“Democratic education allows students and educators to have a say in their learning. It asks: how do you want to address this material?”
Aria Whitney, a sophomore at Sora Schools, would know. They, along with their peers John Hay and Simon Verrill, took the stage at this year’s SXSW EDU in Austin, Texas, to discuss their first hand experience in democratic education environments. Chris Wilson, Sora’s Head of Schools, moderated the conversation in front of an audience of over 65 parents, teachers, and other education professionals. SXSW EDU panels rarely feature student voices and Sora is proud of Aria, John, and Simon not only for thoughtfully sharing the stage in one of the most notable and forethinking education conferences— but also for representing the Sora ethos so well.
It makes sense that some of the only students to take the stage at an event overwhelmingly dominated by adults are students who come from a democratic learning environment. John, who loves all things design and education theory, emphasized how democratizing education is essentially about taking a different approach towards power-sharing between the teacher and student. Because traditional schools follow a rigid hierarchy with a fixed curriculum and schedule, a high value is placed on memorization and conformity. On the other hand, a democratic approach to education allows the student to provide input on learning methods and content. When power is shared in this way, it places a greater focus on the experience and process of learning — something that Sora Schools practices through our
project-based-learning method, Student Senate, and other opportunities for students to actively shape their learning environment. “Our home rooms are also democratically run,” John tells the audience.
An enthusiasm for project-based learning is a key part of the pathos at Sora, and there are no shortage of examples. Recent Sora graduate, Hannah,
would tell you she used to think projects were a waste of time. After attending Sora, she describes project-based-learning as “a collegiate research paper on a small scale.” That’s because the projects are designed to engage and integrate multiple skill areas such that completion of the project demonstrates competency. What’s more, at Sora, students are encouraged to continue lines of inquiry that may lead to new projects, which are considered for academic credit.
Simon explained this to the audience at SXSW EDU with a first-hand example about one of her projects where she turned a shipping container into a house. During the process, she was able to branch off and learn about environmental science. “That wasn’t specifically related to the shipping container house,” Simon told the audience, “but I was allowed to follow this tangent motivated by my passion, and I received academic credit for it.” If your own student is curious and hasn’t been exposed to project-based learning, check out the free
Sora Activity Library that you can use at home.
Simon put it best when she said that democratic education is a philosophy, not a rigid set of rules. This means that all schools who practice democratizing education will vary and differ from one another – and it will also look slightly different for each student. At Sora, our vision is to design an educational home for students who are motivated, intellectually curious, and open-minded in a way that builds their critical thinking and decision-making muscles. And it’s these experiences, not memory alone, that builds the skills necessary to take on new challenges in the pursuit of personal growth, truth, and knowledge.