An earlier version of this essay is found in educational Horizons, Fall 2008

Democratic Classrooms:
Incorporating Student Voice and Choice in Teacher Education Courses

Kristan A. Morrison, Ph.D.
Radford University

edited 7/18/08

For a response to this article, see,
Democratic Classrooms: impediments and possibilities.



If we ever hope to have schools that are engaging and truly embody democracy, then the classes within them must provide opportunities for students to experience autonomy, freedom, and choice in what is studied, when, and how. This article explores both the historical/ theoretical framework of democratic freedom-based education and the promises and challenges of implementing democratic practices in schools. It then goes on to describe an action research project in which the author sought to enact her democratic education philosophy with her students in a graduate education course. The article concludes with reflections on what the author would do differently in the future and why democratic and other models of education are so necessary in teacher education programs.


Schools and society are reflections of one another. What a society values and sees as ideal often gets taught in schools, and what and how children are taught often results in children/ adolescents developing certain ideals and values, ideals and values which these children, once they are adults, work to perpetuate in society and schools (such values or beliefs include a competitive ethos and firm conviction that a meritocracy exists in our society, a view that instrumental/extrinsic motivations are more important than intrinsic motivations, an excess valuing of academics over social or emotional development, etc.).

This reflection is complicated, however, because schools are "terrains of struggle" (Giroux, 1988), places where contradictory values and ideals compete for prominence. Critical educational theorists, which would include John Dewey and more contemporary authors such as Henry Giroux, Paulo Freire, Peter McLaren, bell hooks, David Purpel, and Maxine Greene, have argued that our society has certain moral, political, and intellectual ideals that should take precedence over others in schools. They believe that our schools should emphasize a commitment to a democratic system in which each citizen's autonomy and dignity is honored in an open, just, respectful, and pluralistic community, a community which values and encourages criticality in the intellectual search for truth/meaning in each individual's life. (Purpel, 1989).

The community these theorists seek is a delicately balanced synthesis between the individual (thesis), and a collection of individuals (anti-thesis). In other words, an individual's autonomy is delimited by others' rights to dignity, respect, safety, and their search for truth/ meaning to their lives; if person A decides to do something that somehow infringes on person B's rights, then person A is prohibited from taking that action and is encouraged to find actions that can both express his/her autonomy and honor the rights of others.

Many of us know from experience that our society's schools, to a large degree, fall quite short of fostering the development of people who value diversity, who are both autonomous yet cognizant of others' needs and rights, and who are open-minded yet equipped with critical thinking skills to analyze contradictory ideas. Instead, many of our society's schools foster the development of very different sorts of individuals. Does that indicate that the critical educational theorists are wrong? No, it just means that they and like-minded educators must struggle to actualize their ideals in schools.

One way to do this, I would argue, is to institute more democratic and freedom-based practices within our educational system. This article explores the historical/theoretical framework of such practices, details their promises and challenges, and then goes on to explore an action research project in which I attempted to bring my teaching practices more in alignment with a democratic philosophy of education. .

Definitions and Historical/Theoretical Framework

                        The term "democratic education" as used in this article is linked with and synonymous with the term "freedom-based education" for just as democracy as a political system is grounded in individual freedoms, democracy as an educational system is also grounded in freedoms. The linkage between the two terms is supported by the fact that most freedom- based schools in the United States (e.g. "free schools," Sudbury Valley-modeled schools, "unschooling" families, etc.) also identify themselves as sites of democratic education.

In democratic/ freedom-based education, students are free to decide what they study, and how, and when they study it. This form of schooling has a number of historical antecedents outlined by Bennis (2006). He argues that one genesis of this model of education is the form of learning found in most pre-industrial societies. In these societies (past and present), children are actively engaged in the life of a given society and learn skills and knowledge by means of imitation, apprenticeship, modeling, and conversation rather than in any formal school setting.

Freedom-based education is also rooted in the Western philosophy tradition of the ancient Greeks, in the Romantic thinkers (e.g. Rousseau and Froebel), in the Libertarian- Anarchist Tradition, in the Transcendentalist movement of 19th century America, and in the 20th century free school movement (e.g. Summerhill School led by A.S. Neill and the many U.S. free schools that cropped up during the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s) (p. 23-32).

Democratic/ freedom-based education is grounded in the premise that people are naturally curious and have an innate desire to learn and grow. If left un-fettered, un-coerced, and un-manipulated (e.g. by conventional educational practices that often result in the diminishment of these innate characteristics), people will vigorously and with gusto pursue their interests, and thus learn and make meaning on their own and in concert with others. And because these individuals are honored and respected in this process, they become socialized to honor and respect the dignity and autonomy of others. (Dennison 1969; Hern, 1996; Holt, 1972, 1989; Illich, 1971; Llewellyn, 1997; Mercogliano, 1998; Neill, 1992).

