What Happens in the Democratic Classroom?

A democratic classroom allows students to choose what and how they will learn. Meetings and discussion help students and teachers agree on classroom policies and procedures. Behavior and education issues are also resolved through the process of meetings and discussion. Because classroom policy is determined by the students and teachers of individual classrooms, every democratic classroom is unique.

Choice and control are two concepts that are at the center of democratic education. In the traditional classroom, the curriculum and the pace at which it is taught is decided by officials, administrators, and educators. Much of the teaching is by rote. In the democratic classroom, it is the student who chooses what he will learn and what form his studies will take. In this way, the student takes control of his own educational path instead of having everything decided for him by others.

Though every democratic classroom is different, every democratic classroom will have written classroom policies and be taught using democratic principles. The democratic classroom is based on the model of the Authoritative Democracy. In the democratic classroom, the teacher is the authority. At the same time, the democratic classroom teacher makes use of teaching methods that reflect fairness, sensitivity, and respect for the students. A democratic classroom teacher never insults or embarrasses students, but tries to serve as a model of good behavior.

In the democratic classroom, the teacher uses methods to encourage creative and critical thinking. The student in the democratic classroom is allowed to ask questions. A student may express an opinion as long as he can back the idea with supportive materials.

Democratic Classroom: Written Policy

In the democratic education system, teachers begin the school year by distributing a detailed written statement of classroom policies and procedures. In creating this written statement, the teacher tries to cover every possible angle of classroom procedure. These are some of the classroom issues that covered in the written statement:

  • Attendance: Excused and unexcused absences
  • Lateness: What is the procedure if a student is late with a note, without a note? What are the consequences to being late?
  • Classroom preparation: What must a student bring to class each day?
  • Homework: How much homework will the students be expected to produce? How much time will they have before turning in the homework? What kind of homework will the teacher give?
  • Respectful classroom behavior: Listening, raising hands to answer questions, not interrupting, and so forth.
  • Disruptive behavior: What is considered disruptive classroom behavior? What are the consequences?
  • Plagiarism and cheating: What is copying or cheating in this classroom? What happens if a student copies or cheats?
  • Missed deadlines: What happens if a student doesn’t turn in work on time?
  • Restroom policy: How often may a student use the restroom? How should a student request restroom time? How long may a student take to use the facilities?
  • Grading: What is the teacher’s grading system?
  • Tests: What kind of tests will be given? How often will there be tests? Is there a way to earn extra credit? Which tests are most important for grading?

The written policy is discussed by students and teacher. The teacher explains the reason for each policy. If a student thinks that a policy is unfair, he has a chance to explain why. If the student can justify his opinion, the classroom then works to modify the policy so that it is acceptable to all. In the case where the class can’t agree, a trained mediator is brought in to help the classroom come to an agreement.

smiling teacher eager students raise hands

Democratic Practices: Student Choice and Control

Here are some of the practical ways in which students have choice and control in their studies in the democratic classroom:

  • Students choose the type of classroom work they will do: students may choose individual worksheets, hands-on learning projects, working in small groups, or some other type of work
  • Students choose the study topic: if students vote to do a unit on flowers, everything they learn during that time period (math, art, botany, etc.) will have a connection to flowers
  • Students control the class schedule: a vote is held so students can decide how much time will be spent on each learning task. The students may have individual schedules, and/or there may be a class schedule that applies to all.
  • Students have real power as a governing body: the student body has the power to decide issues of educational planning and what programs will be offered by the school.

student science lab project

Democratic Classroom: Why it Works

Because students have a say in the way they are educated, they are more interested in their studies. When students are interested in what they learn, they work harder and absorb more of the material. This makes it more likely that students will succeed in their studies.

It is said that in the democratic classroom, students “own” their education. If they succeed, it’s because they chose the path that was right for them. They took responsibility for their learning and made it work. If students fail, this too is an outcome that the student must own. A student must look at why he failed and own the reason. He must find a way to move forward. Succeed or fail, the democratic education system leads to greater student engagement, which is the primary goal of every educational approach.

Practical Benefits to Democratic Education

Educators have seen practical benefits to the democratic classroom that can be measured. Some of the obvious benefits include:

Students in the democratic classroom learn to be active participants in their own lives. They know that they have a voice, are heard, and can make a difference. The democratic school experience prepares students for greater community involvement as adults. It teaches students that if they don’t like something, they can do something about it and change things. The students in a democratic classroom learn that they have a role in the process of making the world a better place.

The democratic classroom also teaches the art of teamwork. As students vote and make decisions to improve the classroom environment, they are learning how to accommodate others for a common goal. They are learning to be sensitive and respectful to those around them. These are life lessons to stand a person in good stead in all kinds of relationships going forward, at every stage in life.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions


  1. Justine says

    I was on board with the premises of this article until it you fell in to the age-old trap of referring to all students using male pronouns. It might seem trivial, but in an article about democracy in the classroom, the implicit message is that boys and men have the full rights to democracy and democratic practice, while girls and women are left behind. A big oversight, in this teacher’s opinion.

    • Varda Epstein says

      It’s not that it’s trivial, it’s that it is a writer’s prerogative to choose a single pronoun for a piece and to stick to it, as desired, for convenience. Everyone understands that it isn’t discriminatory, unless they choose not to do so.

  2. Megan says

    Then just choose to apply this principle to everyone. Whether this article was implying anything or not, it has very little to do with the educational system you choose to entertain. I also don’t think the writer of this article meant to say that “boys deserve rights and girls don’t”. It could have been a simple oversight where they didn’t put too much thought into it, or they simply chose one pronoun in order to keep things simple. I don’t believe that this is discriminatory due to the fact that using the term “mankind” for example has always been acceptable to use when representing all peoples.

    • Varda Epstein says

      Again, it’s not oversight, nor is it “applying a principle.” It’s a standard writer’s device to choose one gender and stick to it throughout the piece. This has nothing to do with the subject of the piece, nor does it elevate one gender over another. There is also nothing wrong with the word “mankind,” which everyone knows refers to all humans. No need to avoid the word, as it has no other implications.