues to disrupt assembly despite gentle reminders to listen, JC may decide that the student should sit next to a mentor at the assembly for the rest of the week/month to minimize distraction. The purpose would be to help the student build the habit of being quiet and attentive during assembly. For a student who provokes others, however, JC would need to strategize towards a more creative solution. They might decide that, because the student has been contributing negativity to the school, they should practice an activity that contributes positively to the community. For instance, shoveling and moving a bucket of rocks in the play area to help make the play space safer for all the students. The cases that students resolve during JC rarely ever have cookie-cutter solutions. Rather, students work on their problem-solving skills to craft creative solutions that help solve problems rather than merely being punitive towards peers and staff.
Like JC, School Meeting is a space where students participate in developing unique solutions to unique problems.
It is the place where the school management manual is modified, as needed, and students gain experience in setting and enforcing school policy. Any member of the community may add an issue to the agenda, and the School Meeting (which is optional but always well attended) discusses the issues and offers ideas on possible solutions. For example, at a recent School Meeting, a student brought up the issue of littering. She had picked the “yard” chore which should have been simple; putting away a few toys that were left out. However, the chore was a much larger task than intended when the student discovered trash and wrappers all over the school yard. The management manual has an existing “clean up after yourself” rule, so the School Meeting had to come up with creative solutions so that students would be motivated to pick up their trash when they eat outside. They toyed with the idea of a sign-out sheet in order to bring items outside but decided against it, then decided on purchasing two large outdoor trash bins to put on both sides of the yard to make cleaning up after oneself easier. It was also decided that littering in the yard would result in a $1 fine after the third offense.
“When will I ever use this in real life?”
The problem-solving, communication and leadership skills that students in democratic schools are learning are priceless and simply not possible in traditional education settings. One thing I and many others students constantly asked during my years at public school was, “When will I ever use this in real life?” For democratically schooled students, the problems they’re solving are real life. They learn real life skills by living their real lives in a safe and supportive environment.