While most contemporary freedom-based education is found in the form of private schools or the home schooling version, "unschooling," (Morrison, 2007b), American public schools could shift more closely to this model by adopting more democratic practices and organizational structures (Reitzug, 2003). Thus, the enacting of democratic practices within the conventional, more authoritarian and bureaucratic schools could serve as a stepping stone toward adopting the model of democratic/freedom-based education more fully.

Democratic education can take multiple forms ranging from the micro level of within-class democracy to the more ideal macro-level of whole school democracy; and within each level, a number of different democratic practices can be enacted. For example, at the micro, within-class, level, a teacher can utilize such practices as discussion, offering test and assignment choices to students that attend to their unique learning preferences, allowing students "protest rights" (Shor, 1996), doing contract grading (Shor, 1996) or self-grading, breaking down hierarchies by allowing students to call the teacher by first name, and asking students to co-construct the course (have voice in course content, grading rubric creation, etc.). At the macro, whole-school, level, schools may allow students to construct their entire curricula (see Morrison 2007a which examines the Albany Free School, a school where pre-K through eighth grade students choose what, how and when they study subjects, or see Goddard College for university- level self-development of curricula).

In essence, democratic education is about allowing students more voice and choice in what they study, and how and when they study it. It is an education characterized by the construction of knowledge through meaningful experiences and contacts with others, classrooms characterized by exploration of information for intrinsic goals, dialogue, discussion, self-governance (either on individual or group levels), and trust.

Promises of Democratic Education

Proponents of democratic/freedom-based education argue that with autonomy and choice, people experience a much different, much better, form of education than that offered by the conventional, hierarchical, more coercive education system present in most public schools.

First, they argue that a democratic education promises much more meaningful learning. If people have choice and freedom to study what interests them, then they become more deeply engaged in, and thus less alienated from, their learning. More engagement leads to better retention and better critical reflection and analysis. For example, Watson wrote in Summerhill: For and Against (1970) that, "pupils given freedom to decide what they will do, when, and how develop increasing independence, stronger interests, and better quality of work" (p. 177).

Gatto, in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schools (1992), echoes this argument, stating that our conventional education system infantalizes students by constantly compelling them and that this compulsion "guarantees that they will do [work] poorly, with a bad will, or indifferently" (p. 93). Democratic education, conversely, has no infantilizing effect; instead, it places a great trust in the students and they, more often than not, rise to the challenge. In the process, the students become more mature, self-disciplined, and intrinsically motivated, seeing the value of learning above and beyond its instrumentality in getting a "good job" (Bhave, 1996; Labaree, 1997).

Proponents of democratic education further argue that people who are given freedom and choice will ultimately become better democratic citizens because they have learned how to negotiate with others, to name obstacles, and to know themselves (Bhave, 1996; Dewey, 1916; Gatto, 1992; Goodman, 1962; Holt, 1972; Holzman, 1997; Illich, 1971; Morrison, 2007a; Shor, 1996). This ultimately benefits all of society, developing people who are open to change and to listening to others so that all consider themselves to be vital to society. As Shor argued in When Students Have Power (1996), "power-sharing" creates the desire and imagination of change while also creating the experience and skills for it. The critical-democratic class, then, is a context for change that develops the desire and imagination to make change" (p. 176).

Challenges of Democratic Education

Democratic education is, in many ways, antithetical to conventional school practices in our society. Student voice and choice don't fit particularly well into a system characterized by bureaucracy and hierarchical structure (Reitzug, 2003). There are three main areas of challenge when attempting to institute democratic practices in classrooms and schools – students, teachers, and the institution as a whole.

Student challenges

Students educated in conventional schools for the majority of their lives represent one of the biggest challenges to democratic education. Because soliciting student voice and choice in the classroom is so outside of the educational norm in our society, democratic education practices may be met, initially, by a tremendous amount of student resistance. Most students are accustomed to being told what to do and to being passive in the classroom; they are viewed, and may view themselves, as safety deposit boxes waiting for deposits of knowledge to fill them (Freire, 1970). Students are trained, through the hidden curriculum, to be quiet and docile, to be indifferent to and bored with course content (because they have no say in what it is), and to being told what they and their work are worth (Gatto, 1992; Giroux, 1978; Illich, 1971; Vallance, 2003).

It should come as no surprise that students who have experienced this training, and especially those students who have succeeded in the "game" of schooling, might resist a change of rules that asks them to go against all they have been taught. Students who come from conventional education into classrooms or schools employing democratic practices will often feel uncomfortable or even terrified of jeopardizing the only pattern of life they know (Goodman, 1964). They may become "Siberians" (Shor, 1996) who gravitate to the periphery of the class and sit silent and disconnected from democratic processes. When asked to play a role in content construction (e.g. telling what they are interested in studying in general or as related to a particular topic), the students may be at a loss, for many have never even considered what their own interests might be. Spontaneous initiative, curiosity, and trust in themselves, by and large, may have been drummed out of them, and they may have learned to view education as purely instrumental – a means to an end rather than an end in itself (Bhave, 1996; Holt, 1972; Labaree, 1997).

