A Hidden Downside of Democratic Classrooms

In reviewing my student surveys, I noticed a few trends:

  • Students want more procedures. They generally think the class runs smoothly, but they want more clarity on what they are supposed to do. 
  • Students are not as crazy about choice as I had thought. For example, they prefer the visual writing prompts to free writes. 
  • Students don't like the twenty percent concept. Every time that we've tried a totally independent project, they have felt lost and disconnected - even when they worked in a group. 
  • Many of my students see the class as well-behaved and they see me as "strict but fair," and yet they want me to return to seating charts. 

So, I'm going a little more traditional. I'm ignoring the Twitterverse utopian visions of letting students do whatever they want in the name of autonomy. I'm giving them more math problems to practice (because they asked for it). I might just set up seating charts for certain subjects.

It has me realizing that it is easy to advocate for democratic classrooms and student choice when it seems to affirm the ideology of alternative education. Sure, let them play some Minecraft. Yeah, let's let them choose their own reading. Go for it! Start with some inquiry in science.

But what happens when democracy looks different? What happens when students want more structure? What happens when they don't want a mess? What happens when they advocate for rows instead of tables? What if they want seating charts? What if they ask for more rote-based, repetitive practice because they feel overwhelmed by constant authentic math problems? What if they beg for stickers?

It's the same issue with student voice. Hand out megaphones and see who yells loudest. Shake your first. Point out the flaws of the system. Go for it. But what about the students who embrace the structure of high school? What about those who like feeling competent by mastering a subject in a more traditional way? What about those who feel grateful to the teachers who have helped them think better about life?

It is easy for me to scoff at that idea, because I was wildly idealistic, creative and outspoken as a high school student. I wore John Lennon t-shirts. I wrote op-ed pieces in the school newspaper without ever joining the class.  But what about those who are thriving in band and drama and athletics? What about those who show pride in their school, not out of coercion or popularity, but out of a sense of gratitude for getting an education? You won't hear them in #stuvoice, because their voices are often too quiet and nuanced.

If you want to embrace student voice, it can't just be a megaphone of shouting. If you advocate for democratic classrooms, it might not look project-based or inquiry-driven. And before blaming it on the socialization of the system, consider this:

If you really open it up to choice and democracy, understand that students might not be as radical as you think.