democratic education

Report from the European Democratic Education Community 2013 Conference

Peter Gray lecture at EUDEC

Note: This article was originally published in Other Education, vol. 2, no. 2 (2013), pp. 113-115, and is reprinted under Creative Commons license (BY-SA).

From July 28 to August 2, 2013, the European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC) held its fifth annual general meeting and conference. This year’s host was De Ruimte democratic school in Soest, The Netherlands, with an organizing committee comprised of staff members and alumni of Dutch democratic schools. 261 participants attended, ranging from students, staff members, parents, and interested community members. I attended as a member of the Sudbury Munich startup school’s scientific advisory board.

An affiliate of the International Democratic Education Network, EUDEC claims to represent about 58,000 people across 26 countries, including 42 schools, 19 start-up schools, and other member organizations and individuals. The bulk of the conference was organized into an open space, where all participants were invited to organize workshops, including ones that were organized spontaneously according to conversations and needs of participants during the conference. The annual general meeting was limited to voting members, but the final day of the conference was open to an additional 27 public visitors. At the last day, invited scholars, researchers, entrepreneurs, and school founders provided lectures and workshops.

Democratic education, as defined by EUDEC is comprised of two pillars:

  1. Self-determined learning: “Students in democratic schools and universities choose how to spend their school days, pursue their interests and prepare themselves for their lives and chosen careers” (EUDEC, n.d.).
  2. A community of equality and mutual respect: “Democratic schools have school meetings in which all members of the community have an equal vote, regardless of age or status. Students and teachers can sit together as equals to discuss and vote on school rules, curricula, projects, the hiring of staff and even budgetary matters” (EUDEC, n.d.).

EUDEC member schools have various models and approaches to how democratic education is practiced in their institutions, but many face similar obstacles in gaining the approval of government authorities across Europe, which nearly universally impose structural limitations that ban self-determined learning and disallow students to have an equal voice. The result is that many schools face constant legal battles to stay open, and, in some cases, even parents of the schools are charged as criminals for sending their children there (see esp. Thomas, 2013 for a typical case outline). For the schools that are under siege by authorities, the conference provides a valuable retreat to share experiences, learn from others, and expand networks.

The conference theme was “we create the future,” which from my perspective as an education futurist could not be more pertinent. This clashed with a sentiment shared by many of the schools, and particularly the Sudbury-type schools, that their approach to education is “radical.” I strongly disagree. In an era driven by accelerating technological change, globalization, and the emergence of a “knowmadic” society (Moravec, 2013a, 2013b), democratic schools are a necessary option for creating a near-future workforce that is creative, imaginative, and innovative in its application of personal-level knowledge.

As the democratic schools movement grows, the shift from their approach from being perceived as radical to a viable option presents new opportunities for research and academic discourse development. From my observations at conference workshops and in conversations with participants, there are tremendous variations in how self-determined and democratic learning is implemented. Deep research into differing practices could yield rich new, vocabulary and dimensions of democratic education that have been largely ignored.

In my overall opinion, the EUDEC conference in 2013 deserves high praise for both quality of content and organization. In my informal conversations with participants, however, the conference itself was not the star of the show – but rather the food. Chef Sytse Kramer from HetEten set up a full kitchen outdoors, employed at-risk youth as cooks, and produced restaurant-quality dishes that received near universal acclaim throughout the week. At the closing ceremony of the conference, we had a lot to cheer about, but only the raucous applause for Chef Kramer could be heard over several kilometers away in the center of Soest.

About the author

John Moravec is a scholar on the future of work and education; a global speaker; editor of the Knowmad Society project; a co-director of the Invisible Learning project; and is an advisor with Education Futures (http://www.educationfutures.com).

References

  1. EUDEC. (n.d.). European Democratic Education Community | Democratic Education. Retrieved August 05, 2013, from http://www.eudec.org/Democratic+Education
  2. Moravec, J. W. (2013a). Knowmad Society: The “new” work and education. On the Horizon, 21(2), 79–83. doi:10.1108/10748121311322978
  3. Moravec, J. W. (2013b). Rethinking human capital development in Knowmad Society. In J. W. Moravec (Ed.), Knowmad Society (1st ed.). Minneapolis: Education Futures.
  4. Thomas, A. (2013). Autonomous and informal education under threat: Summerhill, UK, Sudbury schools in The Netherlands and home education. Other Education, 2(1), 75–77.

The university of the future: Marching toward obsolescence?

