A Democratic Preschool
Today in Sweden we celebrate 100 years of the right for the general public to vote - prior to that only 19% of the (wealthy) population had the right to vote. Of course this did not mean women... that decision was made 6 months later that they too had the right to vote. Sadly in Sweden this voting business has not gone so well for us this year... as we had elections in September and we are still without a government, because none of the political parties received enough votes to lead on their own... and coalitions must be formed... but they are just not getting along and 3 months later we are still without a prime minister and government.
Interestingly - did you know that in one of Switzerland's Cantons it was as recent as 1990 that women got the right to vote (and 1971 when there was a general right to vote)... and in Liechtenstein it was 1984 when they got to vote.
Democracy means people rule... and in a true democracy the person who is voted in then represents the people... what we tend to see is someone being voted in and has their own agenda for the country... and the people try to choose the best of the agendas offered.
The very first sentence in the Swedish preschool curriculum is "Förskolan vilar på demokratins grund" (The preschool rests on the foundations of democracy). Yet over the years I have seen a kind of confusion over what is democracy... and how does the preschool rest upon it? Often I have seen "democracy" been used a project, and often that means voting... but over the years as I have been on this "listening journey" of mine I have come to understand democracy as something quite different... and that voting is simply a tool of democracy rather than being democracy. A democratic preschool, for me, is about listening to each other, about being heard and valued, about having respect, about having power over your learning, about being an active participant, about negotiating and compromise... Children do not choose to come to preschool... well at least not at first (and for some, never) - it is their parents that make this choice for them... it is also the parents that choose which preschool they attend, and the preschool that chooses which educator/s will be with the children. The educator in a sense is the power, the leader - but we also have to acknowledge that we have not been democratically chosen by the children for this role. Working philosophically with children (age group between 2 and 6, but also younger, and older groups) has allowed me to see the importance of listening as a democratic tool. When I first started working philosophically the children seldom listened to each other... they heard that others were talking, but did not listen to their words or try to understand their intentions, their focus was on telling their own story - and paying attention to the teacher was important (if not always appreciated) - as children are used to having to listen to an adult. So in the beginning of this 3.5 year journey with the same group of children I focussed on enhancing their listening skills... not so much about them listening to me, but about them listening to each other... real listening (I have written a lot about listening over the years... and I will be adding more and more of those posts onto this website). I felt that with time and with practice we created a democratic preschool... where the children listened with respect to each others ideas, even ideas they did not agree with were listened to. We learned that by listening we might expand on our own ideas - so it was always worth while to listen - we might change our opinion even... or be more sure that our own ideas were good ones. The children had the opportunity to make decisions about their learning and play - decisions we made together... the children ensured that everyone was included, they were aware of the feelings of others - when choosing the playspace we should go to (Monday-Wednesdays) they developed their own strategy for making that choice, they also decided that those that got their choice should not cheer, because that made the few who had made another choice sad, and likewise those who did not get their choice should not boo, because that made others feel bad too - but expressing joy and disappointment was OK, but in a respectful way. They also made the decisions when they saw that someone or a few were very disappointed that the next day they should visit that playspace - recognising the needs of others. During the process there was room for the children to present arguments as to why that particular playspace was good for play - and quite often this resulted in many changing their minds when they realised the same play could be offered in both play spaces, or another new, or an old favourite they had forgotten about could be played. ALL of this could be done without my adult interference... we had modelled the necessary skills through philosophical dialogues which they then applied to many other situations. This is an example of Original Learning... of the ability to use skills learned in another situation... the learning was meaningful and used in play as well. Each child was heard and valued by the whole group. The whole group worked together to create a community of play and learning that would benefit them all and not just a few. I was their leader - not in the sense that I made all the decisions, but as a guide to ensure the group principles were upheld, and also with the knowledge that I LISTENED to all of them, as well as they listened to me. We created a community of play and learning TOGETHER where we were equally valued despite us all being different and the fact that over the years I have accumulated a considerable amount of knowledge that the children are just starting to build on. To create/be a part of a democratic society we need to listen... those elected to power need to listen to the many voices of the people, and not to exclude; the people need to listen to those in power and experts and make informed choices; the people also need to listen to each other with respect and not to exclude - not to be convinced in the rightness of your own opinions but to consider the viewpoints of others, and to remember that democracy requires compromise, you do not always get what you want, and you also need to be aware of those who never get what they want (because they always seem to be in the minority of all choices/decisions), because that is not democratic either... so that means listening to everyone so that we have a better understanding of who is being included and who is being excluded due to being a minority... this is as relevant in the classroom as it is in society... and is not just the responsibility of the country's leader or the classroom educator... but of the whole society and every child in the classroom to ensure that all are included and heard.