What is a democratic classroom?

For most students, school consists of a million small and large decisions over which they are largely powerless. What time school starts, what class or classes they attend, and what they learn are all decisions they have no say in. But the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) acknowledges choice as one of the most important and powerful tools we can give to students. Democratic classrooms are learning environments that empower students with choices in their learning and incorporate shared decision-making to promote increased engagement and improved learning outcomes for students.

Improving your classroom environment through shared responsibility

Including students in the process of shared decision-making helps them develop several important social emotional learning skills, including:

  • Self-awareness

  • Social awareness

  • Responsible decision-making

It teaches students to consider how their decisions can impact both themselves or others, how to communicate amongst a group, how to be responsible for self and be accountable to a collective, and how to collaborate with others toward a goal or goals.

Creating a democratic classroom that supports student-directed learning

Democratic classrooms make learning more fun for students and teaching more fun, and they foster improved teacher-student relationships. Because students are encouraged to take ownership over their classroom and learning, students display more on-task behavior and improved mood and focus. Below you will find strategies that can make your classroom a more democratic environment and support student-directed learning.

  • Invite student input: Host classroom meetings and invite students to come up with their own ideas for classroom rules, values, jobs, and management. 

  • Be a guide: Ask open-ended questions to compel students to acknowledge what matters most to them and push them to go beyond simple answers.

“What is the most important rule you think we should have in our classroom?”
“How do you think we should make decisions in our classroom?”
“What are some jobs you think we should have in our classroom?”
“What can we do to make sure we are creating a safe space for everyone?”

  • Create a system for students suggesting topics they are interested in, and encourage them to provide feedback. Students are more likely to stick to routines and comply with rules that they were part of establishing.

  • Allow students to disagree with you and one another, and encourage them to problem-solve their way toward conflict resolution on their own.

  • Give students a choice in which learning activities they engage with, providing them with power over how and what they learn.

  • Observe and document learning and progress toward developmental goals. Meet with older students, and ask them to come up with short-term progress goals.

  • Make your classroom environment a safe space that embraces cultural differences.

Why students thrive in democratic classrooms

A democratic classroom creates a safe, nurturing environment in which students have their individual needs, as well as the needs of the group, addressed. Students are encouraged to participate in collective decision-making in respectful, developmentally appropriate ways that make learning more fun and engaging for both teachers and students and provider deeper, richer educational experiences. Through democratic classrooms that support student-directed learning and promote choice, students are allowed to flourish into their best selves equipped with the understanding of their own autonomy and a strengthened community built on respectful and meaningful teamwork.