What is a democratic classroom? It’s not a partisan space. It doesn’t focus on political parties and their viewpoints. Instead, a democratic classroom engages students in living democratically by promoting values such as inclusion, voice, representation, and participation.
After prolonged periods of remote learning, our classroom communities have never been more relevant as spaces to nurture student agency, foster social belonging, and prepare our learners as active citizens. We can create this environment by establishing democratic classrooms: safe, inclusive learning environments, where students actively practice democratic values, understand their rights, and take responsibility for their behavior as both individuals and members of a community.
These are characteristics of the democratic classroom:
- High-trust relationships and shared power between teachers and students
- High degree of student voice and agency
- Respect for children’s ideas and contributions
- Intentional sharing of diverse perspectives, including those about challenging issues
- Use of dialogue and group decision-making, often through protocols
- Development of the whole self, including students’ critical consciousness
Practical Ways to Promote Agency and Participation With Students
Classroom setup: Start the school year by co-constructing features of the classroom with students and integrating their ideas into the design of the learning space. With your learners, consider the underlying beliefs and values that the classroom should promote. Using a Y-chart, ask them, “What should our classroom community look like, sound like, and feel like?”
For example, if students want a space that promotes collaboration and social belonging, how might a furniture layout help or hinder this? While rows of desks will limit social interaction, table groups will foster discussion and sharing. Make decisions with students about the placement of furniture and the nature of classroom decorations—for example, signs in students’ home languages that reflect their beliefs and values. Think about what interactions might look like in the classroom space. How might this connect to the purpose of a space, such as promoting reflection? When and how should the teacher and students revisit the classroom design to see how it functions?
Reflect on how the classroom setup might communicate underlying power dynamics. For instance, does the teacher sit on a soft chair while the students are on hard chairs? Are all chairs directed toward the teacher? Does the teacher sit at a higher level than the students—for example, on a chair in a carpeted area, while children sit on the floor? How might such decisions promote or impede a democratic classroom climate?
Instead, we can shift power and share it with our students by decentralizing our classrooms. Using small group seating, not all physically directed toward the same classroom wall, we can promote agency and leverage the power of collaborative, peer-to-peer learning. When stools are placed in a circle for class discussion, students can speak directly to others in the class, instead of requiring constant meditation by the teacher. The traditional student-teacher ping-pong becomes a multiplayer basketball game. This allows us to move away from a teacher-as-authority stance and to the role of a learning facilitator as students develop communication and social skills.
Co-constructed class charter: Rather than creating classroom rules or expectations, co-construct a classroom charter with students. A charter is different because it focuses on students’ rights as well as their responsibilities. It models how individual and group needs intersect, yet also deviate. As part of the design of a class charter, introduce students to a rights framework, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ask students to choose rights they believe need to be in place in order for them to learn. Next, given these rights, what are their responsibilities to ensure that these are upheld in the classroom community?
Importantly, the rights that students choose can’t be taken away as punishment. However, the opportunity to infringe on other people’s rights can be withdrawn. For example, a student can be stopped from exercising their freedom of speech if their words are discriminatory against others in the classroom. UNICEF Canada has more information about class charters.
Peaceful place: Peace begins with each student. If we want peaceful classroom communities, where students learn how to recognize their emotions and navigate conflict in productive ways, we need to teach strategies for being at peace. “A peaceful place” is a physical location in the classroom where students can reflect on their feelings, calm down, or resolve conflict with their peers. It may be a table at the back of the class, a play tent, or even a large cardboard box that can be painted by students.
By inviting students to identify, design, and decorate a peaceful place, we can introduce the notion of peace and set up classroom routines that promote personal and group well-being.
For instance, with elementary students, place paper, markers, and reading books in the space, so that students can use the area to cool off when feeling frustrated. Likewise, arrange a few chairs inside or next to the space to promote conflict resolution strategies such as recognizing emotions, using “I statements,” and active listening. Importantly, a peaceful place should never be used for disciplinary purposes, such as a time out. Peace is a dynamic rather than passive concept, so ongoing practice and reflection on behavior is key. There’s more information about this strategy in a book I wrote with Elizabeth O. Crawford, Worldwise Learning: A Teacher’s Guide to Shaping a Just, Sustainable Future.
Structures for discussion and dialogue: Students benefit from structures and protocols that enable them to feel safe and secure during discussions. This is especially true when speaking about current events that may be contentious or produce strong emotions in our learners. Structures and protocols provide predictability and help to scaffold the development of communication skills. For engaging students in conversations about social justice issues, Learning for Justice’s Let’s Talk! provides a number of concrete tips. For example, when structuring critical conversations, teach students to “Restate, Contemplate, Breathe, Communicate” to manage emotions or use temperature-check strategies such as Fist to Five to understand students’ comfort level.
Likewise, Facing History and Ourselves has a number of strategies that teachers can use before, during, or after discussions, such as “Big Paper” to promote silent conversations or “Cafe Conversations” where students take on the role of an assigned perspective in a small group discussion.
The democratic classroom fosters critical thinking, authentic participation, and social and emotional learning. It’s a humanizing space that empowers our students. As American scholar and activist bell hooks says, this is “education as a practice of freedom.” Part of creating a democratic classroom is being aware of how to set up our classrooms, establish community, and make space for students’ diverse voices, opinions, and perspectives.
This is part of our hidden curriculum. Whether intentional or not, our choices communicate beliefs, values, and expectations to students. If we want our students to become active citizens, we must ensure that our routines, structures, and interactions mirror this aim.