“I wanted to learn but I didn’t like to be told what I had to do”.
How many of us haven’t thought same thing at some point in our school life? Ian Cunningham’s insatisfaction, however, made him take a step further. Born in England, Cunningham is one of the founders of the modern democratic education movement. Six of the founders participated in opening plenary for the XXth Internacional Democratic Conference (IDEC 2012) in Caguas, Puerto Rico, moderated by Juan Luis Díaz Cotto from Sor Isolina Ferré Centers.
In 1963, Cunningham founded the School for Independent Study, where students worked in groups and could then do what they wanted the rest of the time. There, they lived together, they confronted their needs and they made their decisions. “For me, that’s democracy. When make choices and share with other people, those are more important options”.
These days Cunningham works with organizations in several fields, such as: organizational change, strategy and team development, and training for managers and directors. He also researches, writes and organizes self-managed learning programs. “The decisions that matter are those that we make to share them. When democracy is there to serve the community, there is freedom”, the presenter stated.
Also from England, Derry Hannam has worked in the country’s state school system. He believes that children’s capacity to learn is infinite. “Children cannot be forced. Students’ motivation cannot be the fear of failure. The school does that; it promotes the fear of failure. We must support children’s passion for learning”.
According to Hannam, students must be able to undertake their own initiatives, “…to learn of responsibility by participating in the school’s governance. We must have two principles: the passion for learning and participation”. It is in this context that he highlights the importance of student organizations in the democratic education movement. “It is difficult to achieve democratic education in the state system, but democratic schools have better results. Democratic schools are happier, centered in in the student”. He concluded his presentation by expressing his gratitude the opportunity to visit Puerto Rico and his support to Nuestra Escuela.
Many attribute the beginning of the movement to Israeli Yaccov Hetch, who described his own path towards democratic education. “My story with schools started at 6 years old when they told me that I was going to school and I discovered that I did not know what I was going to do. In the sixth grade I didn’t know how to read or write, and in the tenth grade I abandoned school. At sixteen I was outside of the education system. I suffered a lot. At twenty-seven, I decided to make a new school. The basic idea: I decided to build a school that reflected life outside of school”. In 1987 he founded the Democratic School of Hadera, which came to have such a long waiting list that at a certain point Yaccov had to start training communities to create their own democratic schools.
Democratic education became a movement once they decided to create IDEC. There were 27 people in the first international meeting. “That first conference was called the Democratic Schools Conference and is now the International Democratic Education Conference. IDEC was the driving force that changed the movement”.
In his presentation he showed a diagram of a social piramid, as he espoused his view that education is no longer sustainable at this point. According to Hetch, those that are on top of the piramid evolve more quickly; 1% of the population controls 99% of society. “A democratic world needs a democratic education”, he said. “People believe that democracy is to vote, but democracy is much more than that. It is a culture that believes in human beings and it must be undertaken through democratic education”.
Amukta Mahapatra, founder of the Mandara Resources Center for teacher training in the practices of alternative education in India, also participated in the plenary. “It is important to highlight that there are heroes in our backyards”, she said. Public servants, teachers and workers, should all be supported to be continuously creative. “The change should be led by a group, not by one person. I like to hear that in Puerto Rico there is an (alternative education) alliance.” Finally, Mahapatra added: “It is not about imposing a change either, but rather to infiltrate it, so that it is sustained, so that it flows like underground water”.
Kageki Asakura, founder of democratic schools in Japan, argued that “everyone thinks that Japan has a good educational system and the fact is that we do not. Education in Japan is effective, but students suffer in an extremely competitive atmosphere”.
Students are increasingly involved in violence and there is widespread bullying as a consequence of this atmosphere, he explained. According to Asakura, nearly 250 thousand students in Japan do not want to go to school. “In the mid 1980’s we developed democratic schools. We now have more than 200 of them. In democratic schools every child has the right to decide and this is strongly linked with self-esteem”.