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Democratic Education - nurturing people and citizens

May 27th, 2010
By Joanna Santa Barbara

Verena Gruner of Riverside has spent decades implementing the ideals of democratic education - education that is driven by curiosity and the need to know, in a community in which the learners participate on equal terms in decisions and rules.

Verena was so intent that her own children should be able to learn this way that she became one of a group of parents in the area of Motueka who founded and ran Mountain Valley School for many years. Her children have successfully learned and have grown up, still learning. Verena has turned her passion toward expanding the reach of this way of education.

Verena has recently returned from the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC), held annually in a different country, this year in Israel. Many educators from many schools shared their experiences. The founder of IDEC, Yaacov Hecht, sees it as an idea whose time has come. Schools are full of disaffected students and frustrated teachers.

Democratic education, says Verena, "is about seeing every person as unique, with different talents and gifts. It's about supporting people in developing their potential, giving students the responsibility of choosing their learning."

But what if children don't choose to learn their times tables or where other countries are situated on the globe? Verena is confident, on the basis of years of experience, that children will learn what they need to know, and will do it with love for the learning. When a child makes a wooden stool, she needs to measure and multiply, and she'll learn to do it.

The children who came through Mountain Valley School were well-liked by their teachers when they moved on to Motueka High School. They were confident and cooperative, treated teachers like worthy people, and loved learning. Many of them, alongside other children throughout the world educated in this system, have gone on to do well at university and in other arenas of their choosing.

Verena points out that businesses value people who are innovative, flexible and creative, and who know how to learn. These are the qualities that are cultivated through democratic education.

In making decisions in the learning community, everyone's voice is valued - parents, teachers, people who care for the infrastructure, and children. People learn to listen to each other, to deal with inevitable conflicts respectfully, trying to reach solutions that incorporate everyone's needs. This is true training in the workings of democracy.

In democratic schools, children identify problems and contribute to solutions. They have a say in setting the rules. The vision of democratic education is that its ideals should be incorporated in communities of every size - kindergartens, schools, workplaces, towns and cities. Verena is eager to work with others throughout New Zealand to move towards this vision.

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