With the inception of Agile Learning Centers and a complete re-imagining of how to create and sustain a self-directed learning community, I’ve seen a lot of important shifts and distinctions between the patterns in a democratic/free school environment and what we are doing now. We’ve replaced a political democracy with collaboration and culture hacking, where intentional culture creation becomes a vehicle for generating and sustaining the supportive container we all need to work and play within.
We replaced long and arduous school meetings stuffed with proposals and voting and logical fallacies with quick, lean, iterative sprints — allowing for much more time in our days and a greater emphasis on (intention) creation (and reflection).
Democratic schools talk a lot about the learning that takes place when kids are engaged in democracy — when they take responsibility for their school by writing and voting on rules, holding people to them, and determining the boundaries and consequences for crossing them.
Though it is true there is tremendous value in this type of engagement, I believe it is false to assume that the political structure of “democracy” is the only (or even the best) way to foster these important learning experiences for children (and adults). In many ways, “Agile” is democratic, and in other ways it could be argued it is not. The nuances of that discussion will most-likely get lost in language, semantics, and personal relationships to power.
What I have found to be true about the democratic education concept is that when you give kids the opportunity and the support in taking responsibility for their lives and their community — amazing things happen. I have seen firsthand the significant improvements we are making in that effort with our emergent and adaptive ALC model.
One ritual that we’ve established at the Agile Learning Center in NYC that has started to make powerful ripples of cultural change is the afternoon candle ritual. Instead of a kid struggling (like the adults do, too) to facilitate a productive and efficient democratic meeting, they now have a forum for facilitating an intentional ritual that feels far more engaging and meaningful than playing parliament ever was.
Each day, after we finish reflections in our spawn points (small groups of 7 kids and 1 facilitator), we all come to the large room in the back of the school and sit on the couches and carpeted area. We decided together through our Change-Up meeting that @abbyo would be in charge of choosing who’s meeting it will be each day. Each student and facilitator have a personalized candle (their name carved into it). Abby picks someone each day and their candle goes in the center of the circle and they get to run the meeting. Abby is someone the group has trusted to make this decision on a daily basis in order to keep the practice functional and lightweight.
The purpose of the gathering is simply to hold space for the whole group to come together at the end of the day and be present with each other. Lately, people have been choosing a variety of things to fill the 15 minutes — usually we start by sitting in silence together, then there’s listening stick that anyone can take from the center to share a reflection or gratitude. If there’s time there’s a group game at the end.
The personalized candles are a nice addition to the ritual — a way to make the facilitation a sacred act. It works, too. The kids take it very seriously. It’s been incredible to see kids who have a tough time focusing in meetings or are prone to goofing-off as a default setting all-the-sudden shift into a role serious facilitation and coherence holding. Kids who are often bouncing off the walls are requesting the whole groups sits silently for five minutes.
We are seeing that sharing the “holding of group space” through this ritual is powerfully spreading responsibility and engagement throughout the community. The Change-Up meeting topics the kids have been most interested in have had to do with the agreements and patterns of the afternoon ritual. The ritual creates a space for each kid to experience their own power in shifting group dynamics and creating culture that meets their needs and serves the larger community.
I don’t know if it is democracy, but it is definitely an upgrade.