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 3 of 4

Stewardship Of A Child's Mind:
Communities and Parents Just Want Good Kids


When we realize that the foundation of efficient and effective learning is optimal states of mind rather than the acquisition of symbol manipulation skills then we are forced to make adjustments to the basic terms we use to talk about schooling.

We have to change our thinking to accommodate these shifts in meaning as we plan for educating our children.


First, learning is automatic, unconscious and impossible to avoid, it is as basic a biological function as metabolizing food.

Everyone is learning all the time, the question is what are we learning from this combination of power structure and exchange process not if we are learning to manipulate the symbols right.


Teaching is properly about the alignment of the context (the learning community's power structures and exchange processes) to achieve the cognitive skills necessary for accessing optimal states of mind.

Teaching is about cognitive cartography, enabling students to create accurate mental maps of how the world works and how they can work effectively within it.


Instruction, which is primarily about the delivery of knowledge, skills and information for symbol manipulation, should be considered distinct from teaching because it deals with a different level of expertise.

Teaching properly deals with shaping the context, whereas instruction deals with particular behaviors within contexts (usually with emphasis on the correct manipulation of symbols.)


An educated person is one who perceives accurately, thinks clearly, acts effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations, and has robust dynamic cognitive maps of how they access optimal states of mind.

(Notice that this definition of education, which is the intended ultimate outcome of schooling, does not strictly require either schooling or symbol manipulation.)


Schooling is about the creation of learning communities in which a dynamic variety of contexts are made available to students such that they can apply their cognitive skills for achieving optimal states of mind in each context and, ultimately, have cognitive access to optimal states of mind independent of their context.

All schooling is an immersion in power structures and exchange processes that will shape the educational outcomes for everyone involved.

The educational outcomes need to be measured, first, according to how well participants in the learning community access optimal states of mind, and second, according to the appropriate demonstration of symbol manipulation skills.


Now consider the moral consequences of the trade-offs that society makes in the different kinds of schooling and the effects at a personal level for parents and their communities.

Parents and their neighbors are not concerned for society, they have the responsibility for the life of a single child in their hands.

They know and love that child and have the heartfelt obligation to provide the highest quality of life for that child that they can manage.

Given that the whole continuum of schooling strategies are successful at providing for the perpetuation of society by producing productive citizens, then, the true moral foundation of how to organize schooling hinges on which of the extremes should be preferred based on the further moral obligations of communities and families to individual children.

Basically, society survives regardless what choice you make, so the real moral issue is providing your child with the best opportunities for their success.


Neighbors and parents want good kids who grow up to be responsible, respectful and resourceful adults.

The community-level and family-level views of schooling reveals that preparation of young minds for the responsibilities of adulthood is the paramount concern.

The challenge is to enable the kid to make the crucial transition from a dependent person who relies on external authorities for behavioral management to becoming an interdependent person who relies on an internalized network of mutual obligations for behavioral management.


Behavioral management is a universal moral obligation, the question we always have to answer is how to control our own and other people's behavior for the common good.

We create power structures for this purpose.

We are wired to defer to authority under most circumstances with just enough exceptions to hold the authorities accountable for keeping their personal egos and agendas from undermining the common good.

There is a continuum of authority that ranges

  • from the direct exercise of power based on the authoritative behavior of an empowered individual over a subject
  • to the indirect exercise of power based on the identification of a subject with a group and the role they are playing within a particular situation


The other key element of how we organize behavioral management as a society, besides power structures, is the exchange processes that we use to meet our needs.

The financial economy is the most obvious example of an exchange process we use. However, we exchange a lot more than just money in our lives.

We exchange a great variety of things, including material resources, symbolic resources, and attention.


Given the dictatorial power structures that operate in the majority of classroom situations, then it appears that the assumption of industrial-style schooling is that the best they can do for children is a combination of instruction in symbol manipulation and training in obedience to autocratic authority.

The industrial strategy is to throw as many symbol manipulation activities at the kids as they can get away with and eventually enough of them respond in the desired way to serve the purpose of perpetuating society.

When the school system declares that someone has accrued all the right marks of instructional bookkeeping to indicate their obedience to the symbol manipulation requirements dictated by the system then they must be fit for adult society.


However, classroom schooling embodies a system that perpetuates dependence on direct control by authorities.

The mainstream industrial classroom approach is handicapped by the assumption that exchanging manipulated symbols and obedience to direct authority are the most elementary factors in helping a child become a good citizen.


Classroom instruction in symbol manipulation causes a delay in the transition to responsibility for mutual obligations.

