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Jüdische Allgemeine, 19th August 2005

Learning without pressure

"Democratic Schools" are established in Israel, but the concept is still controversial.


[Photograph of students listening to music, sitting about or lying on the floor. Caption:  Democratic music lesson: Pupils at the Free School in Hadera.]

Michael Sappir begins the school day with breakfast in a circle with his fellow-students and staff. After that the seventeen-year-old decides whether he will work at the computer, occupy himself with philosophy, play basketball, mend his bicycle or talk to friends. He and his fifty fellow-students can decide for themselves how their school day will go. The Democratic School in Jerusalem, of which Michael was one of the founders three years ago, works on the model of the American Sudbury Valley School. No one has to learn fixed subjects or take part in activities. Lessons only happen when students expressly ask for them. There are neither marks nor written assessments. "Nevertheless chaos does not rule in our school," emphasises Sappir. "We have rules, and it is done democratically, because all the students, teachers and staff take part in the committees and everybody has equal rights with one vote each."

The school parliament discusses rules about behaviour and makes decisions by a majority vote. When there are complaints a justice committee is called which suggests solutions or gives punishments for the breaking of rules. "Learning is fun again," says Sappir at the 13th International Democratic Educatin Conference (IDEC) at the beginning of August in Berlin. "In the traditional school I was always having trouble with the other people in my class. I felt I was exposed to the pressure of the teachers and I chased after marks."

All around the world there are about seventy democratic schools, most of them in the USA. After that comes Israel with 25. "There are differences in the organisation of the school day and the decision-making structures, but all of them are based on fundamental trust for children and the shared responsibility of everyone who is involved," says Menachen Goron, director of the Democratic School of Kanaf on the Golan Heights. "Children are born with a natural curiosity, which makes a strict timetable unnecessary. They ought to experience learning as a pleasure and not a burden."

Are democratic schools a model for state education or do they only have a niche status? This question is discussed not only in Israel, where the alternative schools have more government support than in Germany, say. In Berlin too the experts are in disagreement, above all because there is no objective way of answering this question. Scientific evidence as to whether this alternative approach to learning produces better or worse results is sparse.

"Most schools avoid critical inspection," says the education expert Yoad Eliaz. He was a student and then a teacher at an alternative school, and later director of the Israeli Institute for Democratic Education, the only one in the world. His three children go to a democratic school. But Eliaz says: "In Israel these establishments are not adequately researched."

An argument which democratic schools use to avoid such research goes like this: "We are so different in our approach that the achievements of the students are not measurable with the traditional academic tools." But Eliaz is not discouraged. "I have once again offered several Israeli head teachers an independent investigation ­ I hope this time it will come about."

Georg Breidenstein also recognises the democratic schools' attitude to co-operative research [this is a guess ­ the German is Begleitforschung]. For many years the highly qualified professor of education has been investigating German alternative schools in a research project at the University of Halle. "The anxieties are understandable," says the researcher. "Scientific observation and reflection include individual situations and practices. But as an alternative schools sees itself as a whole, teachers and parents are afraid that the whole project may be questioned because of one detail." He also guesses that researchers, in their participatory observation of free schools, are often not neutral, but become either supporters or sceptics. In order to be able to dissolve the mutual mistrust and to describe the school practice of alternative schools in a more approriate way, Breidenstein pleads for new methods of research. Measurement of achievement on the traditional school model may be possible, but it must be complemented by detached observation and video recording as well as interviews with students and teachers. "The evaluation of an alternative school does not ask whether this school can be allowed to exist, but what it can improve."

After more than fifteen years Yoad Eliaz has turned his back on the established "democratic" education arrangements in Israel and has become one of their sharpest critics. "Free schools fight against traditional schools instead of fighting for social justice. They serve the ruling ideology and promote ignorance." The essence of education ­ the question of what and why children should learn ­ they have neglected. With "Indimage", his Muslim-Jewish project  for education for peace, Eliaz and a Palestinian colleague set up an alternative to the Israeli democratic schools at the beginning of August 2004. "We train Jewish as well as Arab teachers to deal with their own background." Identity, language, culture, history, questions about one's role within society, the economy and politics are essential parts of the timetable, so that Jewish and Arab schoolchildren learn to understand themselves and others better. "Our education for democracy and peace we will also submit to academic investigation."

[In the box:]

In "democratic schools"

the pupils decide themselves what, when and how they learn. The Sudbury Valley School in Framingham (USA) is considered to be the model. It was founded in 1968. The biggest democratic school is the Moscow School for Self-Determination, with 1200 pupils. The Democratic School of Hadera, in Israel, is in the second place with 370 pupils. In 1992 it received the education award from the President of Israel. Since 1993 the organisations have exchanged views every year at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).

Democratic Schools
- a film about the desire to learn

Demokratische Schulen
- Ein Film über die Lust zu lernen
Resolution der
IDEC 2005

IDEC 2005 Resolution
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