Democratic Schooling:
Nurturing Every Child,
Not Just Playing The Odds

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Part 1 of 4

Schools Are A Reproductive Organ

The strategies of organisms that reproduce sexually are easily placed on a continuum between the two extremes of

  • low energy investment in each individual but with a high rate of generating new individuals (i.e. plants and insects)


  • high energy investment in each individual but with a low rate of generating new individuals (i.e. birds and mammals)

They are both objectively successful strategies for biological reproduction since both forms have withstood millions of years of sustained existence.

Sunflowers, for example, are closer to the first strategy.

The sunflower plant invests its reproductive resources in the prodigious production of seeds, but ultimately the parent plant abandons it's offspring to their individual fates.

As a reproductive strategy the gamble is reasonably successful because so many seeds are spread around that even if just a very small percentage succeed then the species continues to survive into the future.

The extreme other end of the spectrum is human reproduction.

We have not only reduced the number of individuals produced, but we have also extended our investments of energy beyond merely producing another physical individual to nurturing each individual for many years to ensure that our cultural and social information are reproduced along with our genetic information.

Consider that schools serve the reproductive function of a society. The continuum of reproductive strategies for today's society is based on transferring various symbol manipulation skills to young people. What are the options for transferring the necessary symbol manipulation skills?

The two basic extremes on the continuum are:

  • investing in the profligate generation of symbol manipulation activities accompanied by weak social structures that coerce young people into participating in these activities in the hope that some of the symbol manipulation skills will be transferred


  • investing in the generation of a strong social structure in which every child who participates will be capable of recognizing the necessity of acquiring the symbol manipulation skills available to them and then be supported to follow-up on that insight.

Mainstream industrial classroom schooling is closer to the first option while democratic schooling is on the opposite extreme of the reproductive strategies continuum.

Given the domination of industrial classroom schooling in the American education industry our society is currently favoring the equivalent of the plant and insect end of the continuum.

The mainstream industrial classroom schooling process discards or otherwise neglects many individuals and is still considered a success because the system is about the survival of society, not individual students and teachers.

Democratic** schools, on the other hand, invest in nurturing all of their students to be socially capable individuals and are succeeding because the investment ultimately pays off with a high proportion of productive citizens with comparatively fewer losses of individuals.

The movement towards democratizing schools is growing, though it is currently still only a marginal segment of the field of education.

The typical image of the democratic school as a wild environment does not give any obvious evidence that the voices of society, community, or even adults are truly heard.

Democratic schools give implicit credence to this interpretation by marketing themselves as bastions of freedom.

What the "freedom" marketing message of democratic schooling fails to convey is that the children are actively constrained from doing harm or otherwise misbehaving by their mutual obligations to other members of the community, including participation in the governance structures that both make and enforce the rules.

Mainstream industrial classroom schooling, on the other hand, spends tremendous amounts of resources to ensure that they have a captive audience to bombard with an unceasing stream of symbols to be manipulated according to non-negotiable dictates from higher levels of the system.

There is no sense that the system has any meaningful obligation to individual students other than providing the bombardment that they force the children to endure.

Especially under the federal NCLB legislation, the only meaningful failure within the system is the failure to ensure the children manipulate the right information in the right way, and the consequences of that failure are enforced in a manner that prevents the system from making restitution to the individuals who would have presumably suffered as a result.

The behavior of the system ensures the society will reproduce at the expense of some individuals.

Both extremes of the social reproductive strategy continuum have proven to be successful.

Industrial schooling has been in successful operation since the early 19th century and democratic schooling has been in successful operation since the early 20th century (taking the establishment of Marietta Johnson's School of Organic Education in the United States in 1907 in Fairhope, Alabama, as a convenient reference point. There may be earlier examples that I am not aware of, but Fairhope Organic School is still in operation, so it's indisputable as a proven model.)

With about a hundred years head start in the market industrial schooling is the dominant mode of schools world-wide.

Despite that advantageous position there is growing interest in moving away from the industrial end of the schooling continuum and there is a strong, though perhaps, small movement to democratize schools.

** My use of the term 'Democracy' in this article is meant to designate a broad range of power structures that engage students in making meaningful real-world decisions about the operations of their school, including participating in the formal resolution of conflict through some form of student dominated group often called a 'justice board.' My use of the term does not recognize any distinction between democracies and republics.

Democratic Schooling: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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