Students thus may resent anyone trying to show them differently. This resentment is connected to a lack of trust and the antagonistic relationships between teachers and students that are the norm. Students have been trained to initially view most teachers as "the enemy," as people who infringe on their will and their freedoms; to be asked suddenly to change this view is more than many students can handle.

Besides student resistance to democratic education, another challenge that arises is students mistaking positive freedom for negative freedom. Maxine Greene, in the Dialectic of Freedom (1988) has defined negative freedom as the freedom from constraints. This is the starting point for positive freedom, but positive freedom goes on to also be the freedom to work in concert with others in order to overcome limit situations. Democratic education is not negative freedom alone, it is not just about freeing students to do whatever they want. As Dewey wrote in Experience and Education (1938), "For freedom from restriction, the negative side, is to be prized only as a means to a freedom which is power: power to frame purposes, to judge wisely; power to select and order means to carry chosen ends into operation" (p. 63-64).

Because conventionally educated students have so little practice with any kind of freedom in school, so little practice with democratic discussion or with assuming authority on their own, they will often mistake the democratic/positive freedom practices for negative freedom only. Students may thus see the teacher who asks for democratic input as weak or unprepared, and they may attempt to evade, rather than make, the class (e.g. push for lowered workload, etc.) (Shor, 1996).

Teacher challenges

Students will not be the only ones who resist changes. Teachers will balk as well. Very few teachers have experienced a democratic education themselves, so to attempt to institute democratic practices in their classrooms represents a tremendous leap of faith into the unknown. Teachers may be fearful of this unknown, fearful that involving students' voices and choices in the running of a course will result in utter chaos and thus a lack of overall learning. Part of this fear stems from lack of trust in students. Teachers have become accustomed to viewing most students as lazy and uninterested, people who have to be pushed, prodded, cajoled, and threatened into doing "what's best for them," and thus they fear that students will push to minimize challenges and try to take the easy way out in classes (Goodman, 1962; Gross, 1973; Holt, 1970, 1972; Rogers, 1969; Sheffer, 1996; Watson, 1970).

Another part of this fear of chaos and lack of learning lies with conventional ideas about what learning is. Many teachers, schooled in conventional educational institutions themselves, believe that the role of the teacher is to fill students with curricular information. They might argue that students don't know what they don't know and thus could not possibly exercise choice and freedom in curricular content in a way that would result in a great deal of learning.

This idea that knowledge exists outside of the individual (as opposed to being constructed/mediated through the individual) (Lamm, 1972) has led to the conventional educational practices of mandated courses and pre-established syllabi. Teachers are used to coming, and in fact are expected by both students and their administrators to come, to the first class with the content all ready to be delivered to interchangeable students sitting in their classes. Teachers may feel that if they were to come to class without a pre-set syllabus and lesson plans ready to go, then they would be viewed by the students and administrators as weak, unprepared, or lacking in authority.

Teachers might fear that the class would then disrespect them, which could lead to poor course/teacher evaluations and thus jeopardize their jobs. Besides losing control, teachers might also fear student silence and empty space if they were to attempt democratic practices. Or they might fear that some students might take over and silence others. Lastly, teachers might fear that inviting student voice and choice would ill prepare students for the "real world" in which they have to get used to bowing their wills to others and not having their needs met (Guterson, 1996).

Conventionally schooled teachers who take the leap of faith into democratic practices must grapple with all these fears. They must be willing to abandon plans and move with the dialogic process, they must learn to listen more than talk, to not let one lesson plan apply to all sections of the same class, and surrender their authoritarian supports (Shor, 1980). They must learn to trust that students have innate curiosity and because this curiosity may have been crushed in the past, they must work hard to bring it back to life. Teachers must take to heart what Rogers wrote in Freedom to Learn (1969),

If I distrust the human being, then I must cram him with information of my own choosing, lest he go his own mistaken way. But if I trust the capacity of the human individual for developing his own potentiality, then I can provide him with many opportunities and permit him to choose his own way and his own direction in his learning (p. 114).

And teachers need to recognize that democratic educational practices may well lead to students rejecting the "real world" of hierarchical authority and working for more true democracy in the larger economic, political, and social systems. Teachers who attempt more democratic educational practices must thus embrace the idea that they can either educate for the world that is or the world that might be.

Institutional challenges

The institutional structures of conventional education also represent significant stumbling blocks to the enactment of more democratic practices. Unless the entire institution itself is fully democratic, teachers who attempt to bring democracy into heretofore un-democratic spaces will encounter challenges.

