Last month’s column focused on the social nature of our brain, both in its modular organization and extended development. This column will argue that a collaborative classroom management model provides the best school venue for enhancing the brain maturation of students.

A Democratic Society, A Democratic Classroom
Authoritarian governments have dominated much of human history. The representative form of democracy initiated in the United States was a bold political experiment that has taken 200 years to develop, and it is still continuously evolving through challenges by individuals, groups, and events. Our democratic society is characterized as much by disagreement as by agreement—but we’ve learned over the years how to disagree without being unduly disagreeable. The contentious decision to invade Iraq is a good recent example. In our democracy, the majority vote settles the disagreement, but the minority can seek redress through the courts and subsequent votes. Individual thought and expression are constitutionally protected, and governments change by vote rather than force.

The rest of the world observed as we gradually worked out the kinks in the system, and an increasing number liked what they observed.

About a dozen other democracies had emerged by the beginning of the 20th century, and today 120 of the some 200 countries in the world have some form of democratic government. One can expect that the movement towards democratic forms of government will increase as ease of travel and electronic communication combine to turn the world into even more of a democratically collaborative global village than it currently is.

John Dewey’s eloquent argument that maturing citizens in a democratic society deserve a democratically run school seemed reasonable to many 100 years ago, but the movement had all but died by the time I began school in the 1930’s. Classroom management was viewed as an administrative function—the adults managed the students. Our democratic society needed intelligent autonomous citizens, but it also needed a compliant workforce who would show up on time and do what the boss asked them to do. The school seemed a good place to teach that. We thus maintained an authoritarian school within a democratic society, despite the apparent contradiction.

The serious shift towards a democratic school occurred gradually during the second half of the 20th century. Educators began to realize that classroom management could be viewed as a curricular rather than an administrative function—a social laboratory in which students could collaborate on many of the mundane-to-important decisions that teachers typically make, and develop important problem solving and negotiation skills in the process. School is the only institution in our society in which young folks interact for 13 years with many hundreds of non-kin at a similar developmental stage. What are the options, if our society doesn’t explicitly develop social and democratic skills within its schools?

The shift from a 20th century society focused on making and moving objects within natural space/time to a 21st century society focused on creating and moving information within cyber space/time suggests that collaborative behavior may become as valued as compliant behavior within the 21st century work force. A democratic school encourages an independent entrepreneurial spirit.

Schools such as Summerhill (Neill, 1960) began to imaginatively explore collaborative possibilities several decades ago (although the Free School Movement of the 1970’s sometimes took the concept to extremes). The literature that emerged on democratic classroom management procedures was and remains intriguingly diverse—but what else would one expect within a democracy replete with differing perspectives about what democracy should be?

I’ve proposed a simple collaborative classroom management model focused on biological principles (Sylwester 2003), but equally effective collaborative models (such as Neil’s Summerhill and Dewey’s Progressive Education) have emerged out of key principles in the social sciences and philosophy. Collaboration is a central social concept. It ought also to become central in classroom management.

A democratic management model doesn’t abrogate educators from responsibility. We’re a representative democracy, and educators represent society in its desire to maintain a safe effective learning environment. Individuals in a democracy aren’t free to do anything they want. Freedom isn’t license. Still, many classroom decisions that educators now make can be democratically made by the entire group—if we would put our mind to it. Individual teachers discover that when they make all the management decisions, they are worn out by the end of the day and their students are bored.

A democratic management model won’t solve all the misbehavior problems that students and educators commit. Misbehavior occurs within all management models—and our representative democracy functions effectively with all sorts of misbehavior. For example, democracies have an adult version of “time out” called prison. Both our body/brain and government are behaviorally excellent but not perfect.

Democratic procedures work, despite a constant messy pattern of disagreement and inefficiency, because a democracy is tuned to the striking similarities that biological and social systems exhibit. Managing a country or classroom is functionally similar to body/brain management. We’re biased towards challenge—most of our emotions are negative, and much of our cognitive energy is focused on solving problems. When things are running smoothly, we tend to go looking for trouble—at both the personal and national level.

We’ve not discovered a magic formula for creating a democracy in 200 years, at either the national or classroom level. Developing a perfect formula misses the whole point of the enterprise. A democracy is an unfinished process replete with dangers and opportunities, and our social nature prefers a continuing collaborative search for the solutions. Our nation began with a determination to succeed as a democracy, and then worked collaboratively to temporarily solve each successive challenge it confronted. Every constitutional amendment and legislative act represents something that wasn’t previously right.

Educators should similarly begin their shift to a truly democratic classroom with honest collaborations that solve simple issues that arise, and go on from there. Think of all the decisions related to classroom space, time, and movement. Think of all the decisions related to who gets to make the decision and how much energy should be expended on the project. Think of all the decisions related to what’s possible and what’s appropriate. Students who are encouraged to collaborate in these simple classroom decisions will mature into adults who can collaborate on analogous civic decisions.

A class group may thus not be genuinely democratic in September when they begin their collaborative explorations, but they could be close to it by June if teacher and class collaboratively determine to do it.