What Parents need to know about Democratic Learning Communities

You are reading this because you care about the child in your life, and you want the best for them. You want to be certain that they will get an education that equips them for a full, successful and happy life.

This introduction aims to help you orient to the natural learning process, so that you can support the child in your life in getting the very best out of this rare opportunity to attend a democratic learning centre.

Most of us have zero experience of genuine democratic education.

Even though it relies on the oldest and most natural forms of learning, the kinds that come built in to every human being, it is the drastic opposite of what most of us experienced in school.  Looking with schooled eyes, natural learning can be hard to understand.

Conventional schooling is linear, compartmentalised, regular, standardised and austere.

Natural learning is rich in play and enjoyment, organic, individualised – and the timelines are all over the place!

Natural learners may pick up and drop, and later return to a ‘subject’, repeatedly over time. On the other hand, they may obsess about one thing for years. Or, they may work on a succession of apparently unrelated areas. Or, resist/ignore something completely for years before suddenly mastering it in just a few months. Or, steadily apply themselves in a balanced way over time.  All of these learning patterns are valid and effective, as long as they are driven from within. They are also mostly different to the patterns imposed by conventional schools.

This can make it difficult for most of us to recognise and trust the learning process.

Only the learner knows what the learner needs to know, and how and when to learn it.

There is no curriculum in democratic education. There is only the individual’s constantly changing range of interests and unique developmental readiness.

Democratic Education is 100% individualised. The learners follow their own interests and passions, and can explore alone or in spontaneous shared-interest groups, in a rich environment.

Facilitators help the children access the resources they show an interest in, and are always available to assist when children need support, but each child is 100% in charge of what they do when, and how far they take it.

If any skill is genuinely important for survival/well-being  in our culture, then all children will eventually find a reason to learn it.

Democratic education does the exact opposite of the spoon-feeding that is stock-in-trade for conventional schooling. When adults stop making educational choices on a child’s behalf, the child is confronted with not only the freedom, but the challenge of responsibility for their own developing competence.

As long as nobody acts as the child’s permanent slave, and as long as children are given real responsibility for their lives, it is simply not feasible that they will never have the incentive to learn to read, or correctly calculate change.

It is more than possible, however, that they might never choose to memorise the capital cities of South America or the exact dates of WW1.

If this deeply troubles you, perhaps consider whether you truly believe that the lack of this kind of “knowledge”(usually quickly erased again from memory anyway) will truly sabotage their success in life, or whether it is simply a remnant of your own schooled conditioning.

All children can benefit from this kind of education, and for some it is critically important.

This kind of education is ideal for learners who have talents or interests that don’t fall into usual curricula. Mastery comes with hours spent. Democratic education frees the learner to spend more time on their areas of core talent/interest. It also allows them to pursue complementary skills that others might not realise are part of their personally necessary skillset.

Democratic education is powerfully healing for learners who are off the centre of the bell curve in terms of being “ahead” or “behind” in some area, since it allows them to make their own pace without pressure. They can learn according to their own readiness without being either pathologised or put on false pedestals.

Often, remedial and medical interventions are unnecessary once learners are freed from externally determined benchmarks, expectations and milestones. For example, “late” readers, or learners who are not ready for formal maths at an early age, generally catch up and may even surpass their peers if simply allowed to take a few extra years.

Most learners who “can’t focus”, are perfectly able to do so once they are empowered to shape their own learning environments, rhythms, and activities.

On the other hand, ‘precocious’ learners (whom research suggests will most often settle into the ‘normal’ range later on in life) don’t have to struggle under the burden of the falsely inflated expectations that competitive environments can impose on them.

This form of education works best if the key adults in the child’s life can put aside their fears and trust the child 100%.

Even “subtly” trying to steer the child, “encouraging” them to consider activities that you feel are valuable, or are worried about, can act as damaging sabotage.

All crucial educational materials will be freely available at/via the democratic learning centre, and your child will know well how to access them and how to get help when needed.

The child who loves you wants to please you. Trying to do what you want and expect, undermines their innate ability to follow their own best interests. It causes self-doubt.

No imposed goal is ever as powerful a learning tool as tackling a goal that is passionately one’s own.

The child who tries to work on reading or maths or their tennis serve in order to please you, is more likely to fail and lose confidence.

Even where they succeed, their success is for you – not their own empowering triumph.

The child who tackles these tasks only once fully ready and passionately keen to do so, is likely to succeed and be further empowered by that self-driven success.

Just as your child learned to talk and walk, they will learn to read and count.

Just as some children learn to walk at 8 months and others at 18 months, some children learn to read at 4 and others at 14. Most fall somewhere in between. If they are supported in true natural learning, almost all will have evened out well before they are 18.

If your child had genuine trouble learning to walk and talk, then yes, perhaps they may also need specialist help in learning to read and count.

But for most children, the most powerful education comes from complete responsible freedom to explore and develop their own abilities in a rich (and richly social) educational environment.

Please be assured that in this democratic learning centre, the child in your life will have exactly that.

The outcome is a confident and capable person, vs a standardised test score.

There are no tests or exams in democratic education, nor even external ‘qualitative evaluations’ common in progressive education. There are only those self-imposed goals which the learner may sometimes set for their own feedback and growth – which may or may not be visible to the outside observer.

This can be very hard for parents who need reassurance: There is no objective, standardised way to evaluate a child’s progress. There is only the child’s growing sense of confidence and mastery.

Many tertiary institutions have already realised that this kind of student is actually more likely to cope with advanced studies and career demands, and in places where many such learners have already graduated, learners are increasingly able to access tertiary courses even without any kind of final certificate.

Those learners who do choose to, are free to sign up for any kind of external standardised certificate at any point they choose. They will be supported in this personally chosen endeavour as in every other.

There is a vast quantity of research and literature to support the statements made here.

If you would like to read more in order to reassure yourself, more deeply understand this model, and more completely support your child, please do ask if you need help in finding material.