Do we value democracy in schools?

Written by: David Kazamias | Published:
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Giving students power over decisions that affect them is not radical, it is simply democratic. If we truly value democracy, we must balance teacher authority with student autonomy, says David Kazamias

In his 1971 book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich asserts that school “tends to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants”. This, he says, “makes the teacher into custodian, guardian, and therapist”. The list does not have to end there: we are also mentors, job counsellors, social workers, coaches, facilitators, judges, ideologues.

As teachers we are, regardless of how we like to frame it, involved in acts of control. Illich saw this “total claim” as inherently negative, a coercive authoritarianism. The roles we perform as teachers become congealed and mystified and can often lead to unchecked power, especially when there is a lack of transparency.

The students’ compulsory attendance only serves to make matters worse. Anything done involuntarily is often not done well; and compulsion does not go hand-in-hand with autonomy. These are not easy issues to wish away. This symbolic violence is often glanced over with an “it is how it is” philosophy. Yet being aware of and reflective about these different authoritative functions can help us to navigate them.

Knowing when we slip into a different role and what skills are needed for that role becomes essential. Whether that is giving careers advice or solving a friendship issue, our position as teacher symbolically validates our assertions, even when those assertions aren’t true or helpful. We too become convinced of our own competencies in these fields, despite perhaps an absence of training or professional knowledge.

This doesn’t mean that teachers should be expected to become experts in other fields. But conscious awareness and critical engagement with the different facets of our profession can help us keep a playful distance from this mystification of authority.

Additionally, reflective practice and CPD are important in regards to understanding the differentiated subset of skills and approaches needed in these varied roles. Otherwise we are the comedians with a captive audience, who get laughs regardless of whether the jokes are funny.

Being aware of the “swampiness” of our authority is one thing, but being transparent and openly critical about that authority is something else. Transparent dialogue is a good step towards greater student autonomy. Simple conversations such as “you are here because of X and I am here because of Y” or “I am not a relationship counsellor but...” allow students to reflect on their own position in a more critical way.

Asking for consent before giving advice, or at least having established consent before assuming a different role, is important for the student’s own sense of agency.

Broader dialogues about processes are also key. When a teacher enters into a classroom discussion about the issues of teacher bias or the problems of assessment then it gives students the chance for critical reflection. These issues and processes are often packaged by teachers and experienced by students as something external and unchangeable. The unveiling of reality needs to be constant.

By having a more earnest dialogue about the state of things – that oh so very precarious relationship between fair structures and institutional and subjective bias – students can be empowered. And from that comes autonomy, even if it is born from a new understanding of unfairness and prejudice.

But this does not have to be limited to discussions in the classroom, this should bleed into our deeper pedagogy. The aim should be to increase and develop student choice and involvement whenever possible.

Allowing students to be involved in curriculum design boosts participation, deepens autonomy and creates a much richer and inclusive learning environment.

In the case of assessment, small adjustments like taking “quizzes” rather than “tests” makes an obvious difference. Better still, giving the students some creative and organisational control over the how, when and what of assessments can lead to a greater sense of student empowerment. And the more pernicious aspects of grading can be diluted or avoided through small, incremental changes rather than radical overhaul.

This is not to say that upheaval isn’t at times necessary, just that there may be some useful steps the individual teacher can take while waiting for the revolution.

Contract grading, co-grading and self-grading are all interesting approaches that give the students a sense of power over their own learning and simultaneously curb the teacher’s dominance.

Collaborative decision-making, as outlined in SecEd by Dr Geraldine Rowe (2021), has many positives, including greater participation across the socio-economic spectrum. Giving students power over decisions that affect them is not a radical move, it is simply democratic.

If we truly value democracy, then we must encourage it in schools. Participation is not just a desirable political goal, it is in and of itself educational. Processes and simulations like mock elections and debates are shown to be highly successful at increasing participation and understanding. Robust youth councils, student unions and student media are good supporting structures.

Power-sharing not only creates the desire for change but it gives students the experience and skills needed to instigate that change. We as educators must establish and help develop participatory processes and simulations even if it means opening ourselves up to criticism or a loss of authority.

It is perhaps in these critical, transparent and democratic practices that we have the best rebuttal to Illich’s scepticism. The “Deschooler” claimed that a liberal society cannot be founded on the modern school, that individual freedom is lost in the teacher and pupil relationship.
Even if this critique rings true on many days, there is perhaps some solace to be found in taking on the job of proving it wrong.

  • David Kazamias is head of English at a secondary school in Wedding, Berlin in Germany.

Further information & resources

  • Illich: Deschooling Society, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1971.
  • Rowe: Student voice: How to create a collaborative school and classroom culture, SecEd, April 2021:


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