Elements of a Vision

Democratic education facilitated by edtech.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jack West

CREDIT ManaiakalaniPersonalization and collaboration, choice and rigor, current yet timeless. This might be how you would describe the elements of everyone’s vision of a 21st-century education — at least, now that we realize it’s not going to be like the Jetsons. It also might be how you would describe a democratic education. Various attempts at democratic education have been made throughout history with varying degrees of success. There are a couple popular examples that education professors like to point to. The Summerhill School in England and the Sudbury School in Massachusetts are two examples.

Self determination is a central tenet of these democratic schools.

The Summerhill website says, “The freedom to attend formal lessons or not at the school is a central feature of the school’s philosophy. Children have the opportunity for unlimited play, which we believe is good for both their physical and mental health.” Generally, a regular school meeting in which students and teachers are on equal footing is also a characteristic of a democratic school as well.

I’ve also seen schools that use the edtech to go a step further — they’re increasing the self-determination of the students.

Few schools adhere as strictly to the democratic model that may even put much of the operations decisions equally in the hands of the students and teachers. The economics of education and the almost religious-like commitment to a process that may take years to fruit for any given individual in a democratic school, both make it difficult to adopt a strict democratic model in our publicly funded institutions. However, there are many schools that embrace democratic principles and go a long way toward supporting student agency.

In my work as a lead educator at my company, I have seen many schools adopting education technology for students toward the ends of better differentiating instruction, providing a more rich curriculum, and increasing collaboration. In a few cases, I have also seen schools that use the edtech to go a step further; they are increasing the self-determination of the students – and that is one of the key components of a democratic education.

One specific example of such a school system is found in the low-income suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand. The schools of the Manaiakalani cluster adopted one-to-one devices five years ago to support their personalized instruction model that allows teachers to work deeply with small groups of students in groups of two to four in a formative dialog. The time that the students in Manaiakalani schools spend outside of the formative dialog groups is largely self-determined.

Interestingly, the students that have exited the Manaiakalani program in the last few years are showing significant improvement on New Zealand’s version of the PISA; an exam that tests language arts, critical thinking, maths, and other skills. While it is difficult to point to any single factor in Manaiakalani’s success, the teachers cite the freedom they have for formative dialog and choice among their top candidates.

The technology makes both of these possible because, while the teacher is deeply engaging with a few students at a time, the other twenty-odd students in the room can be occupied with projects or practice of their own as facilitated by the tech.

The students at Manaiakalani may not be setting salaries and interviewing trustees, but there is strong evidence that their edtech, including tools they first conceptualized, promotes an environment where constructive dialog and self determination are accelerating learning.

Jack West is a Lead Educator for Hapara, maker of tools for schools that use Google Apps for Education. To learn more about the work of the Manaiakalani educators that inspired the company, click here.

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