3579373279_9e14be1736_b

A couple weeks ago, Carlos Scolari interviewed me for a project on pedagogical innovation and disruptive practices in higher education at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). The aim of the project is to produce a document on the “university of the future,” including diagnosis, trends, and proposals for moving forward.

With his permission, I am sharing my responses to his questions:

CS: How do you see the situation of the universities from a pedagogical point view? I’m thinking in the situation of teaching-learning processes inside these big institutions.

JM: From a pedagogical viewpoint, universities have invested too much in a monocultural approach to education. Most universities are using the same methods to teach all the same stuff. This is very dangerous as the world is changing so quickly that entire fields and bodies of knowledge risk being outdated/outmoded very quickly.

I believe that we need to start to expand the ecology of options that we have in higher education, including pedagogical approaches. Otherwise, we run the risk of failing universally.

CS: Why do you think it’s so difficult to change the teaching-learning practices in the universities?

JM: I think change is difficult within universities because we rely heavily on academic “traditions” that are built on faulty assumptions of teaching and learning. Some of most troubling assumptions (which are not based on science) include:

  • Motivation: We assume students must be externally motivated to learn, otherwise they would not learn anything. This is akin to assuming the natural state of humans is laziness and non-curious.
  • Age segregation: We assume people learn best when segregated by age or ability. We tend to compartmentalize education into certain discrete levels (i.e., primary, secondary, and tertiary education), and further segregate students by age. There is very little reason to support this practice, and evidence suggests that cross age/ability integration enhances students’ learning.
  • Power structures: We assume that the only “qualified” knowledge generators are the teachers at the head of the classroom, who download knowledge into students’ heads. In today’s world where the magnitude of change is accelerating at an exponential pace, information and knowledge is always in flux. Rather than relying on static “experts,” we need to start recognizing and attending to new power structures where we all serve as co-learners and co-teachers.

The good news is that “traditions” are things that we invent all the time. I am optimistic that we can create new traditions that are relevant to modern society.

CS: How can we improve the teaching-learning processes in the universities?

JM: I think we should look at new uses for software and social technologies to enable all participants at universities to become life-long co-teachers as well as co-learners. This means that students (and teachers) need to stop behaving as consumers of education, but become creators, producers, and prosumers. At the same time, learning needs to become more immersive and personally-meaningful (subjective experiences) to each learner. This means that we are likely to not have one master narrative for learning at universities, but we may have many different ones, enabling students and faculty to express themselves as postdisciplinary knowledge experts (possessing unique knowledge at the individual level).

CS: Could you please indicate three (3) innovative/disruptive teaching-learning experiences? They could be single practices (i.e. flip teaching) or institutional ones (i.e. Coursera).

JM:

  1. Democratic education: Educational institutions tend to run as dictatorships, and are structured to preserve themselves. By horizontalizing our relationships, and making sure to give each stakeholder an equal voice, we could see significant, positive disruption as students and faculty become co-responsible for attending to all aspects of the educational experience.
  2. Quest-based learning: Thieu Besselink wrote an excellent chapter on this in Knowmad Society: http://www.knowmadsociety.com
  3. Co-teaching: This is best expressed by what E-180 and the Shibuya University Network already engage in.

CS: How do you imagine the university of the future? Please indicate three (3) characteristics.

JM: This question is perhaps faulty in that it assumes that we will have universities in the future. Maybe you should start with the question: Does the future need universities?

Let’s assume that the future does need universities. In that case, I envision near-future institutions will operate in an environment where…

  1. Any form of information delivery that can be commodified, will be. We see this today with the emergence of MOOCs, Udemy, Coursera, etc. Any non-unique content delivery (especially through download-style pedagogies) will be provided through these platforms, and through a small group of providers. This is particularly threatening to junior colleges, general education courses at mainstream universities, and perhaps also to secondary education.
  2. The gap between top tier schools and everybody else will widen. The top schools may not have superior educational offerings, but they have powerful brands. Why pay to take a course at the University of Minnesota when you can participate in a free, online experience that is affiliated with a top school, such as Stanford or MIT? My take is that the top-tier schools with powerful brand identities will “own” higher education; and, in many respects, other universities will become subscribers to their products and services.
  3. Smaller, “boutique” programs outside the formal, accredited system will boom in presence and market share. Small, but highly specialized, programs such as KaosPilots, Knowmads, YIP, Hyper Island, and the Shibuya University Network operate outside of formal education, and have each developed their own approaches to teaching and learning. In an era where mainstream society are beginning to question the value of a university degree, these programs offer alternatives, and employers will become much, much more receptive to the “graduates” of these alternative education/credentialing programs.

