Most schools do not look like a democratic society at all. Imagine a school where democracy is lived on a daily basis, where students have a say in the rules of the school, from the schedule to the dress code or safety policies. These schools exist in the world of democratic education. My specialty is sociocracy, a consent-based form of governance. When given a chance to do original research on sociocracy in schools, I wanted to ask some students themselves how THEY felt about their democratic school. The results showed that student council members felt included and empowered, and students felt the system was working well to include their voices.
“I used to go to a public school… there wasn’t sociocracy being used and I knew that there wasn’t really anything that I could say that would change anything going on in the school. But when you’re using sociocracy and everybody’s voices are being heard… everybody had to agree [to a new policy], so it’s pretty empowering for students.”New Roots Charter School Student Council Member
Student voice can be defined as meaningful student involvement in decisions about educational policies. Evidence suggests that there are several benefits to higher student involvement in school decision-making.
In research on adults, there is evidence that participatory practices can lead to increased democratic involvement (Wu 2020). This suggests that early learned experience of participatory decision-making will help young people to grow into adults who feel empowered to participate in democracy.
Sociocracy is “a set of tools and principles that ensure shared power” (Koch-Gonzalez & Rau, Many Voices One Song.) It was first practiced in a school in the Netherlands founded by a Quaker couple. The core tool of sociocracy is consent decision-making, where a group united by a common cause comes to an agreement based on what is “good enough for now, and safe enough to try.” Any objections or arguments against a decision are incorporated into the proposal to come to a compromise that works for all members.
Sociocracy is practiced in dozens of democratic schools worldwide. The film School Circles documents several schools in the Netherlands practicing sociocracy. I was curious to know – do the students at a school practicing sociocracy see it as fundamentally different majority rule? And what is their experience of using sociocracy?
“It’s pretty empowering.”
I chose New Roots Charter School in Ithaca, New York, to study. This public charter high school started using sociocracy as a student governance method based on a student initiative and still uses it in their student council today. I interviewed 10 student council members and one homeroom class about how they felt about student governance. The majority of respondents said they felt that:
“A compromise that makes everyone feel happy and heard.”
When explaining consent decision-making, one student said:
“We find some way to come to an agreement, even if someone does not fully agree the first time… Everyone has an opinion that’s valid and should be voiced and we’ll change the proposal until everyone consents.”
Contrasting this to majority rule, another student said:
“I feel like everyone feels more content with outcomes of things. If we’re voting [in] a traditional democratic school, there’s two options and these are the only two things that can happen. And then one of them wins and the other side is just bummed out and they’re upset about it. With sociocracy, we can come to a consensus and explore options that we might not have considered before, and have that compromise that makes everyone feel happy and heard.”
Students emphasized that the voices of the quiet were heard as well as the loudest voices. One practice of sociocracy, called “rounds,” is simply taking turns in a circle to speak.
One student said:
“One thing I don’t like about normal conversation is that often there’s a person who doesn’t say anything at all, which in the past has been me a lot…There’s always something I want to say, but I can’t find the right opportunity to jump in. The great thing about sociocracy is your turn is going to come.”
Another student said:
“I think the ability for a freshman to have the same voice that I do as a senior […] that’s what makes sociocracy amazing, is the fact that everybody has the same voice.”
Changes students have brought to the school included:
At the time of my research, the student council was creating and implementing a school-wide survey about the issue of gender-neutral restrooms. One student cited an example of another immediate school-wide change:
“[I said in the student council meeting] that filters aren’t being changed frequently… And then a week later, all the filters were on all the time and they’re being changed. So that’s a pretty good feeling when one thing that you say ends up being implemented in the whole school.”
In a world where student voices are not usually heard, New Roots stands out as an example of how student councils can be truly representative of students in a public school. I would encourage more schools to take steps to include students in important decisions that affect their daily lives.
Griebler, U. & Nowak, P. (2012) Student councils: a tool for health promoting schools? Characteristics and effects. Health Education, 112(2), 105-132. https://doi.org/10.1108/09654281211203402
Kahne, J., Bowyer, B., Marshall, J. & Hodgin, E. (2022). Is responsiveness to student voice related to academic outcomes? Strengthening the rationale for student voice in school reform. American Journal of Education, 128(3), 389–415. https://doi.org/10.1086/719121
Mitra, D. L. (2004). The significance of students: can increasing “student voice” in schools lead to gains in youth development? Teachers College Record, 106(4), 651-688. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9620.2004.00354.x
Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations. (2016.) School voice report 2016. Retrieved July 1, 2022 from http://www.quagliainstitute.org/dmsView/School_Voice_Report_2016
Wu, S.J., Paluck, E.L. Participatory practices at work change attitudes and behavior toward societal authority and justice. Nat Commun 11, 2633 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16383-6
Hope Wilder is the Schools Program Manager at Sociocracy for All. Her passion for children’s empowerment lead her to write the book, ‘Let’s Decide Together,’ a workbook to help adults empower children to make decisions together. She leads workshops teaching skills from the book, and runs training for teachers and parents on how to use collaborative decision-making with children.