The "deep structures" of school are one such challenge; they are those "widely shared assumptions about what schools are for and how they should function" (Tye, 1998, paragraph 5). One example of schools deep structures is the above-mentioned conventional schools' views on knowledge – that it exists outside of and separate from human mediation and that learning equals the transmission of this information from holders of this knowledge/teachers to empty vessels/students. This view of knowledge leads to the conventional school practices of mandating that all students learn certain subjects, mandating that the subjects should be fragmented one from the other, and enforcing a certain progression of information that follows an external, discipline-specific logic (e.g. take algebra before geometry).

When educational institutions hold this view of knowledge, its members might balk at allowing student voice and choice at the course topic level, arguing, as mentioned in the teacher challenges section, that students don't know what they don't know, so how could they possibly decide what should be included in a class? The institution also might worry that if students had voice and choice on subject inclusion that they might well choose not to learn what the institution has determined to be vital information. This is a valid concern, no doubt, but one which can be worked with if institutional structures and practices were established that allowed for time to explore the ideas of negative and positive freedom described earlier.

Most students are not unreasonable people -- resistance from them to learn certain ideas often comes from their feelings of powerlessness rather than from willed ignorance, and thus if educational institutions can set forth rational and personalized argument for the worth of some topic (beyond saying in a course catalog that this subject will make one a liberally educated person), then students will willingly include that topic in their studies. Certainly, this process can become time-consuming, but that is part and parcel of learning democratic habits of mind.

The view of knowledge and learning described above also impacts assumptions about class sizes – if the subject knowledge is simply to be transmitted to students, then it is logically efficient to have a high teacher-student ratio. These institutional structures of large classes and mandated and pre-arranged content make attempts to institute democratic practices very tricky. How can a teacher truly get a large number of students' voices and choices heard? Can a teacher stray too far from the mandated content if all other teachers around her are working to perpetuate the curricular status quo? If students are required to take a class, won't a democratic teacher have a more difficult time of breaking through and connecting with the students who feel resentful about this limitation of their freedom of choice?

An additional institutional constraint is the existence of the conventional system of grading. I have written elsewhere (Morrison, 2003a and 2003b) about how the practice of grading can lead students away from creating personal meaning and toward simply performing for others so as to garner sought-for ends (e.g. diploma, college acceptance, scholarships, praise, lack of punishment, etc.). This performance orientation makes the teacher-student relationship a very complicated one in that students come to feel less powerful vis-a-vis the teacher and thus act subserviently in an attempt to earn good grades.

This subservience manifests in the students not questioning or challenging the teacher in any really meaningful way; in essence, the students often willingly check their democratic rights at the door, for they have learned that success in classrooms often requires that they do so. Grading, although I believe not originally intended so, has become a major obstacle to teachers and students embracing democratic education practices because it renders many students voiceless and dependent (admittedly, students participate in their own oppression in this regard, but that makes it no less a form of oppression).

A last major institutional constraint on bringing democratic educational practices into conventional school settings is the use of space and time. In conventional schools, the school day is broken up into a series of relatively short time periods (45 to 90 minutes each), the physical plant is typically divorced from the wider community (separate, often closed, campuses), and there is an extremely high population density in these buildings. Such use of space and time is inimical to democracy in which decisions, discussions, and trust-building take time (longer than a semester or academic year, or longer than a single class period), connections to and involvement in community activities and spaces are highly valued, and the ability and space necessary to move about freely, and group and regroup is needed.

My Struggles with Democratic Education

Given all these challenges, enacting a democratic philosophy of education within our conventional education system is no easy task. I have been teaching social foundations of education courses in institutions of higher education for the past six years in both undergraduate teacher preparation programs and Masters level education programs. In my foundations courses, my students and I spend a lot of time exploring the work of the authors/ theorists detailed earlier and their ideas that the way school has been organized in our society, with an emphasis on technical rationality and the banking model of pedagogy (Freire, 1970), often results in student disempowerment, disengagement, and, ultimately, dehumanization.

We also read about and discuss the alternative educational philosophies that seek to counteract these negative outcomes and reframe education as a joyful, intrinsically-motivating, democratic undertaking that honors each individual's dignity. But because I am located in a conventional institution of higher education, which is characterized by lack of student power, a focus on extrinsic motivators and instrumental values (e.g. grades, future employment), transmission models of pedagogy, and fear of failure held by both teachers and students, I have often been troubled by how I couldn't really "practice what I preached." I felt I couldn't enact the democratic philosophy of education because of institutional constraints as well as how my students' and my own institutional histories within conventional education influenced us to behave and react to situations in certain ways, ways that stifled alternative approaches to learning and teaching.

