What is (and isn’t) a democratic school?

The following post highlights the Fairhaven School in Maryland, a democratic school that offers young people the time and space to learn in a self-directed way. A democratic school is a school where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning, and for the school community. At such a school, students choose their own activities and associate with whom they please. If courses are offered, students are always free to take them or not. Most such schools accept students across a wide range of ages (commonly age four through the late teens) and do not segregate students by age, so that students can learn from interacting with others who are older and younger than themselves. To learn more about democratic schools–including some in your local area–check out the Democratic Schools section of the Alternatives To School site.


image_0002by Romey Pittman, co-founder of the Fairhaven School

After hearing a short explanation of our school’s philosophy, many people understandably try to link it with something already familiar to them. The most frequently mentioned “so-you’re-sort of-likes” are listed below. We have tried to be fair but clear in distinguishing ourselves from other philosophies. However, all the subtleties of these educational models are not laid out and comparisons are not made from every angle. We hope that the explanations below serve to clarify what the Sudbury model is and is not really about.

 OK, So You’re Sort of Like —

— A Montessori School?

There are some ways in which the Sudbury model is similar to the Montessori approach. Children in both settings are allowed more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves than in most other schools. Both models also hold the basic assumption that children are naturally curious and don’t need to be forced to learn.

But Montessori children may choose only between the specific options presented by the teacher, not from the full array of activities which life itself presents. Montessori educators believe that all children learn according to specific patterns and sequences. They base classroom activities on the model’s assumptions about what is “developmentally appropriate” for each age group, and restrict access to certain activities if earlier activities in the preplanned sequence have not been completed. The Sudbury model makes no assumptions about how individual children will learn at any age. There is no expectation that one learn multiplication before negative numbers or how to draw a circle before a square. Interest is the only criterion for engaging in any activity, and satisfaction the only evaluation of success.

— A Waldorf School?

Like Waldorf Schools, Sudbury schools care about the whole child. We are not only interested in academic success, but in the happiness and full human potential of each individual. Like Waldorf schools, we do not push children to read early, as traditional schools do. Both approaches value play, “deep” (intensely involved) play, in particular, as crucial to the development of children’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves, indeed as the fundamental “work” of children. We both respect the intuitive wisdom of children, and take their world views and interests quite seriously.

But the Sudbury model espouses no particular path of spiritual or emotional growth. Rather than listening to children in order to better guide them, we listen to them to respond to their self-determined needs. Unlike Waldorf education, we have no predetermined curriculum. We trust children to make their own mistakes, work though their own problems, and come to their own solutions, with help, when it’s needed, but without the assumption that we know the best outcome. Waldorf educators endeavor to move children, and society in general, in a particular direction, and seek to set up an environment that fosters such social transformation. By contrast, Sudbury schools seek to create an environment where children can recognize and pursue their own agenda. Children and adults together assess and modify the culture of the school through the School Meeting. The democratic process in a Sudbury school can be loud and contentious; it involves special interest groups politicking, voters making judgements, defendants being sentenced. It is “real” and not necessarily “enlightened” (although always respectful). The Sudbury model simply aims to give children access to the full complexity of life, and the curiosity, confidence, and competence to participate in — and perhaps to change — society according to their own interests, experience, knowledge, and goals.

— A Progressive School?

Sudbury schools believe, as progressive school reformers do, that traditional schooling is not working. Both identify authoritarian teaching and administration as problems, and seek to reduce the stresses students experience in being coerced into learning and evaluated by “objective” testing. But the Sudbury model also rejects the notion that the alternative to authoritarianism is permissiveness — kind teachers giving kids second and third chances to shape up, trying to prevent any unhappiness, and bending over backwards to “make learning fun,” getting children to learn without them noticing they are learning. When kids are treated permissively they do not learn personal responsibility for their actions.

Adults in progressive schools retain the authority to grant or deny that second chance, to step in to resolve disputes, to establish the rules of conduct in their schools. There can be an illusion of freedom or democratic decision-making in progressive school, but if kids make poor decisions, adults always retain the power to step in and solve the problem for them. In the context of learning, progressive schools often try to have the curriculum follow students’ interests. But the effect of teaching to a child’s interests is, as Daniel Greenberg has argued, like a parent waiting for a child to open her mouth to speak before popping in the medicine the parent wants to give her. Children who show an interest in playing Cowboys and Indians for a few hours, might be subject to six weeks worth of projects about Native Americans, regardless of whether their interest is sustained or not. The child administered medicine in such a manner may learn never to open her mouth around a parent with a spoon; the student administered education in such a manner may learn not to show interest, at least in school. Learning something new can be hard work, and children are quite capable of hard work — when they are working on something they want to do. When a student has a serious interest, there is no stopping her, and “making it fun” is often an intolerable distraction. When a student has an interest, we believe she should be allowed to pursue it only as far as she feels necessary. She may return to an important idea later, to deepen her interest, but forcing or manipulating her to deepen it will only serve to lessen her curiosity and sense of self-determination. Some progressive schools offer an array of courses, but do not require attendance. Sudbury schools do not have standard offerings, because learning to pursue one’s own agenda can be challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. We think boredom is a valuable opportunity to make discoveries about one’s self. It is often easier to sit in classes, be entertained (maybe not as well as TV entertains, but still better than nothing), and avoid parental pressure, than it is to schedule one’s own life, wrestle with one’s own questions, learn how to seek the answers, and master one’s own destiny.

— Homeschooling?

