Selva Lorenz is is a 19 year old student from Spain whose education has encompassed various philosophical approaches. She’s been to conventional, mainstream state schools, she’s been unschooled, she has attended a Montessori as well as a democratic school and an online school.
For the purposes of this interview, she has chosen to focus on her experience of the democratic school because this is the approach she considers to be the best and she now considers herself an advocate for democratic education.
These are two main principles in democratic schools:
Self-Directed Education (SDE): Students are 100% free to choose what, how, when, where, and with whom they want to do things* or study.
Democratic Community: Democratic schools are democratic communities. Everyone has a voice and a vote: learners constantly modify their school’s environment through a democratic process. This process might look different in different schools, but generally, there is a school assembly or a school council where everyone in school takes part in. In these assemblies, school laws are proposed, modified, or repealed.
Being part of the rulemaking of the school makes children stand for the school laws, so there is no need for the adults to constantly enforce school rules. This creates a very respectful environment between adults and learners: adults are not overwhelmed by trying to impose the rules and kids are not confused, because they know very well where the limits are, they understand why rules exist and they always have the option to modify them. Staff and students talk to each other at eye level.
*Note: By “doing things”, I mean taking part in any kind of activity that learners choose to take part in. These activities are learning experiences without them even noticing.
There are a lot of differences, but I am going to point out two main differences here:
What drives people to do things in a democratic school is intrinsic motivation, whereas, in a traditional school, the motor is extrinsic motivation. This has completely opposite outcomes. In coercive schools, students are motivated by rewards and punishments, which for example can be good grades and bad grades. Students usually feel stressed, scared, and bored. And they are constantly working to satisfy external expectations, in this case, the state’s curriculum, no matter if what they do is nourishing them or if it is aligned with their goals.
In SDE schools, children are motivated by the natural drive to learn that every kid has. When people do things as a response to their natural learning drive, real learning occurs. In SDE schools, learners are usually curious, passionate, they learn to choose, to manage their time according to what they want to do. They learn to set goals, and whatever they do, they do it with delight.
To some people, this might sound too good to be true, but for people that are in democratic schools, this is the regular thing.
A traditional school is a place where rules are already set up and students have to adapt to these no matter if it helps them grow or if they are impediments in their development. They usually have little to no power to modify their school’s environment. In a democratic school, everyone has the right to propose, modify or repeal rules in the school assembly, being able to optimize, update and upgrade the school environment.
Every person is different: each person has a different background, different interests, and different ways of doing things, that’s why every learner does something different at school. Some are busy reading all day while some spend a lot of time outside building things with wood, repairing bikes or playing football, and some people spend hours in the art room creating things, some have a very busy schedule full of classes while others choose to have a lot of free time to improvise things. Generally, people do things they like with passion and happiness.
There is practically no limit to what can be learned: whatever sparks a kid’s curiosity, can be made into a class. Anyone can propose and set up a class, then people can join, and the staff and the interested students then figure out how to set up this class: Sometimes a teacher is hired, sometimes the students make an online learning group, sometimes a parent that works in the field facilitates the class and, individual learning happens too. There are endless ways to learn about something so there is no standard class: every class that takes place is in a different format and has a different setting.
Because everyone can propose classes, the school is constantly being upgraded according to the student needs and classes are incredibly varied. Classes range from movie-making to algebra to parkour.
This is a list of some courses that happen/ed in my democratic school:
Dance class, Pottery, Acting, Fitness, English grammar, English with native (all the fun things in English), Cooking, Aikido, Parkour, French, Biology, Hiking, Economics, Ballet, Geography, Photography, Choir, Movie-making, Math (different levels), Italian, Carpentry, Bicycle Workshop, Football, Makeup, Doll-making, Drawing, online language exchange with students from a democratic school in another country, Philosophy, Book club, English accents workshop, Survival in Nature, Calculus, Magic, Chemistry in the lab, Experiments in the lab, Botanic, Gardening, History, Algebra, Japanese, Korean.
An important aspect is that because they make their own schedule, they learn to direct themselves: They don’t wait for others to tell them what to do. They are the masters of their own time.
In short, learners choose what, when, where, and with whom they learn. This is in other words, Self-Directed Learning.
The only thing that is kind of mandatory is the weekly assembly where issues, announcements, and propositions are brought up. This is a very valuable learning experience: kids learn how to participate in a democracy, how to express their needs, how to listen to others, and how to solve issues democratically.
Yes! First of all, I would like these schools to receive funding from the government. Hardly any democratic schools receive government funding because the government’s curriculum is not met in these schools. However, real education happens in these schools. Who decides what education is and what it is not anyway? We pay taxes for education, education is a right and in democratic schools real education takes place. Why not fund these schools?
Democratic schools aren’t more expensive than the rest of the schools, in fact, they spend less money on staff because they don’t need guards watching the kids all the time or teachers every hour because learners also learn by themselves.
Then, I would modify the way that students access higher education: a lot of democratic schools don’t provide a “high school certificate” that later allows them to go to university because the government curriculum is not met. The ways for democratic school students to access state-funded universities are pretty inconvenient. The way to access university as a SDL (self-directed learner) varies depending on the country.
In Spain, students have to either attend the last three years of traditional education or wait until they are 25 to take a test to access university. No matter what, they have to go through the national curriculum, which is only a way of discarding students, doesn’t measure their actual readiness for their desired bachelor’s degree.
New ways of accessing university can be developed. Students could be tested in the subjects that they are going to need in their undergraduate degree. For example, if they are going to study chemistry, universities could test them in math, chemistry, biology… (applied to chemistry) and not in literature and history.
And last but not least, I would like the number of democratic schools that exist to increase: only a minority can move to the other side of the country to put their kid in a school like this.
The current mainstream educational system is an authoritarian system. The rules are already set: Students and teachers can’t change almost anything. We live in a democratic country, but still, our schools work like authoritarian systems. Is this how kids are going to learn to live in a democracy?
Students don’t learn for themselves, they learn to meet the state’s curriculum expectations which are most of the time not aligned with the student’s personal goals and interests. Believing that the government curriculum is important for life is a social construct. At the same time, there are values that are essential for life that aren’t acquired in traditional schools.
Knowledge is infinite. And school contemplates a tiny little square of knowledge. Traditional school makes some people think that they are not good enough, only because they don’t fit in that tiny square. Instead of embracing the diversity and the uniqueness of every human, that is different and exceeds in different areas, it makes you believe that there are better and worse persons: Traditional schools find the best student in the class, democratic schools find the best of every student.
The combination of all these aspects makes people feel impotent and unmotivated, and school ends up being a place full of unmotivated people receiving orders and not prioritizing their personal goals.
I’ve experienced feeling powerless in traditional schools, losing time, I’ve felt that I was spending my hours doing nothing, working towards a no-goal, towards a paradox. I’ve been surrounded by kids that hate learning, that hate their teachers. And I found that very sad, because for me learning is an amazing aspect of life and, teachers are incredible facilitators of knowledge. I’ve experienced the love of learning, and how meaningful a school experience can be and would like other kids to be able to experience the same.
Selva recently created a group called “Self-Directed Education Youth Advocates” which is a discord group of youth that advocate for SDE.
If you are a youth interested in being part of this group, you can email her at email@example.com. You can join as an active youth member or as a supporting adult.
Personal Instagram: @selva_salvaje
SDE Youth Advocates: @sde_youth_advocates