Institutional expectations, along with my comfort level and what I perceived to be my students' comfort level, compelled me to enter my first few semesters in a way that limited student voice and choice. I came in to the first days of class with pre-set agendas, nicely typed up and photocopied course syllabi which had on them grading and attendance policies, established assignment listings, and projects/paper explanations and rubrics. I also had lesson plans all mapped out and ready to go for each class period. On one level, I felt like a good teacher – prepared, organized, clear; my approaches meshed well with the institution, and my students seemed satisfied and comfortable with my upholding of the educational status quo. But, as mentioned, on another level I felt hypocritical to my beliefs in and teachings about democratic education– that while I was teaching my students about the value of more democratic and engaging approaches to education, I was violating those approaches by "doing school" with them in the same old ways.

Breaking with Convention

I realized that I needed to democratize my teaching so as to be more consistent with my own educational beliefs. I knew I needed to push myself to break down the conventional approach to teaching in order to meet two goals. I hoped that by approaching the social foundations courses in a democratic manner that I would be enacting Vygotsky's "Law of Awareness" in which a "break in a routine or an impediment to an automatic activity raises awareness of the activity and routine. When a routine is broken, we then have a chance to notice it, question it, and consider alternatives" (Vygotsky in Shor, 1996, p. 122)

By doing things very differently in my classroom, I hoped that I would be helping my students question American schooling practices and understand that alternative visions of education exist. My second goal was to model what a democratic classroom could be, one in which students take part in democratic discourse and authority assumption by helping develop course content, assignments, and evaluations. I hoped that such a model would encourage my students to enact such practices with their own students.

Launching Co-Construction

After a few semesters of playing around, in minor ways, with such democratic-oriented practices as grade contracts (Shor, 1996), open discussions (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999), and "protest rights" (Shor, 1996), I decided to take a huge leap and ask the students in my graduate foundations of education class to fully co-construct the course with me. I chose the graduate level class because I had a bit more trust in the maturity level and commitment of the students. Ultimately, I hope I can expand co-construction into my undergraduate classes, but graduate students were an ideal intermediate step.

Day one

On the first night of class, I began by talking with the students about some of my struggles with teaching middle school students (fully explored in Chapter 1 of Morrison, 2007a), about looking out and seeing glazed-over eyes or recognizing that students just did as I asked in order to get good grades, and about the discomfort I felt over compelling students and playing a heavy authoritarian role. I discussed my dissonance about doing what teachers are expected to do, but also simultaneously questioning if my students were really loving learning in my classrooms, and becoming better people who were equipped to take a productive role in and solve the problems of the world.

I spoke with the class about my professional search for different ways of teaching, different philosophies of education, and how I ended up doing a dissertation study on the Albany Free School. I told my graduate students how I was amazed at how the Free School students were totally engaged in whatever they were doing, that I enjoyed not having to be super-authoritarian, and that I was delighted that the kids seemed to be learning for the sake of learning and not just to get grades. My positive experiences in Albany showed me that my philosophy of education was more in line with this school's than with conventional public school.

I went on to ask the graduate students, so, what was I to do? Give up on public education and go work at this school? Or try to help public education try things differently and perhaps move away from the philosophy it currently holds to one that might be more engaging for students and promising for the world as a whole? I pointed out that I had obviously chosen the latter – I had chosen to go into teacher education and graduate teacher education in the hopes that I could help other teachers or future teachers think more deeply about what is going on in American education and see how we can perhaps try things differently. But I worried that by coming back to conventional education where there were the institutional constraints of grades, required classes, required meeting times, etc. that I would have to give up the things I loved about the Free School.

I explained that I wanted to conduct an experiment this semester, and if they were willing to conduct it with me, we could experience a very different and exciting sort of class. They looked receptive, so I went on, stating,

I believe in democratic education – an education in which students have a powerful voice in deciding what they learn, the manner in which they learn, and the manner in which they are held accountable for that learning. I believe that this sort of education is more meaningful for students on many different levels, and I seek for you to have a meaningful education. Therefore, I am hoping that together we can co-construct this class and we will begin that process tonight. I do not have a syllabus for you to look at because I want your voice in this.

The Vote

We discussed what their preferences were – did they want this to be a teacher-directed course or a more student-centered one? The overwhelming majority of this class of 25 students sided with the more student-directed philosophies, and this was the permission I needed to proceed with co-construction.

Drawing on Freire's ideas of working with students to come up with "generative themes," I then asked the students to come up with questions, topics, and themes they wanted to tackle in the class. Before proceeding to their input on this, I gave the caveat that we needed to coexist with the more teacher-directed philosophy of the university as a whole and stick to topics generally related to the mandated foundations content (e.g. history, philosophy, sociology of schooling). I then went through a Powerpoint on topics typically covered in a foundations course (e.g. the hidden curriculum, that nature and aims of education, history of education, funding and organization of schools, socialization of social class, gender, and race/ethnicity, curriculum and knowledge, and achievement and ability). In retrospect, I see this step as a possible mistake and a definite manifestation of my fear that students "don't know what they don't know" and thus could not possibly come themselves to the "official" topics for a foundations course.