I think that, apart from the very few elite institutions, universities are marching themselves toward obsolescence, and they may be the last to figure it out. Remember, as Anya Kamentz pointed out in her interview at Education Futures, the Roman Senate continued to meet for several centuries after the collapse of the empire.

Is there no room for democracy in Dutch schools?

When is a school not a school? Yesterday, a judge in the Netherlands ruled that De Kampanje school in Amersfoort is not a school, and fined the parents of its students for sending their kids there.

Readers of Education Futures might recognize De Kampanje as it is the subject of Christel Hartkamp‘s chapter in our new book, Knowmad Society. In it, she summarizes the Dutch situation:

There is a growing demand in society for alternatives to the regular educational system. Although the Netherlands is famous for its diverse schooling options (i.e., Montessori, Waldorf, Dalton, Freinet, Jenaplan, etc.), most of the options have become standardized by the governmental regulations for public schools over the past decades. As a result, these schools moved away from their initial pedagogical approaches. The government is placing more and more emphasis and pressure on testing and exams. The system, itself, is outdated, and more kids are suffering, both physically or by being labeled and over-cared for. As a result, motivation of students is decreasing. The time is right to develop real alternatives to the mainstream model. (p. 107 of preview edition)

What sets De Kampanje apart from most other schools is that it is structured as a democratic organization, following two basic principles adopted by the European Democratic Education Community. The first is that students have the right to make their own choices about learning and all other areas of everyday life (and bear the responsibility for their consequences). The second is that students have an equal say in the decision-making at the school, including administrative and judicial matters.

The government is concerned that when students are empowered to make their own decisions, they are not likely to learn. When I visited the De Kampanje and De Koers Sudbury-type schools, and interviewed students, parents, and staff members, I found very little evidence of that:

The next step of De Kampanje parents is to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. At issue is the question of whether parents have a right to a say in how their children are educated. Stay tuned.

"Reboelje!" – Invisible Learning in the Netherlands

Finally, after several weeks of travel and meetings, I am able to report on the Invisible Learning Tour, which was hosted by NHL in Leeuwarden. The event was an example of self-organization. Given the seed of an idea, three universities, two Sudbury schools, the Knowmads school, and various other partners came together, using social media, to construct a two-day event. The purpose of the Invisible Learning Tour was to raise awareness for the need for innovation in education. Mainstream teaching focuses mainly on the preparation of students for compartmentalized roles and jobs (mainly factory workers and bureaucrats) that contrast sharply with the needs of the modern economy, which requires people that are imaginative, creative, and innovative. We explored ideas, existing options, and new pathways for learning that is relevant for the 21st century.

The first day was built into an open space event, moderated by Edwin de Bree (De Koers Sudbury School) and Franziska Krüger (Knowmads). About 130 participants attended the live meeting, and another 295 joined online. I gave the opening keynote, which is posted on Vimeo (my slides are also posted here):

The first day also included open conversations on how to make Invisible Learning visible, and a few participants self-organized a flash mob (video by Guido Crolla):

The second day involved a media tour to the De Kampanje and De Koers Sudbury Schools, and the Knowmads school in Amsterdam. I produced a short video based on interviews with students and staff members at the two Sudbury schools. What struck me in our conversations was, that despite the fact the students have no teachers (they are responsible for their self-learning), their responses were articulate and cogent — despite the fact they were speaking in a second language:

Unfortunately, my time with Knowmads was cut short as I had to race to the airport to catch my flight back from Amsterdam. As I left, however, one thing was very clear: A tremendous momentum for change is building up in the Netherlands. As Knowmads tribe leader Pieter Spinder puts it, it’s time for a Friesian rebellion: “Reboelje!”

Special thanks go to Edwin de Bree, Franziska Krüger, Christel Hartkamp, Jeroen Bottema, Pieter Spinder, Guido Crolla, and the team at Mooipunt/CMD program at NHL in Leeuwarden (Tom Ravesloot, Tom Klaver, Jeroen van de Bovenkamp, Wout Laben, Peter Klaas, Sanne van der Heide, Julien Hogemans, Robert de Kruijf, Sander Nota, and Robin van Poelje). Without their leadership and contributions, this event would never be possible. Better yet, they turned it into a smashing success!

Thank you!