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By definition, a democratic education is what progressive educators want for children: Howard Gardner describes a progressive education as one in which “democratic values are lived, not merely studied.” And yet what does that really mean for the day-to-day workings of a school? Dewey answers this question in part by insisting on greater participation in the rule-making process, from childhood onward:

It is not enough that children should be law-abiding; they must also be lawmakers in school, just as in adult life, as voting citizens or as officeholders, they will engage in lawmaking. Providing such experience for children and cultivating such habits and attitudes in them, can contribute significantly to social reconstruction (p.220).

- John Dewey Lectures in China, 1919-1920

Dewey’s ideas about democracy and education are fundamental to Sabot at Stony Point’s philosophy. From the age of two onwards, students begin to learn to resolve conflicts independently. In both the Preschool and Lower School, students are an integral part of the rule-making and governing process, often participating in daily class meetings and openly discussing and negotiating class rules, procedures, infractions and consequences. In some classrooms, students are even invited to write the classroom rules themselves—in the fifth grade this year, this boiled down to just one long rule.

By the time they reach Middle School age, children are entering into a new stage of moral development and capability and are better equipped to understand, make and even enforce rules. Yet, traditionally, educators have not entrusted Middle School children with this responsibility; Middle School students are not encouraged – or even permitted – to learn how to be active citizens of a democracy. As Jeanne Connell points out, Dewey’s argument, if taken seriously, “suggests major changes in school organization that go beyond superficial efforts at student government.”

This year in the Middle School, Liz Blue (a parent and lawyer versed in constitutional law) and I launched an experiment in student government. We began, one Friday afternoon in the garden, by working backwards. The students, released from their classrooms into the bright warmth of a September afternoon, were asked: “What would a school with no rules look like?” A hand or two went tentatively into the air, then a couple of others followed. As we called on these students, other hands were raised and soon they were interrupting one another. Liz and I recorded their answers on an easel pad.

What Would a School with No Rules Look Like?

“The popular kids would control everything.”
“There would be bullying.”
“Kids would get into fights.”
“Things would get broken.”
“Kids would join together in gangs.”
“No one would pay attention to the teacher.”
“No one would do any homework.”
“It would always be noisy.”
“We wouldn’t be able to learn anything.”

Their school with no rules looks a bit like Hobbes’ state of nature: a war of every student against every student, with vividly imagined scenes of disorder and misrule. We were somewhat surprised by the students’ fear of a school with no rules, and we were struck by their fear of one another – and maybe of themselves.

Over the next few weeks, students wrestled with other questions, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups, sometimes as a class: Who should make the rules in a school? Who should enforce the rules? What are the advantages and disadvantages of direct democracy? Of a benign dictator? Again and again, the students came up against not only their fear of chaos and anarchy, but also their fear of democracy. Many worried that their fellow students – or some hypothetical students of the future – would come up with bad, ridiculous or dangerous rules, rules that might empower the already powerful (the eighth graders, the popular kids, the biggest and the meanest), rules that might allow the persecution of the less powerful, rules that might make learning impossible.

Dewey writes that “children should be taught to comply with school regulations because of their awareness of the meaning of and need for such regulations” (p. 220). These Middle School children were already there, acutely aware of the need for rules and also in agreement as to what those rules need to be. When we asked them to list these on the easel pad, the answers came almost in unison.

What rules does a school need?

“No fighting.”
“No stealing.”
“Respect for teachers.”
“Respect for other students.”
“No destruction of property.”
“A safe learning environment.”
“No bullying.”
“No cheating.”

On the strength of this consensus, noticing that no one had suggested scary or inappropriate rules (though a few had opted for the joke suggestions of no homework and constant video games), a smaller group of twelve students agreed to continue thinking and writing about a student-run government.

Our next step was to brainstorm about various models we might look to for guidelines and ideas, and we brought in copies of eight different documents, including the Mayflower Compact (a one-paragraph compact establishing rule by consensus in the colonies), the Code of Hammurabi (a proclamation of very specific laws and punishments, written by the Persian monarch in 1750 B.C.), the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. Constitution, a Middle School Constitution from the Paideia School in Atlanta, and the Richmond Public Schools Student Handbook. In small groups, students studied these documents and wrote down what they perceived to be their strengths and weaknesses as models.

They were intrigued by the Code of Hammurabi, but quickly realized that its detailed listing of rules and punishments was both too restrictive and too open-ended for their purposes. Perhaps more importantly, they noticed that the Code was wholly undemocratic. Although the students were drawn to the elegant simplicity of the Mayflower Compact, they rejected it as too short and too abstract. The Middle School Constitution from Atlanta reassured them that their task was not impossible and gave them a surge of confidence. Students perceived immediately that it had been written not by teachers but by students, and they noted approvingly that it “gives power to the people.” They elected to use this as one of their two models. But in the end, they were most taken by the U.S. Constitution: they noted that it “divides power between three branches,” rather than concentrating it in the hands of one leader, and they valued the way in which “it gives most people rights.”

Having settled on a working model, the students were ready to begin writing their own constitution. During the drafting process that ensued, students confronted a number of questions that demanded intense thought and heated debate—questions such as how to ensure that the congress isn’t dominated by the most powerful students, whether a lawyer must defend someone she or he knows to be guilty, and whether a student must testify against fellow students. These discussions turned on considerations of truth, loyalty, duty and community and other weighty concepts, and they repeatedly brought home to the students the seriousness of their endeavor.

The student-written constitution, later presented to and ratified by students and faculty, can be read here. Part II of this article, to appear in Fall 2010, will discuss the ratification process as well as the mock trials to be held later this month, which will allow students to learn trial procedures before implementing the trial system and student congress during the 2010-11 school year.

For Further Reading
Sabot at Stony Point Constitution

Connell, Jeanne. “Revisiting Dewey’s Concept of Discipline.” Philosophy of Education 1994: Proceedings of the Fiftieth Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society:188-91.

Dewey quotations above are from John Dewey Lectures in China, 1919-1902, edited by Robert Clopton and Tsuin-Chen Ou. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1973.

About the Author: 

Susan Barstow joins us this year as the seventh grade Language Arts teacher, and also teaches an elective on self-governance.