In essence, I did trust their curiosity and imagination about education to lead them more "organically" to these topics. I felt at the time that I had to lead them, but have wondered in hindsight if my leading was tantamount to colonizing their thinking, and was thus un-democratic. But the die was cast and I couldn't take back what I had done, so after showing the Powerpoint, I asked which of those topics they especially wished to examine and what additional questions they had. The list we generated included a wide variety of topics, including questions about types of schools, competition, standardized testing and NCLB, school funding, philosophies of education, parent involvement in schools, curriculum choices, and gender influences on school.

By this time, we had been in class close to two and a half hours and our time was almost up. I had wanted to get into co-constructing grading requirements, attendance policies, assignments, etc., but realizing the students were tired, I instead decided to end class with an assignment for next time. In addition to reading some articles on the hidden curriculum, I wanted them to examine the "proposed" syllabus, which outlined my ideas for course requirements and policies and then come to the next class ready to negotiate with me and one another. Before they left, I asked them to journal responses to the following questions: How are you feeling about this class right now and why do you feel this way? What's appealing about co-construction and what is not?


Their responses showed ambivalence to the process – trepidation about the uncertainty and confusion over expectations, but also excitement over the opportunity to shape the course, and hope about getting some ideas about how to differently approach their own current and future teaching. For example, students wrote in their journals,

I felt extremely uncomfortable. Not much accomplished in the first class. I felt ill prepared to begin the class. I like clear expectations. My time is valuable and feels scarce – let's just get to it. You're here to teach me something that you know that I don't. Reality is, I'm just one of 30 some odd others. If we tried to individualize the syllabus for each person it will be a frustrating process and someone will end up unhappy.

I am somewhat confused of what exactly is going on. Is the professor really going to change her syllabus just because we, the students, offer our suggestions as to what would better suit our interest?... excited because this class suddenly became a lot less intimidating, and nervous because I have no idea what to expect. I believe that co-constructing the class will allow me and the other students to see the purpose behind what we're learning or doing and it will have more meaning because we chose it.

I feel very anxious about the process that was discussed for constructing this course. I feel this way because I'm used to a "traditional" educational experience where the professor imparts important or pertinent knowledge and I apply this knowledge in my classroom. Parts of this idea seem wonderful, but other parts seem overwhelming. Feeling that I can voice my opinions about what is best for me and my graduate work seems wonderful and practical, but what if what's best for me is in conflict with other members of the class?

Day Two

When we next met, we launched immediately into co-constructing the course requirements. I asked the class to create an agenda of discussion items, such as participation, attendance, short term/more frequent/minor assessment, long-term/less frequent/major assessment, and content. These items became task forces and students were assigned to one of these. Task forces were charged with collecting input from their classmates on their topic (by interviewing or by posting questions on chart paper to collect answers), and then of discussing what suggestions to make to the whole class on their topic. The task forces collected input and met for about 30 to 40 minutes and then we came together as a whole class to discuss the myriad ideas.


The students clearly struggled with one another on the issue of positive and negative freedom. As one student wrote,

Many students appear to want to take the easiest route possible to the end of this course, while others are willing to do much more. It's almost embarrassing at times to listen to excuses, made by people who truly don't seem to be here to learn or grow, that pretend to warrant why we should do no readings or outside preparation. I love the idea of a class tailored to me, but I'm only human. I work full time and take three graduate courses. Of course less reading would make my life easier now, but what about the impact it will have on me as a teacher?

And they and I struggled with the difficulties of coming up with assignments that would both attend to peoples' strengths and learning preferences, but also challenge them to stretch and grow. After a great deal of back and forth and reaching an apparent impasse, one student suggested the idea of just giving them a great big list, or menu, of ways to earn points and for me to determine what amount of points would equal A, B, C, D, and F-level work. Many students spoke up in agreement with this and as we were near our ending time, I agreed to try to take all their ideas and suggestions about course requirements as well as their content questions to create a semester plan and syllabus, which I would send them via e-mail within the week.

Rising Investment

Before we ended for the night, I asked the students to journal responses to the following questions: How did the negotiation process make you feel? Do you now feel more or less invested in the class? The responses to the questions were overwhelmingly positive – many students expressed a growing excitement over the possibility that the class would meet their needs, and a number of students indicated feeling empowered by the process and connected to their classmates.

I felt as though my opinion mattered. I felt my ideas were taken seriously and not just "with a grain of salt."

The process actually made me feel powerful; I had some power to control what I was to learn and participate in.