This delay is caused when the children and their teachers are distracted from the kid's primary developmental drive (to understand how to achieve optimal states of mind within the social world in which they find themselves) by the high stakes attached to performance at academic symbol manipulation activities.

They are also distracted by the confusing blend of the teacher's behavioral authority and their educational authority.

And unfortunately educational authority takes a back seat to behavioral authority every time if the teacher plans on maintaining behavioral control over most classes.

When the students and teachers are all struggling to simultaneously juggle behavioral challenges and learning challenges at the same time, then learning challenges will always get short shrift.


It is a system of extraordinary waste. Just like the reproductive strategies of plants and insects when compared to the reproductive strategies of mammals.


In mainstream classroom schools teachers scatter a great multitude of seeds in the vicinity of unprepared minds with the hope that a few of the seeds will randomly land in places where they can grow into a deeper understanding of the world.

Democratic** schools, by contrast, prepare the soil of young minds for nurturing any of the seeds of social knowledge that will be carefully sown there by the children themselves because they know that in order to play the roles they want to have as adults in society they will need those skills.

Both strategies have proven to be generally effective at propagating society by producing productive citizens, though in the case of industrial classrooms there is profligate waste of both resources and people.

Democratic school settings, on the other hand, are both highly efficient and highly effective.


The soil preparation that I claim is missing from classroom schooling is the necessary transition from living with dependence on external control to living within a system of mutual obligations.

The transition I am referring to is that journey from being merely subject to authority to authorizing authorities and also becoming eligible to be a responsible agent of authority.

The transition presumably occurs eventually in everyone who grows up to be a responsible adult and it should normally occur in childhood during the developmental stage when children are discovering the social world beyond their family between the ages of 6 and 12 years old.

(Society has systematically ignored this fact and succeeded nonetheless because the underlying biological drive will eventually precipitate the transition in spite of anything schools do to manipulate children.)


In fact, what is necessary to facilitate the transition is enculturation in a system of mutual obligations.


Democratic schools modeled after Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, USA, are organized to enable students to manage their own behavior and the day-to-day operations of the school.

While there is a board that provides policy-level guidance, the students are the majority voters in the operational decisions that determine the hiring of staff, the allocation of the budget, and every aspect of the establishment and enforcement of the rules of behavior.

Each child has equal opportunity to determine how resources are used. Society and the community make their requirements known through the state legal requirements for organizations of this type and the policy guidelines that the democratic community works within.


The instructors in democratic schools are charged with answering to the explicitly expressed learning needs of the children and are not charged with the responsibility of being behavioral managers.

Behavioral management is accomplished by the democratic power structures and participatory exchange processes in which the students are embedded everyday.

The context for the instructional relationship is shaped by the fact that the students have authorized (even if indirectly) the hiring decision for each instructor.

Teachers are charged by the students collectively (within policy guidance provided by the school's governing board) with a specific set of responsibilities for teaching and community leadership.

Instructional expectations are expected to be explicit and clear, but behavioral management is not part of instructional duties.

Instructors in democratic schools focus on their relationship with their students and their student's relationship with the subject at hand; behavioral control is the last thing on their mind.

According to about 40 years of experience at Sudbury Valley School as related by Daniel Greenberg, one of the school's founders, instruction in this context is both extremely efficient and substantially effective.


Some instructors may also be teachers who are in attendance at the school during regular hours and participate in the judicial committee that governs behavioral management, but that is regarded as generally separate from specific instructional duties.


The illusion manifests itself most directly from the confusion between preparing young minds and controlling young people's behavior.

The trouble is that a child's behavior is assumed to give the observer an approximate sense of the child's state of mind, thus well controlled behavior is also assumed to reflect a well-controlled state of mind.

This is partly true, but in the very important ways that count for education, it is false.


The mind is far more complex than this simple account of how our behavior reflects our state of our mind.

Directly observable behavior by a random stranger is a very shallow and inadequate indicator of a person's state of mind.

(Although in the case of an observer who has a long term and intimate relationship with the person being observed there is a good case to made for the ability to correlate behavior with state of mind.)

The trouble with judging the quality of a democratic school on the basis of a random sample of the day-to-day activities of the children is that the actual instructional activities of teachers is so efficient and effective that there is little chance that it will be observed.

The observable day-to-day activities should be considered the preparations of the mind for instruction, not an indication of instructional methods.

What occurs on a day-to-day basis are the shaping of identity, expectations, and the enculturation to the power structures and exchange processes that ultimately determine the quality of the educational outcomes.


** 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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