How to make democratic and participatory schools


Compulsory schooling is a social conquest, and in societies that uphold democratic principles of social justice and participation, it should guarantee valuable educational experiences. Currently we consider this right and duty as something already achieved, but this is not always the case.

Schooling has become not only a right but also a duty. Its fulfillment must be guaranteed by governments and subject to the principles of equality and freedom. This right/duty has been achieved in a very uneven way and is not a reality for everyone .

The challenge that educators have, and in a very special way, teachers, is to make the school good for everyone and not just for some; that the school is an effective instrument for equal opportunities and the construction of a democratic society.

Diversity is normal

Professors and teachers who take on this challenge develop practices from a truly inclusive and democratic perspective. This means recognizing the diversity of students and their families as normal. Also, organize time, spaces and teaching in general with the priority that each of the students live educational experiences that allow them to learn.

For this, the class and the school must be thought of as a participatory community in which everyone, families, students, teachers, staff, are members of it.

A fight against inertia and ‘common sense’

Teachers who adopt this perspective do not always have it easy, since they question practices that are common in schools and that are defended by some as “common sense”, but that contribute to stigmatizing and justifying the non-learning of some children .

For example, the classification of students according to social categories, diagnoses made too early, evaluations based exclusively on language ability, the imposition of a single textbook for the entire school, stable and closed ability level groups , the fixed and stable distribution of spaces and times between subjects, subjects, the non-educational use of breaks and patios, the “client” relationship with families, etc.

Democratic practices in the classroom

Faced with this, the teachers committed to the democratic school start up in their practical classes that are characterized by:

  1. Be based on a project designed by the entire community through dialogue. Values ​​and goals are shared, which give meaning and cohesion to what happens at school.
  2. Develop spaces and times that facilitate participation: times and places are set to share, give opinions, discuss and make decisions.
  3. Commit to social change. There is a recognition of the existing inequality, of the manifest and implicit prejudices, and a commitment to equity, to social justice.
  4. Connect with other schools and teachers through networks of support and mutual learning. An example has been the “street classrooms” promoted in recent years.
  5. Permanent and persistent links are established with the territory, that is, with the neighborhood, town, city, in which the families live.

How to support these teachers

As teachers and researchers we intend to support schools that aspire to be democratic through inclusive and participatory practices. For this, it is essential to rely on the opinions of the parties involved, contributing the experience and knowledge of professionals, students, families and researchers.

We think, like Ainscow , that schools know much more than they usually use on a day-to-day basis, and this knowledge must be recognized, made explicit and shared. A very useful way of doing this is through participatory action research.

This methodology allows teachers to autonomously analyze their own practices through contextualized knowledge aimed at improving the school. A problem is identified, a proposal is formulated to solve it, information is collected (diary, recording, observation), it is analyzed and an action plan is formulated.

Three lessons

So far we have collaborated on case studies that have applied and analyzed these processes in various schools located in different geographical and social contexts. The results of these studies have taught us three lessons regarding the use of participatory action research in building democratic and participatory schools.

  1. The first lesson is that the process of reflection and dialogue about what happens in the school allows teachers to understand their own values, beliefs and practices.
  2. The second refers to the ideal of starting up specific practices that are developed in the classroom with groups of students. These make possible a greater participation of families and the community, as well as their “entrance” to the classroom.
  3. The third lesson recognizes the role that students take in the process of dialogue, analysis and improvement.

The studies carried out alert us to the need to actively promote in each school the dialogue between sensitivities, social profiles, different political positions as an inalienable condition in a democratic community.

Author Bio: Theresa Aguado Odina is Professor of Education at UNED – National University of Distance Education