Students expressed feeling more invested in this course than others in which they had no voice:

I am not stressed to just do what the professor expects from me, but to really focus on what I want to learn from the class.

A sense of relief and eagerness seems to come with the ability to map out what I would do with this course. It becomes much easier to fit the course to my learning style.

Because I feel like I have a part in the syllabus, I feel as if I'm more likely to buy into a theme or assignment I might not want to do otherwise, because at some point my voice was heard.

Co-construction begins to tear down the wall of the student doing just as the teacher asked, and reverses some of the brainwashing, by giving us a voice.

But some students still felt some trepidation over the level of responsibility this co-construction placed on them,

If I have any qualms with the outcome of the class, I am part of its source, so I share in that responsibility.

I feel this definitely puts more responsibility on me as a student. I have no excuses if I'm helping to pick the curriculum.

I feel like since you are giving me the choice of what I will be doing for assessment that I owe you maximum effort to reward your trust, as well as maximum effort to learn material.

Putting It Together     

After dismissing class, I returned to my office to try to pull together all the many ideas and come up with a grade menu and a logical content flow for the semester. The resulting schedule of content was extremely similar to how I had taught the class in the past, but with a bit more interweaving of readings specific to the students' content questions. The grade menu, however, was something much different from any course requirement listing I had ever produced. I assigned every possible task and assignment idea, from small to large, a relative point value (e.g. attendance in class= 10 points per night, reading a four page article= 2 points, a research project presentation=120 points, overall semester participation=200 points, etc.). If a student did absolutely everything, then he/she would end the semester with 1400 points. In that there were a great number of choices and extras built in, I determined that to earn an A, students would need a minimum of 745 points, and then lesser point values for the lower grades.

I e-mailed this new schedule and grade menu to students within two days of our class so that they would have time to digest it, come up with changes, questions, etc. prior to our next class.

Day Three

On the third night of class, I began by asking the students to journal on these questions: What do you think of the new syllabus and grade menu? Do you feel your needs were met? Will you feel comfortable at a future date exercising your "protest rights" if some aspect of the syllabus ends up being problematic? Again, responses were positive. Nearly all students expressed appreciation of the level of choice and flexibility, and that their opinions, concerns, and questions had been taken into account. The process also seemed to have broken down, to a degree, the conventional teacher-student antagonism, as the students expressed a great deal of comfort and inclination to protest or raise future questions. It seemed that the students had "bought in" to the course, and had begun to develop trust in me as well as in their fellow students. There was an overall positive ambience in the class that seemed to come from the relaxing of the idea that I was trying to "force" them to do something. As some students wrote,

The co-construction of the syllabus to make it as it is now has shown me that you will be fair in listening to any changes or problems that might arise.

I felt as if the negotiations process was easy going and I was grateful that the professor was so open to ideas that would make this class better as a whole. Happy students are going to accomplish more and take more away from any class, in my opinion.

The process made me feel like you, the professor, cared about what we thought. You weren't just dictating to us what you want us to learn in this class.

The Hidden Curriculum

Our first topic for discussion in the course, the hidden curriculum, dovetailed perfectly with this process. The hidden curriculum, which teaches many students to be passive, docile and hyper-obedient in schools, and which is antithetical to true and meaningful learning, hit home so much more powerfully for the students. I began our discussion by asking the class why all courses are not co-constructed. Student responses included all the challenges to democratic education outlined earlier and the students seem to really understand the difference between a personally meaningful education and the process of being "schooled" through the hidden curriculum to do what others ask without thought to one's own needs and interests.

The Rest of The Semester

Our semester progressed wonderfully after the co-construction process. The students appeared to be engaged in and interested in our topics. At the end of the semester, I wanted to get some empirical confirmation of this perception of student engagement and so I distributed to them a questionnaire composed of questions I had culled from the National Survey of Student Engagement. A rudimentary analysis of the 23 responses gave me evidence that the course was positively experienced by the overwhelming majority of the class. See Tables 1 and 2, for example:

Table 1


Very often




How often have you asked questions in class or contributed to class discussions?









How often have you come to class without completing readings or assignments?









How often have you worked with other students on tasks during class?









How often have you discussed ideas from your readings or classes with others outside of class (your students, fellow students, family members, co-workers, etc.)?









How often have you examined the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue?









How often have you tried to better understand someone else's views by imagining how an issue looks from his or her perspective?









How often have you learned something that changed the way you understood an issue or concept?









Table 2


Very much

Quite a bit


Very little

To what extent has your experience with this course contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the area of understanding yourself?









To what extent has your experience with this course contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the area of solving complex real-world problems?









Additionally, for relationships with other students on a scale of 1 (being unfriendly, unsupportive, sense of alienation) to 7 (being friendly, supportive, sense of belonging), the average score was 6.04. For relationships with faculty on the same scale, the average score was 6.17. Students indicated having spent on average three to eight hours per week on course work outside of class, and that most of in- and out-of-class work involved the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and application. Lastly, students rated the course overall as excellent (74%) or good (26%) and none rated it as fair or poor.

