Most schools today involve rows of students seated at desks, looking toward a teacher. That teacher, who is the focus of all the students, holds the power in the classroom, but has little power to make structural changes within the school system. The educational system in the United States right now is set up to teach kids how to follow directions—and it's not doing that very well, either. Our students learn how to break the rules and not get caught. Our schools teach kids ways to negotiate power so that they are able to achieve some sort of reward or avoid punishment, but never to be in power. Conformity and submission to authority are clear strategies for success in the public school system. Students see clear examples of "power over" and "power under," but rarely "power with." Our schools are educating for empire.
By not teaching children how to think critically, and not allowing students or teachers meaningful control over school environments or curriculum, our schools train workers who do not question authority in jobs or on battlefields. If students are unable to operate successfully in this system, they are often funneled into the prison industrial system. This connection between prisons and schools is becoming more and more transparent. Just last February a seventh grade girl in New York was arrested and taken directly to jail for writing on her desk in marker. The means by which schools operate are authoritarian and oppressive. Youth in schools do not experience a right of due process and are one of the only populations within the U.S. who to not have access to this right. There is no innocent-until-proven-guilty option in the principle's office. This system invites little to no feedback from and does not empower those upon which it acts, whether students or teachers.
All this makes me sad. It does not embody the world I want to create.
Luckily, other alternatives already exist, and we can learn from what they are doing. There are ways to incorporate cooperative principles into education systems. There are ways to build a school system that educates for democracy.
What democratic schools can look like
I worked in a "free school" in Michigan, where students, with the guidance of their teachers and parents, directed the focus and trajectory of their educational experience. There are many names by which this movement is known, each with a slightly different meaning: "free schools," "democratic schools," "student-centered learning," and "non-coercive learning" are some of the terms used. Everything—from which classes we offered for the semester to the school rules (aside from some non-negotiables, such as, "Don't damage the physical building in which we operate.")—was decided upon in all-school meetings, which were attended by staff and students who ranged in age from 5 to 18 years old.
Students participated in the hiring of their teachers. They prepared their own interview questions as a group and had the opportunity to read candidates' resumes, interview the candidates, and provide their feedback to the hiring committee.
Curriculum for my classes was co-developed with my students. We talked together about which topics to cover, in what order, and for how long. In addition to this, it was also flexible, able to change with the needs and interests of the class. We always had a general map of the upcoming weeks, but were able to extend our study on specific topics if there was lots of interest, and change our course as new interests arose from our studies. I believe that this led to students who were more invested, more engaged, and more involved in their classes and educational experience as a whole. Being interested in what you were studying was not "uncool" at our school. Our conversations were lively and involved, full of challenging and critical questions.
In our school, discipline looked a lot different than detentions, suspensions, Saturday schools, and expulsions. Discipline involved students being held accountable for their actions by their peers and being held responsible for the resolution of the problem that they caused. "Punishments" were most often the result of decision made at our group meetings and could look like a lot of different things.
For example, there was an incident where a student wrote inappropriate and angry graffiti covering the walls of a school bathroom. The consequence was that the student spent a long time cleaning the writing off the bathroom. In an all-school meeting, the student apologized to their peers and explained where their anger was coming from, which led to a whole school conversation around bullying, because part of their anger came from feeling bullied. This was a learning experience for everyone that would have been lost in a system that did not have a structure for open communication and community accountability for actions.
I have lived in housing cooperatives or collectives for ten years now, and my experience with cooperative housing prepared me for our many school meetings; we had classroom meetings each morning, as well as an all-school meeting each week. These meetings were almost always facilitated by a student. Many of our students had better meeting behavior, self-facilitation, and group facilitation skills than many of the adults I've worked with in co-op housing situations, which goes to show that these skills can be learned when young. The students learned through observation and experience how to communicate, with the focus being resolution and compromise-based, not winning/losing. They learned to facilitate meetings, formulate proposals, and call for consensus (we used a modified form of consensus, after one student brought a proposal to move from Robert's Rules to consensus in our meetings.) I didn't have the luck of learning these skills as a young person at school. I moved into my first housing co-op and figured it out as I went along.
