International Democratic Education Conference 2013


IDEC 2013


International Democratic education conference


Boulder, Colorado


By Amanda Bellamy, Park School, Dartington, UK



Some of my reflections on the 2013 IDEC


Throughout the 5 day conference I spoke to and heard people from 10 years to 90 years from many different countries talk passionately and thoughtfully about education. There were several themes that kept repeating themselves. I have thought about these issues before but I now feel even more strongly about them!


One was that adults need to listen authentically to a child’s voice so that they feel that they count. While this is happening the child needs to know that they are in a safe space to practise their ideas and opinions (as one may allow a child to practise writing and reading) even if what they are saying may not make sense initially. I find that when I make mistakes they are usually in the places where I am learning the most and where I am right at the edge of my skill level. A child needs to be able to think their idea through to the end without being told their idea is wrong right at the start or half way through. This is a sure way to stop a child (or anyone) thinking. If they are listened to authentically it shows respect for them and allows a connection to them as whole human beings and not as vessels that need to be filled. This connection allows for a real conversation to occur and real issues to be discussed and therefore making it more likely for learning to take place. Children (and most adults) know when they are not being respected and heard. Their sense of not being heard feeds directly into their ‘fairness radar’. Being treated unfairly is often the cause of an unsettled and fractious learning environment. When adults model this way of listening well the child not only learns how to communicate well to others but also to respect how they communicate to themselves and value their own ideas and opinions. This is what supports and strengthens courageous change thinkers and rational risk takers who not only think out of the box but without a box altogether. It does not mean agreeing to everything a child has to say-just allowing them to really think ideas through.


What does this mean for Park School and each teacher’s practice? I think we have already made a good start at Park. We do try to listen to children authentically - but I wonder if we need to give the‘solutions’ quite so quickly? Do we allow them to follow their ideas though enough without interrupting them? I wonder, as a parent and educator, if I need to listen and watch more and trust that mistakes are not a bad thing. I wonder if I turn too many conversations with children into ‘life lessons’ or ‘educational moments’ rather than connecting with what a child is actually communicating to me? After spending time with young people at the conference on what makes a good democratic educator one of the strongest feelings from all the cultures was that this meant a person who can have a conversation with them anywhere and does not try to teach them every time which seems to have a very negative effect making the learner feel dis-empowered and disrespected.


Another issue was that Education should be a great part of your life – not a time to endure in a seat until you can go out and do something you care about. What inspired you in your education? What inspired you to do what you love to do now? For me it was not a subject, a bit of knowledge or a classroom. It was discovering something for me, experimenting, getting it wrong, being encouraged to try again but not told the answer and not being directed at every moment of my day. It was about aimlessly wondering around big ideas until they made sense to me in my way. It was about choice and the respect given to me as a learner and as a person by my educators.


Another theme that repeated itself and came across very strongly was how important community was for the learner. It was felt that educators needed to know their learners community and that the community should be encouraged to be engaged and understand the school. I think that Park does this well through parent-led contribution activities. However, an idea to improve this further would be to offer termly workshops for parents to discuss how Park works with the children. These may be on mediation, reading, non-violent communication, maths, the school meeting etc. If parents are able to support the child in similar ways and use similar vocabulary it will give the child security and confidence in much the same way that parents try to be consistent with their routines at home. The class presentations that the teachers already give each term may also go some way towards explaining some of these issues and could be a place for parents to request a workshop that they would like in the future. For this to have any impact the parents would need to understand how beneficial attending these presentations and workshops are for their children to make the most out of being at Park. Alongside the parent part of the community I think that the child community could be inspired to think about what they want to share and talk about much more. The current class and school meetings should be a place for children to be encouraged to think more about what they want on the agenda. All too often the agenda is made up of mainly adult suggestions.


Another theme which came out quite often was how important non-violent communication is. I heard many times how all teachers should be trained in these techniques to support them in challenging times. All the teachers at Park are currently trained in this area and often watch each other practice these techniques. I am not overly fond of the name -but it is something that I would like to keep up. I would like to continue to talk more openly with the children so that they learn how to use these techniques themselves in their own conflict resolutions.


Although the conference was about Democratic Education I know that democracy makes up a large part of what makes a Human Scale school. The National Action Research Project that Park is involved with Human Scale Education in over the next couple of years is looking at 7 values and trying to make National blueprint for these. These are:


  • Relationship and respect for the individual
  • Inclusion
  • Collaboration and community
  • Social justice
  • Voice of all respected
  • Autonomy and professional practice supported
  • Engagement-socially relevant and engaging curriculum


As you can see they overlap with the themes which kept on repeating themselves at the conference. Human Scale Education must include democracy as part of its definition because being Human Scale is about seeing people as individuals, respecting the individual, listening authentically to the individual and learning to be an individual-all in the context of connecting to and hearing one another’s needs. This includes respecting our own ideas and being able to communicate and integrate these with other people. Schools (and other educational places) are places that can shape the future by how much they allow the individual to become confident free thinkers who are allowed to give voice to their ideas in safe and non-judgemental spaces. Park School strives to be one such place as its guiding principles indicate:


  • Look after yourself
  • Look after other people
  • Look after the place you are in


I feel that I gained a huge amount from the IDEC conference and from the many connections that I made. I talked to 11 year olds who were public speakers and who had set up their own companies for environmental awareness and to 90 year olds who passionately agreed with the democratic process with all their wisdom. I spoke to Head Teachers of schools that have been going for years and to ones who were opening up new schools. I talked to teenagers from areas in the world where their schools had been destroyed by weather and have had to look at education in a very different way - and to education film makers and PHD students and mums and dads from across the world. I would recommend anyone who really wants to look at what makes real education to go to an IDEC. The next one is in South Korea and the 2015 in New Zealand. (Google IDEC for their website). It is full of interesting things! I would like to thank The Phoenix Education Trust and Human Scale Education for their kind and generous contribution towards making this trip possible for me.


Yours Amanda Bellamy


Sept 2013