What’s in store for schooling? Thoughts from the Indian Democratic Education Conference, InDEC 2019.
Over the last couple of centuries, series of revolutions have won freedom for people across regions and classes. Slavery has been abolished, empires have folded, workers rights have been established, some form of democracy is in place across large parts of the globe. There is one very large section of people that have not yet won their freedom, children and the youth.
Children and the youth still spend bulk of their time in authoritarian institutions. They are not free to choose how to spend their time. They rot in boring classrooms, are being indoctrinated and are submitting their talents to giving arbitrary exams. Since they do not control means of production, they are deemed incapable of taking decisions. Schools and colleges teach subjects that are controlled by the state, governed by authority of officials from the principal to the teacher. Students, have very little say in this scheme of things, neither in the content of education nor its methods.
In the worst case, students go through the drudgery of classrooms during the better part of the day, listening to monologues from bored and anxious adults. But this is now changing. Schools across the world are recognizing that this system is a failure. From Summer Hill onward, schools and parents are putting faith in the children, and making them the center of the education process.
Various alternatives from Montessori schools to un-schooling are flowering, that give various degrees of control to the children. A collection of such experiments came together at the Indian Democratic Education Conference (InDEC) at Coimbatore in November this year. InDEC is an offshoot of the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) that started in 1993 to promote democratic values of education across the world. The event is run by volunteers led by educationist Amukta Mahapatra who has been the tireless force behind the movement in India.
What is Democratic Education?
Broadly democratic education means:
In any educational setting, young people have the right:
- To decide individually how, when, what, where and with whom they learn.
- To have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their organizations — in particular their schools — are run, and which rules and sanctions, if any, are necessary.
So what happens in such a conference?
This was my first experience of the conference. Last year, the international version of the conference (IDEC) had come to India at Bengaluru with over 650 participants all over the world. Our group from Learner’s Collective was there and they had a great time, hence we decided to go together as a group this time too.
The event is attended by children, families, young adults, educators, teachers, parents and other enthusiasts who are keen to understand the process of democratic education, and just have some fun learning new things and meeting interesting people. The event this year was hosted by a bunch of schools at the Western Ghats International School in the outskirts Coimbatore, and mostly organized by the children of those schools.
The schedule was flexible and organized as an unconference. Many rooms are thrown open for people to conduct all kinds of sessions.
During the three and a half days, here is a sample of sessions or activities I interacted in:
- Spent sometime sketching Manga (also called Anime) comics with a bunch of Manga enthusiasts. Interacted with some kids who introduced me to the Fairy Tail series of Manga and showed me some stories they were sketching themselves!
- Learnt about Sociocracy, a consent based model for decision making. Learnt how to conduct a meeting with sociocratic values, and why objections should be welcome and addressed in any group. Also attended a session on how to conduct a democratic meeting.
- Had debates on “How much screen time is okay for children?”, with children explaining why they love playing computer games (it gives them opportunity for adventure and exploration), and adults explaining children why gaming is addictive and leads to tantrums and withdrawal symptoms.
- Sat in a lecture by Priti David of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), an organization started by journalist P. Sainath that is documenting stories from remote and rural parts of India. Learnt about their efforts of taking rural stories to schools in cities, whose food, water, labour and many products come from the countryside, about which they know very little about.
- Met kids from Space Kidz India, an organization promoting science, electronics and space exploration. They told me about drone races and why their drone was faster than any other.
- Interacted with a bunch of teenagers from a Montessori school in Bengaluru who had setup a stall selling chocolate and coconut candies and other crafts they made themselves.
Apart from this there are groups of people playing games like Scrabble, and arts and crafts activities that happen through the day and cultural programs in the evening.
How to Run a Democratic School?
This is our first year of running the Sadhana Learning Center (SLC), a democratic school in Mumbai. In our first few months we have learnt that kids mostly like to play, hate doing chores and want to spend lots of time playing computer games. We knew that many schools have already done this before and were eager to learn more. We were grateful to the bunch of facilitators and kids (special thanks to Annies Ephraim for being extremely patient) who had traveled from BeMe in Bengaluru, another democratic school with over 70 children, who explained how things happened at their school.
Here are some tips we learnt based on how things happen in BeMe:
- Rule making (parliament) and conflict resolution (judiciary committee) take up a lot of time. Parliament happens every week and Judiciary, twice a day. Not everyone is engaged in Parliament.
- There are various nudges for children to learn basic math and reading. There are zones for language and math which have a facilitator, worksheets and activities for those wanted to build these skills. By the age of 6/7 most kids are literate in basic math and reading.
- Sessions can be led by facilitators or students themselves. The students decide what sessions they want to be conducted and request for them if they want. No session is compulsory and some children don’t attend sessions.
- Goals and reflection sessions happen once every semester. Children are expected to have learning goals for each semester and are then expected to reflect on their efforts to give them a sense of growth and progress.
- Chores are done by everyone. Since BeMe has a large group, there is always someone to manage the chores. BeMe does not have a credit-system like the one we have at SLC to incentivize children to do chores. I had a big debate with Annies from BeMe about the credit system. I believed that the credit system was fair to those who did things that others were not willing to do, while accepting the fact that rewards are often not the best way to appreciate the value of the activity itself.
This conversation and learning was very important for us as we go from one stage to next. Each democratic school is different but the concepts of rule making, managing responsibilities, planning activities, resolving conflicts are all very similar. To me this the beauty of democratic education. Each group may end up being very different from another in the kind of activities or rules they end up with, as long as they adopt a democratic way of life.
All my interaction at InDEC reinforced what we were doing at SLC. To most of my friends and family, running a learning center seemed like a radical thing to do, but after hearing from so many people who were doing the same thing, it seems like the most natural way of learning.
The unfortunate reality is that democratic education is still far away for most children and schools. Giving away power and decision making is not going to be easy for the adults who control these resources. The more we trust our children, the more we realize how smart and capable they are of taking their own decisions and how authoritative we are as parents and society.
Events like InDEC need to happen more often and be attended by more people, so that this change touches the lives millions of young people all over the world. This event was proof that the movement for democratic education is well underway. In a dark and cynical world, this is very heartening to know.