Why we need this to happen
In my experience working with and living in cooperative groups (I have worked as a trainer and consultant for cooperatives for five years), I have seen that often many of the hard points groups meet are not due to the process they're using or the structure they're operating within so much as a collective lack of communication skills. One of the things that is most beautiful about the cooperative structure is how it necessitates that we learn how to effectively communicate and work together as a team of people toward a common goal. It requires that we re-frame our differences of opinion not as excuses for argument but as opportunities to practice dialogue, understand each other's perspectives, and work together toward compromise.
I think there's an underlying belief that communication skills develop when we learn to talk; that magically, learning to talk is also learning to communicate. But that's just not true. True communication, where you actually hear the person and are working toward compromise is a learned skill. It requires focus and work. It is a life long process. Learning how to compromise, resolve conflict, negotiate, and work towards a shared resolution are key parts of a healthy community. Creating participatory, cooperative environments in schools is a way to instill these skills in our youth from the start.
Democratically run schools can and do build these skills in our youth from the get go. In this type of environment, kids can learn how to operate with care for others in their community, be held accountable for their actions, and see how their actions affect others around them. They can learn to negotiate, stand up for themselves, and express their concerns. This prepares them to participate in all kinds of democratically run communities and fosters in them agency and a tendency towards action. They learn that they can work for change. And they're less likely to take things for granted as "the way things are," because they know that in a functioning democracy, things can and do change, and that change comes from them, the people.
The cooperative connection
Free schools and democratic schools are not perfect. In fact, these systems have a lot to gain from cooperatives. Implementing the Rochdale principles of cooperation, such as voluntary and open membership, in consideration when creating a free school, could help frame the values of our schools and build upon the free school model. Here are a few examples:
Voluntary and open membership
The school at which I taught was a private, tuition-based school, as are most of the democratic and free schools I have visited and know of. While this offered us much freedom in terms of curriculum development (unlike public schools, we did not have to follow the state standards for each grade level, nor were we required to administer standardized tests to measure our students' "achievement"), it also meant that our school was only available to a privileged subset of the population. Our membership was voluntary, but not very open. While scholarship programs did exist, many youth were unable to attend our school for financial reasons.
Education, training, and information
Cooperatives have it as part of their mission to provide education and training for both their members and the public. One thing I see missing from the free school movement is a drive to educate the public about educational alternatives to the current "banking style" education system used in the public schools, where the underlying assumption is that the minds of the students are empty vessels (empty banks), ready to be filled by other people's ideas and information, without any personal or critical engagement with the concepts. I would love to see schools develop as community education centers, with classes on alternative education and different education models as well as parenting classes and discussion groups available to both parents of the students attending the school as well as the public at large.
Concern for community
Similarly, our schools tend to be inwardly focused. While we put much emphasis on field trips, experiential learning, and hands-on approaches, we rarely ask the question: "How can we benefit the community in this work we're doing?" We walked local creek beds in search of morel mushrooms for our botany class, but we did not link up with local groups that worked on creek restoration. I envision our schools as centers for community growth and development. I see social justice as integral to curriculum development in all subjects.
At the school where I worked, much of the reason we were not able to implement these values had to do with resources. We had a hard working, small staff that did not have the capacity to take on a large public education project/program and were barely scraping by financially from year to year. Despite our desire to offer more scholarships, we just didn't have the funds to do so. However, I feel that if these principles were present from the start, the actual structure of a school could be different.
Time to work together
If we continue replicating models of hierarchy and control in our schools, our youth will continue to replicate these systems as they exit the schools and enter the world. If we want a society that holds values such as mutual aid, respect, and cooperation, then these need to be the base of our education system.
A culture's education system is the primary vehicle for the reproduction of social values. That's what it is for: training participants in society. If we aim to transform society, if as the social forum movement states, "another US is necessary," then to create that vision of what we want, we have to implement changes in our public education system. Youth need to be educated within the framework that we want to use, or that framework will be irrelevant and ignored. Schools and the school system are a key piece of any real longterm systemic change.
Democratic schooling teaches kids to be leaders, to make decisions based on the health of a community, to negotiate, to resolve conflict, and more. It teaches the skills needed for active participation in a functioning democracy, skills needed for participation in cooperatives and collectives. The cooperative movement has a lot to offer this schooling model. It's time for us bridge these two worlds and work together to implement change within our schools.
This piece was originally published by kiran nigam (2010) as Cooperative principles can be applied in school settings, Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 5.