How You Can Build Democracy in the Classroom

Foster democratic principles through teacher-student partnership and shared decision-making.

November 26, 2014
Jeff Knutson Senior Manager, Education Content
Senior Manager, Education Content

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Students

Students in the Unites States learn about democracy and civics throughout their time in school -- an understanding of our nation's founding principles is considered fundamental. From the classic Schoolhouse Rock episode "I'm Just a Bill" to an AP U.S. History Socratic seminar on the Articles of Confederation, democracy is an essential topic in American social studies curricula.

Yet typically, American schools and classrooms aren't democratic in how they're managed and run. Students -- especially teenagers -- are often quick to point this out. As we teach lessons on constitutional freedoms, it's only natural that our students want to test the limits of those freedoms, sometimes contradicting the school's or classroom's more authoritarian structures.

This irony isn't lost on teachers. We see firsthand how authoritarian structures can disempower students, and even stifle learning of essential skills like communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. In the end, we want our students to understand what a true democracy looks and feels like. So how can we better empower our students to think, and act, more democratically?

Doing Democracy
A growing number of teachers, administrators, and even entire schools are taking steps to make the teaching and learning process a more democratic experience for everyone, especially students. Instead of simply teaching democracy as part of the curriculum, some schools are "doing democracy." Democratic classrooms stand in contrast to more traditional, authoritarian teaching and learning practices. They're based upon the democratic principles of shared control and power among students, teachers, and sometimes even school leaders. Through this teacher-student partnership, students are empowered to take more responsibility for their own learning, and tend to be more intrinsically motivated.

Of course, teachers everywhere may employ these ideas to different degrees. Some teachers use shared decision-making activities at the beginning of the year when defining classroom rules and procedures. In other classrooms, students take on rotating responsibilities throughout the year to help to manage the classroom -- from general housekeeping duties to facilitating votes about curricular issues.

Some classrooms -- even entire schools -- set out to use the democratic process for all matters throughout the school year. Central to this more all-inclusive model is the ongoing practice of holding conscientious discussions about the state of all classroom affairs -- the presence of students' collective voice is paramount. In the democratic classroom, democracy isn't just the content of kids' learning, but also the vehicle through which all of their learning takes place.

Resources for Democratic Classrooms
Whether you're just in the planning stages or looking for new resources to offer your students, here are some informational websites and helpful digital tools and resources for building democracy in the classroom:

  • Teaching Tolerance has great resources for diversity education, plus you can find a page with information about democratic classrooms, complete with links to videos, resources, and articles on the subject from the likes of Rethinking Schools.
  • PBS LearningMedia offers a wealth of resources organized into Collections of teaching and learning materials. A number of these cover foundational topics related to American democracy. Collections like The Supreme Court, Civil Rights, and Teaching the Constitution include resources you can use to ignite discussions with students about their rights and responsibilities.
  • Zinn Education Project can help spark honest and critical discussions about American democracy and injustice throughout history. As students explore the site's topics, they may just become inspired to emulate positive change in their own democratic experiment.
  • Online Discussion Tools like Collaborize Classroom, Piazza, or Backchannel Chat can support discussions and open conversations, which are key to the democratic process. Though many of these discussions will happen aloud in class, a safe online forum can be a great place to kick-start ideas. Beyond providing some structure, these digital tools can offer anonymity and equity, giving more introverted students an avenue to speak their minds.
  • Online Writing and Blogging Tools give students a space to develop and share their thoughts, engage in meaningful conversations, and get feedback from peers. Blogs and writing communities can support student-driven inquiry and can empower students to take more ownership of their learning.
  • Simple Polling Tools like Poll Everywhere, InfuseLearning, or GoSoapBox can help facilitate and expedite the voting process. While a simple in-class show-of-hands vote can be effective, online polls have features that support your classroom's democratic process. Beyond expediting the process, online voting's anonymous responses can help boost participation, as well as protect and encourage students with dissenting opinions.
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL) Tools like Project Foundry or WeLearnedIt can help you manage students' interest-driven learning. There's a natural crossover between democratic learning and Project-Based Learning, as both ask students to take more ownership of what they learn and how they learn it. These tools could be useful for those incorporating PBL into their curriculum.