Lucy from mainland China asked me about the connection of democratic education, a democratic society and a democratic form of governance. Coming from a country that experiences the pitfalls of “too much” democracy and living in a country which many outsiders believe is not democratic “enough,” it was a hard for me to answer the complex question so I said, let’s look for Simon Hulshoff because his talked touched on those bigger issues. We didn’t have to find him because on the last day of APDEC, the round table discussion provided a lot of answers not just in words but in actual action – democracy in action.
A group of government officials from the education bureau came to discuss with the conference speakers and participants about the possibilities of improving and expanding the laws regarding experimental education which were passed in Taiwan three years ago. The palpable excitement made it feel like history in the making.
One of the government officials explained what she wrote in her diary and reflected about democratic education, having witnessed the changes in this field in Taiwan. “Everyone can be responsible for themselves, feel good about themselves, love themselves and other people, allow children to be responsible. I believe this is also the objective of APDEC. Parents and teachers can support each other and communicate with each other. I believe nobody will oppose learner-centered education. A responsible government will not treat people as tools and there must be responsible allocation of resources. This (democratic education) is an unstoppable trend all over the world. . . . . Our government will continue to support the development of alternative education. . . . I fully believe that education that is beautiful teaches people to be courageous.”
Yaacov Hecht hopes that many types of schools can be built, emphasizing, “Different is beautiful.” Peter Gray comments how fitting that this is now taking place in Taiwan where people are brave defenders of freedom and individual rights. He then brought up the subject of testing and assessment and how he would evaluate an educational system based on two questions: 1) Are the students happy? and 2) Do they live satisfying lives and are productive in society? None of these can be measured by tests but can only be seen in the long run.
One of the problem, points out Henry Readhead is that there is systemic pressure from the top to bottom. The government puts pressure on the schools which pressures the teacher who then pressures the child. How can the pressure building be reversed from bottom to top? Simon Hulshoff suggests that one of the ways is to make the voice of the student equal to the teacher in meetings. Another government official recommended that there should be structural reform in the government to allow for more participatory discussions. Students should learn how to conduct democratic discussions in school and listen to each other.
Somebody who had worked as a teacher for twenty years and was now in the local education bureau said, “The challenge is whether teachers allow students to have different opinions and whether teachers can take back the right of teaching. In public schools, teachers listen to their bosses, follow the education policies and guidelines so the teachers are very submissive to the orders from the top.”
Peter Gray said, “The most essential idea of democracy is you trust people. I think you can trust children but for others this may be hard. At least, we must be ready to trust families to choose how they want their children to be educated. Denying them this is violating a fundamental right. In the history of education, schools were built to control people, to indoctrinate people. Hitler and Stalin were big on education. If you can control the child’s development, you can control people. This is the history we are stuck with as a people. We must trust families to make their own decision. We are still under tyranny. Democracy means trusting people.”
One of the conference participants, a Taiwanese homeschooling parent spoke up saying that democratic schools tend to be expensive. His question struck a chord in me and I wanted to cry, “That’s the same problem I have! I wish alternative education was economically more accessible!”
Our friends in Taiwan must update us about what happens after APDEC.
Photos taken by Matthew Chen, a teacher at the Holistic School.