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Morning Dew(ey), no. 6: The Measure of Democracy in Education

Morning Dew(ey), no. 6: The Measure of Democracy in Education


The Morning Dew(ey) is a multi-part series investigating and modernizing the claims of John Dewey as represented in Democracy and Education. The series’ intention is not to summarize the author (for that, please read the book); rather, I use the words of this critical pedagogue to focus my attention on specific concepts and reflect on many challenging details regarding school, learning, and society. It is my hope that each article will leave you reflecting on your pedagogy with a mind towards action you can take in your classrooms right now.


Progressive educators regularly advocate for a more democratic classroom and the democratization of learning. To understand what this democratic education looks like, however, is no easy task. And to enact it, nearly impossible. Some turn to technology for the solution, others to curriculum, and still others -- such as myself -- critique their pedagogies. Dewey boldly claims that “democracy is more than a form of government,” and it is important to remember this as teachers and educators (87).


Teaching democracy is not a lesson in civics or history; it is a transformation of the classroom into a place of shared interest, debate, and consensus where all members of the classroom participate equally. Dewey suggests that we can measure the democratic state of a classroom through the use of two criteria. First, the class has “not only more numerous and more varied points of shared common interest, but greater reliance upon the recognition of mutual interests as a factor of social control” (86). Secondly, the classroom serves as a place of “not only freer interaction between social groups . . . but change in social habit [and] its continuous readjustment through meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse” (86-87). We must design for mutual interest and continuous readjustment.

But what does this look like?

Paulo Freire provides much insight into this subject. Radically, Paulo demands that “we cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become subjects.” This is also true of democratic education. A student cannot enter the classroom as an unrepresented or under-represented individual in order to later become an acting democratic member of the community. This is the great challenge for teachers and students today.

To work towards a mutually interested pedagogy, it is necessary to consider our curricula critically. We must be honest with ourselves. The reality of our students is far from the reality of teaching, and it is important to respect these differences and design courses with them in mind. We might at: what is it about [insert course title] that is interesting to the student? Better yet, ask your students. Students will register for a class for a variety of reasons and many are not particularly academic. Regardless, it is important to know and acknowledge what concrete realities brought these specific students into this specific classroom. Knowledge of the student experiences that form the composition of the classroom collective offers great potential in creating a meaningful educative environment. Mutual understanding is a prerequisite for mutual interest. Know your students, and -- just as importantly -- let them know you.

As students change with each semester, the task becomes the a practice of continuous readjustment. While years as an instructor will provide much experiential knowledge of pedagogy, we mustn’t allow ourselves to ever fall into habit or routine. Each semester, critical questions must be renewed and the process begins again. The great risk of an experienced educator is to assign something because it worked for the last fifteen years. We need to know it will work this year. This requires critical reflection, understanding of the current student-realities, and developing a responsive pedagogy. It may very well turn out that, indeed, this assignment will work again; however, we need to be ever open to the possibility that it might not be, as well; that it may, after all, require some readjustment.

There is a variable degree of oversight in all educative roles. However, many educators are offered relatively great freedom in the his or her own classroom. It is the freedom to affect minds, and that is powerful. It remains taboo for colleagues to critique how another’s class session went, and the end-of-semester student evaluations rarely breed constructive remarks. It is therefore crucial that each educator takes it upon his or her self to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate how each session went. Jot down some notes each day after class and compile them between semesters. If our curriculum is to remain mutually interesting, we must model continuous readjustment in our teaching practices.

[at the back of Apollo's Temple at Didyma, by Erich Ferdinand via Flickr under CC BY 2.0]


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