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Sunday, July 10, 2016

How to Prevent Apathy in Democratic Schools... and whether we should. Lena Kraus, Germany

About Lena:
Having gone to a state school myself and doing a traditional teacher training afterwards, I wasn’t happy with what I experienced and started looking for alternatives. I got involved with Democratic Education in 2012, when I attended my first EUDEC conference. Since then, I have been to the conference every year, and was elected into the EUDEC Council in 2015.
My other great passion next to Democratic Education is kayaking. I do Slalom, White-Water and Marathon kayaking (and basically every other sport that allows me to be on the water).

I work as an outdoor guide and as a translator.

At this year’s IDEC in Mikkeli, Finland I held a workshop called How to Prevent Apathy in Democratic Schools... and whether we should.

This was the workshop description:
I've noticed that there is a general atmosphere of inactivity and apathy in some democratic school environments. To me, this atmosphere seems counterproductive. I want to know if you feel the same, if you can think of reasons and of ways to prevent it from happening, or if you think it's a part of DemEd and we shouldn't try to change it.

There were 42 participants in my workshop, which shows that this is an important issue in Democratic Education. Through a short show of hands, 28 participants said that they had experienced this general sense of apathy, and 41 participants saw it as something that should be changed.

I would like to stress that I am not talking about phases of inactivity or periods of boredom (which are essential elements of Democratic Education, and of life), but of a general sense of apathy that is tangible in the whole school and can last for a very long time. This will, for example, influence new students who come to the school, but also staff members and visitors etc.

During the workshop, we discussed the topic and came up with some possible reasons and solutions. Participants who had observed the phenomenon in their schools (as students or as staff members) said that first of all, if the child doesn’t see it as a problem, then it is no problem. Also, a close contact between staff members and students is essential, because only then will staff members know if it is a problem for the student, or if it is boredom out of choice.

What was striking was that some participants who had experienced apathy as staff members reported that students saw it as a big issue afterwards. They did not realize what was going on while it was happening, but said things like “I wasted a year” in retrospect and were unhappy about it. This served as a reason to justify the opinion that the school community should do their best to prevent it from happening, and try and give the learning environment an inspiring, thriving atmosphere.

A possible reason mentioned were staff members who felt stressed and unmotivated themselves. Democratic Schools strive to enable their students to live self directed, happy lives, and it is potentially very demotivating to interact with adults every day who are obviously not happy where they are and do not have enough control over their lives in order to shape them so that they are not overwhelmed. It might make the aim of living a life that is tailored to one’s interests and abilities seem unrealistic, and thus stop the students from working towards it.

Some participants said that it was mainly the middle-school age group who was affected by the problem, and blamed this on exams the students felt they had to take in order to succeed in life, but were not really motivated to.

School was also described as a box that children are put in, among other reasons in order to keep them safe. This becomes a problem when there are not enough connections to the outside world, and children are lacking real life input. Democratic Schools can only work as part of life, and not in isolation from it.
The image of Democratic Education was also mentioned as a possible reason. One participant noticed that DemEd was often portrayed as Doing Nothing All Day or All Day a Break, giving off an impression of inactivity, when actually, it should give children the time and space to discover tools for shaping their lives according to their own standards.

Thus, possible solutions to the problem were working with the staff, creating spaces for them to address how they feel within the school environment or what they really want to do, and how they can support each other in achieving this. If old patterns persist, a change in staff might be required.
A good connection between students and staff members was repeatedly mentioned. Obviously, staff should be chosen very carefully, not only on the basis of whether they agree with the model of DemEd, but also on whether they are ready to take control over their own life, and whether they are able to shape it according to their standards.

Connections and dialogue between staff and students can be achieved by having a mentoring system in place, creating spaces for conversation about life at the school, the community and the learning process. It was also suggested to have a meeting at the beginning of each week in which students present what they want to learn or do, and another meeting at the end of the week where they say if they achieved their goals. A big challenge with this process is that it hugely depends on the state of learning, because it excludes the learning through play, takes away spontaneity and is unsuitable for monitoring the invisible learning that takes place whatever you do.

It is also of the utmost importance to create as many links to life outside the school as possible. This could be by having visitors or going on excursions, for example, by forming partnerships with companies, local businesses, other schools (of any kind), nursery homes, zoos… The possibilities are almost endless.

The DemEd environment could be portrayed as a place to “learn what really matters to you” instead of a place where you can do “whatever you want”.

Real freedom seems to be key to keeping up motivation. The decision about what they want to learn, where they want to learn and with whom they want to learn should be left entirely up to the students.

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