These responses were a clear indication to me that the students invested a good amount of time in preparing for the class, they were actively involved and engaged during class (e.g. asking questions, working with others, working at higher order thinking levels), they took their learning outside the class (e.g. discussed it with family members, co-workers), they experienced some meaningful growth (e.g. deeply examined own arguments, empathized with other points of view, came to understand self and real-world problems), and they experienced positive peer and teacher relationships in it.

What I would do differently?

Earlier, I mentioned my worry about having limited my students' imaginations and curiosity by showing them the topics typically covered in a foundation course prior to their brainstorming content questions. To avoid having a situation where the students or I feel that I am leading their thinking too much, I believe that some kind of activity wherein the students talk to one another about their institutional histories in conventional schools or perplexing aspects of American education might lead them to posing some generative themes (e.g. create an autobiography of their time in K-12 schools. What was joyful? What was not? What did/do you see that causes you questions, frustrations, and fears?)

Another thing I would do differently is have students develop grading rubrics for assignments with me, rather than develop and present them on my own. Additionally, I'd like for the students to do a bit more self-evaluation. They did get to self-evaluate their participation level, which I took into consideration when determining the final points score, but I think they could also do more self-evaluation of their written work and maybe engage in some peer evaluations as well. I also believe that I would like for the students to come up with their own assessment ideas. While such ideas are fraught with potential problems themselves, if done carefully and well, they could serve the ends of helping students become more invested in their learning, and help them discern conceptions of high, medium, and low quality work.

The proposed syllabus, which the students examined between weeks one and two, also seemed to have a limiting effect on their imaginations about ways they could show involvement and engagement in course content. This may have resulted in the students just essentially "tweaking" my course ideas and not really getting into deep co-construction. In some ways, this made my life easier in that I didn't have to start everything from scratch and we saved class time, but was the result just a pseudo or mere surface-level democracy?

A last thing I would do differently is do more frequent written evaluations of this process. Even though I asked at the beginning of each class, "Are there any questions, comments, concerns, complaints, suggestions about how the class is going?" students responded rather infrequently. I took this as a sign that all was well, but at the end of the semester, one student wrote on his/her questionnaire that a mid-point written evaluation would have been appreciated and that he/she had been reluctant to speak out because all the other students seem to be contentedly "chugging along."

Co-construction Throughout All Teacher Preparation Courses?

People who are or will be teachers need to experience a democratic education, for how can one teach what one does not know herself? Even though many pre- and in-service teachers were "successful" in conventionally-modeled schools, and thus might shy away from alternative visions of education (e.g. saying, "I did OK in school, so the current model must be doing something right."), I believe that many hunger for something different. Teacher education programs must satisfy this hunger and help future and current teachers see that alternative visions exist, are viable, and are actually preferable in that they serve a democratic, pluralistic society better than our current dominant educational vision.

Can all teacher preparation courses provide models of democratic education practices? Perhaps, perhaps not; institutional constraints such as those discussed in the article "Democratic Classrooms: Promises and Challenges of Student Voice and Choice" (e.g. the conventional view of knowledge) may be more powerful obstacles in some courses than in others. Fortunately for me, foundations content is inherently linked with issues of democracy and student autonomy, and thus instituting democratic practices in this course has an internal logic.

Even if democratic practices don't fit quite as well in other teacher preparation courses, the instructors of them don't have to be limited to employing conventional approaches only. Instead, they should employ other models of learning and teaching which have an internally logical connection to their course (e.g. problem-based learning for a class on diagnosing learning disabilities). Teachers will cling to the conventional/status quo approaches to education so long as they cannot imagine alternatives, and thus it is imperative that teacher education programs provide their students with multiple models of educational philosophies and approaches to teaching and learning.


I was very pleased with the results of my experiment in course co-construction, and even though I believe I could have done some things differently and I recognize that not all courses would be able to adopt the same practices, the process affirmed my initial belief that this approach will truly serve the end of helping to create people who value the search for truth and personal meaning, justice, equality, and the thoughts and humanity of others. Students, especially those who will in the future be teachers themselves, must have opportunities to practice democratic habits of mind in the way this course allowed them to.

                        Some might argue that our schools were never meant to create democratic citizens because our society is not now and never truly will be a democracy, and thus the undemocratic characteristics of our conventional schools are by design. While such cynicism is warranted given what we know about how power is used and abused in our society, critical educational theorists might counter that it is our "ontological vocation" (Freire, 1970) to struggle to achieve far-off-seeming ideals. While we might certainly not have a true democracy now, one will never be attained unless people work for it both in and outside of our educational institutions.


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