Heidi Watts ‒ Democratic Classrooms (Radio program)
Silke: So just introduce yourself.
Heidi: My name is Heidi Watts; I have been coming to Auroville for more than twenty years, to work with schools and teachers in the ways in which they would like to be worked with.
And what is your background?
I have taught at almost every level, from kindergarten through a Ph.D program. I was most recently the co-chair of the education department at Antioch University, in Keene, New Hampshire.
What is a 'democratic classroom'?
A democratic classroom is a classroom in which --
(Can you start again? There was a problem with the equipment.)
Oh, ok. A democratic classroom is a classroom in which some, or many, or all decisions are made by the students and the teachers. And there are many variations on that: sometimes it's only limited decision-making; sometimes it's everything that has to do with the classroom, with some reservations. Sometimes the teacher has more voice than the students; sometimes the students and teachers have equal voice.
The traditional thing [which might be an exception] is 'health and safety'. Of course, it's possible to put a great many things under the title of 'health and safety'. But adults need to take responsibility for children ‒ for their health, their safety, their well-being. And many people would say also the academic necessities, or the academic purpose of the school. But there's still many things that children can make decisions about.
What are the biggest responsibilities that children can decide about?
That depends on your school, and upon the questions which come up. And they may be something as limited as what we have for snack, or may be as complicated as conflicts in the classroom, what we do about the assignment of time (to different kinds of activities) ‒ there's just a wide range, depending upon the school and the degree of commitment and the degree of experience the children have had with decision-making.
You can't give children who have had no decision-making responsibility large decisions to be made. But they can gradually learn how to do that; and they won't learn how unless they have had opportunities to make choices, and sometimes to make mistakes.
How does a democratic classroom affect group dynamics?
That's a chicken-and-egg question!
When people have an opportunity to make decisions together and to take responsibility for those decisions, it tends to make them more considerate, and more ‒ how to think more about other people, and about how their actions affect other people, and how the actions of other people affect them. So it forces them to think in larger ways: to think in ways which are about 'not just me', but about 'my society', or 'my community'. Those are of course all essential skills for living in a democracy.
What are some of the advantages of a democratic classroom?
There are huge advantages. When students have responsibility over their own environment and over their own work, then they have ownership of it, and they are much more likely to be motivated and to be involved, and to take that responsibility.
If they are the people who make the choices, then they are the people who will care about those choices and see that they're followed through on.
Very concrete examples are around the cleanliness, the organization, or even the aesthetics of the classroom. Students who have the chance to make the choices about those areas then take care of those areas. And if children make decisions about rules, then they are much more likely to follow the rules and understand them. And to support them.
What are some of the challenges?
The challenges are, it takes a long time to make decisions communally. And it can be boring, it can be messy; it takes a lot of patience. That means hanging in there, and sometimes we make mistakes. And then living with those mistakes and figuring out how to correct them. And there are always problems with group dynamics: the problem of the person who dominates, and the problem of the person who fades out. All of those things are issues which teachers have to ‒ anybody, who facilitates or runs groups ‒ has to deal with. Not bad to get the experience of doing it in the classroom first.
How can democracy in the classroom contribute to Auroville schools in particular?
Well, Auroville is a democracy. And you expect people to participate in citizenship ‒ in society ‒ intelligently and empathetically, then one of the most important things is to give them opportunities to learn how to do that.
So in classrooms we have the chance, or in schools, we have a chance for children to learn how to make responsible decisions with other people in mind; that's what we hope they will be able to do when they become adult members of the Auroville society.
What was one of your greatest experiences using democracy in your classroom?
I don't know that there's a single 'great experience' ‒ I was able to run a fairly democratic school for three or four years, and it was quite exciting. It got the children from about 8 years old to 14 years old to take more responsibility, to think more about the classroom as a community, and less about themselves alone in that. It was really quite a wonderful experience ‒ and boring, and frustrating as well. But, enlightening.
Thank you very much!