There is a particular philosophy of homeschooling, often referred to as “unschooling,” which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model. John Holt was its best known proponent, and his writings have been invaluable to us in helping to explain just how learning can happen without teaching, and why on earth a child might choose to learn arithmetic or some other supposedly dreadful subject. Unschoolers believe, as we do, that children are born curious about the world and eager to succeed in life and that kids learn best through experience and experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think. In the words of John Holt: “Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. . . They include time, freedom, and a lack of pressure.” But unschoolers, for the most part, see the family environment as the best place for children to grow, while the Sudbury model believes that, as the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family. In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional baggage that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school — the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example. In most homeschooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child’s education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child.

— Student Governments in Traditional Schools?

Sudbury School Meetings are similar to student governments only in that they are composed of students and operate by majority rule.

But the School Meeting is a participatory democracy, where every student and staff member has the option of a direct vote in every decision made. Student governments are representative — students are chosen to represent the larger student body. More importantly, student governments are hardly ever given real power over substantive issues. Elected positions serve primarily as symbols of status, popularity, and “leadership potential” for college admissions purposes.

The School Meeting decides who will be staff each year, how tuition will be spent, what each and every rule of the school will be, and who will be suspended or expelled for violation of those rules. Staff members are involved on an equal footing, arguing their positions with gusto. But they are also equally bound to the rules of the school. As a free majority, students experience real control over their lives at school, and real consequences if they fail to meet the responsibilities such control requires of them. That kind of government brings a community identity and sense of individual empowerment no token school government could hope to achieve.

To learn more about the Fairhaven School, please visit their website: http://www.fairhavenschool.com/



  1. I appreciate the intent of this post, but I’m afraid it has mis-characterized unschooling in order to distinguish it from democratic schools. In my experience, most unschoolers do NOT believe that children learn best only in the family environment; we also believe that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and we are active in our communities, in sports, in the arts, in citizen science, community service, political engagement, in local businesses, and often in large, diverse homeschooling organizations. Unschoolers often engage in group projects and activities which necessitate tolerating diversity of opinion, resolving conflicts, speaking out against inappropriate behavior, and negotiating creative processes in a group context without adult involvement or interference. As one example, our kids and their friends have produced many, many plays and films where groups of children have jointly written scripts, designed costumes and scenery, staged, directed, acted, and, (in the case of filmmaking) shot, edited and scored original projects, resolving creative differences of opinion and allowing each participant to make creative contributions along the way, all without adult involvement of any kind (except as audience!) Our homeschooling groups have included members of diverse races, religions, ethnicities, income levels, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and educational philosophies; our kids have had to get along with everyone from evangelical Christian homeschoolers who are not allowed to read Harry Potter to socialist / anarchist homeschoolers who are not allowed to go on the field trip to the local police station (and everything in between!)

    I completely support the Sudbury School model, and there is no question in my mind that for many children and families it offers positive qualities that no other option provides. Depending on the parents’ work situation, on the parents’ and children’s temperaments, and on the unique interaction between child and adult personalities and preferences in each family, a democratic school may absolutely be the best choice for your family and your child. But it is not necessary to mis-characterize unschooling in order to arrive at this conclusion. As Peter Gray’s research points out, human beings have evolved to live in small, multi-generational, mixed-age, biologically related communities — not in isolated nuclear families, and not in schools which segregate children from the adult community. The evolutionarily appropriate option is not available to most of us in the modern era, and we must patch it together as best we can. For some, a democratic school will be the best option; for others, unschooling which takes place both at home and in the wider community will be preferable.

    • Peter Bergson says:

      I am coming late to the party, Carol, as I have been solely focused on a 2-1/2 -year-old project that is just now coming to closure. I want to thank you for your response to Romey Pittman’s piece which I also think is a generally positive contribution to the discussion about variations to traditional, compulsory schooling. At the same time, I have always thought, since my first reading of his paper at the open house of a new democratic school a couple of years ago, that representatives of all of the other options that are contrasted to democratic schools would likely disagree with at least some of the characterizations made. Your response is a case in point and, in my opinion, more accurately describes unschooling. It would advance the cause of self-directed/self-determined education, I think, if representatives of the other groups did the same.

      Additionally, in scratching beneath the surface of what is presented by various democratic schools (through personal visits and through in-depth conversations with graduates and former staff), I have noted that, as seems to be our human nature, we tend to describe our preferred options on the basis of what we wish were true as much as what is full reality. The setting of budgets and the hiring/firing of staff are but two of the areas where, predictably, founders carry a lot more weight than four year olds (or even teens), and well they should, in my opinion, lest we suggest that there is no real value to experience and expertise. And sometimes these positions are abused, which really makes a mockery of the democratic process. (I realize that this happens at a national political level as well; my point is not to expect perfection, only accuracy in reporting.)

      Similarly, I have sat in on the Judicial Committee meetings at two Sudbury schools and in both cases witnessed the very same kind of adult-directed resolution that has been negatively presented as the methods used by good progressive schools. Again, I see this as a good thing: the offering of kind, wise input from elders who have a broader and deeper perspective than they did when they were forty years younger. This is not to say that the youth “vote” should not be included in the decision-making–quite the contrary–only to suggest that the democratic school option is not the pure one-person, one-vote process that it is presented as, nor is the adult-facilitated alternative necessarily the autocratic one that is used for contrast.

      The bottom line for me is, What is the reality of a situation, and how is it experienced by its participants? Let us support all efforts to help people meet their needs and recognize, as you suggest, Carol, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, because of variations in personal taste, and because no “solution” lives up to its ideal.

  2. Thank you, Romey, for explaining these distinctions so clearly. I hope this post is spread widely, as so many people have yet to learn how democratic schools differ from the other models that use some of the same language. -Peter

  3. Thanks for this excellent post. I’ll be sharing it!

Speak Your Mind