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The Rise of Democratic Schools and 'Solutionaries': Why Adults Need to Get Out of the Way

Grown-ups need to give youth a seat at the education reform table.

Twenty years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, a 12-year-old girl from Canada, "silenced the world for six minutes" with her raw and powerful oration lambasting adults for dumping the problems they created onto the next generation. "At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world," she said. "You teach us to not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others and to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then, why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?"

Last March, Esquire revealed what it called the current "War on Youth." In July, Newsweek dubbed millennials "Generation Screwed." In the middle of this mayhem, young people have been left on the sidelines, given the cold shoulder, and ignored. In my life, I've been told to shut up, sit down, and listen. I witness this every single day at school. Top-down, rigid policies dictate word-for-word what students and teachers must do and learn. As a young person, very few seem to be on our side and even fewer attempt to strengthen our voice. Education thought leader Paulo Freire once quipped, "If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed."

Young people bring a fresh angle to the conversation. It may not always be correct, but at the very least that perspective isn't drowned in years and years of expertise. You wonder why this may be the best time in human civilization to be a young entrepreneur. Anyone can invent or create something without the risk of failing miserably considering the networks, mentors, and resources we're bathing in.

Most adults are simply not doing enough, except for perhaps Charlie Kouns and David Loitz—the visionaries at Imagining Learning. Around the United States, Kouns, Loitz, and their team have been hosting listening sessions, inviting young people to share their revelations and insights on education.

"We have been told by students that this was often the first they had been asked to share their own views on education," says Loitz. "We must provide a safe space for them to express this vision, to dream, critique, revise, and reinvent the world in which we live."

After these listening sessions, Kouns and Loitz analyze and try to make sense of what they have learned by connecting the voices of young people around the nation. Now students are even calling up Imagining Learning to hold sessions in their own communities. Their ultimate goal as Kouns tells me is to "create a national collective voice on the wisdom of young people." They are certainly on their way.

Now let's frame the disenfranchisement of youth in terms of the role that schools play. Zoe Weil, president at the Institute for Humane Education, puts it point-blank. "Given the grave problems that confront them—at a time when we face dwindling resources and when one billion of whom don’t even have access to clean water and enough food—young people need real knowledge, tools, and motivation, and if they don't receive these in school we are, in essence, wasting their time and threatening their future." That's why Weil argues that we need to create a generation of "solutionaries." Ones who are willing to attach themselves to a cause or issue that is greater than themselves.

Some schools, that rarely get much media attention, have made Weil's philosophy their mission. This includes some democratic, Montessori, and public schools, like the Brooklyn Free School, Sudbury Valley School, and the MET Schools.

Let's put the microscope on democratic schools. In 2005 at the Berlin International Democratic Education Conference, participants agreed on this statement to define these institutions: "We believe that, in any educational setting, young people have the right: to decide individually how, when, what, where, and with whom they learn to have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their organizations—in particular their schools—are run, and which rules and sanctions, if any, are necessary."

I spoke with the leading voice in the alternative school movement, Jerry Mintz, the founder of the Alternative Education Resource Organization. "Democratic schools," Mintz explains, "harness the authority of all members of the community and believe that every community member has something to contribute." Children are treated and respected like human beings in society and transform into self-directed learners with teachers and mentors as guides on the side. Above all, "the rights of the students are supported," adds Mintz. (Full Disclosure: A.E.R.O. published my book).

This is a type of school that perhaps I would be anxious to attend every day. Imagine if governments, businesses, and schools took these principles to heart. Imagine how radically different our planet would operate. At first it would ruffle the feathers of an old, white male elite system, but it would in due time result in a spree of efficiency, transparency, and inventiveness

Joichi Ito, director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, writes some dynamic words in the book What Matters Now, “We live in an age where people are starving in the midst of abundance and our greatest enemy is our own testosterone driven urge to control our territory and our environments. It’s time we listen to children and allow neoteny to guide us beyond the rigid frameworks and dogma created by adults.” To draw on economist Paul Romer’s famous line about crises, a generation is a “terrible thing to waste.”

Severn Cullis-Suzuki's father has said, "You are what you do, not what you say." Grown-ups, it's up to you to give this generation a seat at the table. You owe this to us.

A version of this post originally appeared at WISE-Quatar

Teenager walking image via Shutterstock

This article was updated on 01/05/2021.

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