Implementing Sociocracy in a Democratic School
cross-posted from Sociocracy For All
By Johanna Hall and Jennifer VanBenschoten
For Sociocracy Leadership Training 13
Enkindle Village School is the first independent democratic school in North Queensland, Australia. Egalitarian in nature, the school is founded on democratic principles, with the belief that everyone affected by a decision should have a voice in that decision. Student decision-making is at the center of all life at the school, providing students with a genuine choice in the development of their education.
Play- based learning, hands-on activities, and a flexible schedule with much time spent outdoors provide students with opportunities to develop relationships of mutual respect with one another and with adults. Students learn to rise to the responsibility of consent- based decision-making, to skillfully resolve conflicts and to participate as full members of an engaged and connected learning community.
Enkindle’s educational philosophy draws from aspects of the democratic school movement, the Montessori method, the Steiner approach and elements of Forest Schools. The school follows the Australian National Curriculum, ensuring that all students learn skills in line with their peers across the state and country. Individual learning programs are created with each student, based on their unique interests. A small school by design, students learn in flexible and multi-age groups based on their learning needs and interests. Currently, the school serves approximately 30 students ranging in age from 4 to 9 years.
Enkindle is an accredited school, approved by the new Non-State School Accreditation Board of the Australian Government. Incorporated as a non-profit, operational costs are covered by school fees, Commonwealth and State funding. Enkindle is co-located on the campus of James Cook University.
All children are capable and free-thinking contributors to their world when offered a voice and choice in learning.
To ignite the hearts and minds of our students through a vibrant and engaging learning environment that provides structure for self-directed learning.
Liberty. Autonomy. Joy.
At Enkindle, the Student Circle is at the center of the organization. Students learn to rise to the challenge inherent in making decisions that truly shape their learning, their relationships with others and the daily functioning of the entire community.
Key activities and understandings to achieve this vision are:
- Student- driven decision-making
- Cultivation of leadership and mutual respect between all members of the organizational circles
- Positive behavior management policy and the use of natural consequences
- Focus on skills and methods for conflict resolution, play-based learning and engagement in the outdoors
- Equal value placed on character and intellectual development
Beginning and Development
Enkindle Village School opened in January, 2019 with 15 students, aged 4-8 years of age. The spark for the creation of this new school model was a group of like-minded parents seeking more choice in their children’s education beyond the state, grammar and religious schools being offered in the Townsville region at that time. These parents, their children and community members joined together to form the Townsville Independent School Association.
Beginning with an interest in democratic schools, the Association researched available educational models and visited many democratic schools. Principal Kiri Pearce explains that over time, “the right people with the right skills” came together to form a working group and a common vision emerged. Central to both the formation of this vision and to articulating the vision to others was the independent documentary film School Circles1 .
The film explores how six democratic schools in the Netherlands implement the theory of sociocracy into practice. Pearce found that the experience of viewing the film and seeing the promise of these ideas in action was enough to convince several parents to invest time and energy into creating a similar school in Queensland.
During the four year process of developing the school, Sociocracy was adopted as the organizational model for both decisions made during this phase and as the basis for school operations, once launched. An important turning point in the process of launching the school was securing a physical facility co-located on the local university campus. The group approached this university to investigate a partnership and ultimately leased a building on campus with full use of university facilities (the school is not formally affiliated with this institution however).
Another key step in defining the school’s aims was extensive research into and visits to other democratic schools. Pearce noted that being on the ground in other schools, questioning and having dialogue with other practitioners of the democratic model was very important to developing clarity around how the school could best work. While the development process for the school was lengthy, this allowed time for a group to coalesce around shared understandings of what the school could be.
At Enkindle, the organizational structure places the Student Circle at the center of the organization, as student decision- making radiates out to all aspects of the organization.
The Student Circle is the largest circle. This circle meets frequently and is supported by Kiri Pearce, the principal, four other teachers and several teaching assistants. The Student Circle decides on all matters affecting student learning, their interactions with the school community, what resources are needed for the school and what rules (other than safety regulations) to put in place. Students understand that they may have to talk to the other circles before certain decisions can be made; for example, the student circle has approached the School Employees Circle for input relating to use of funds, and the Parents Circle for feedback on issues of legitimate concern for parents.
The School Employees Circle comprises teachers, maintenance staff, gardeners, and other school workers. They manage the daily operation of the school, voice opinions, and make decisions that directly affect operations using a consent model. As the school is small at the moment, this circle carries out all management activities, including Human Resources functions.
The School Board Circle includes a panel of experts that manages high-level school operations, such as the current high school certification process. Its members include community members who are experts in the fields of law, education, business and accounting. Members of the James Cook University are also on this Board. The circle supports the principal in considering bigger issues such as legal issues, and also support the other circles in matters of policy, procedure, and finances.
The Community Circle comprises local and global community connections and allies.
The Parents Circle provides collaboration between parents, school staff, students, community and board. They meet regularly to discuss school issues and concerns. In addition, they take on support roles such as fundraising and volunteering. The Principal is the primary information conduit from this circle to the other circles.
How have sociocratic practices shaped school practices and community?
Students have been quick to learn the process of consent-based decision making. When the students were learning the process they struggled to determine what decisions needed to be brought to the circle, with the result that often the circle was overwhelmed with too many decisions to make. However, the children’s sense of fairness and adaptability to the principles of sociocracy have now enabled their circle to become quite efficient and effective.
Students have been able to expand into making decisions around conflict within Justice Circles, which they initiate when the need arises. Principal Kiri Pearce notes that, “We all want someone to hear our voice” and that amongst students there was significantly less conflict once the students recognized that everybody has a voice and that there was a place for each one of their voices to be heard. A common understanding that their voices are valued, respected, and considered carefully is underscored by the students’ very strong sense of fairness.
Everyone is on a first-name basis; the school nurtures a family-like environment. Teachers are open, vulnerable and transparent about their own learning, which is primarily experiential–as other similar schools are not geographically close enough to visit easily for more formal professional development or training in sociocracy.
Teachers have learned to authentically place children’s rights on equal footing with the rights of adults and advocate for children’s rights with the children’s parents. They base their own sense of success on how well the students are responding and learning, or not; this feedback generates self-reflection and a re-calibration of their own mind-sets and behaviors.
- Students have become adept at consent-based decision making in both the structured format of the Student Circle and within informal interaction with peers or adults. As students are at the center of all decision making, they develop a keen understanding of the great responsibility in this position. Students have grown in their understanding of the purpose and process of the student circle and have developed extraordinary listening skills. Students utilize the language of consent within the circle and during other activities.
- Learning extends beyond the school grounds. Parents note that their children use the language, learning and perspective of consent-based decision- making at home and with family members.
- Both students and teachers have made a genuine shift in imagining what school and education can be. When given true choice in learning, students are more engaged in all parts of the learning process. Teachers focus their practice on addressing student needs, making constant modifications based on impact on students. Students are able to voice and advocate for their needs and interests, knowing their concerns are the central business of the community.
- Students initiate conflict resolution processes and can manage peer conflict amongst themselves with respect and sensitivity. An environment of mutual respect allows students and teachers to address concerns with learning and behavior constructively and with genuine desire for mutual resolution.
“It is so incredible to watch the roles changing from what we are used to in traditional schooling, the teacher-student dynamic has evolved into something completely different: we’re all responsible for decisions, students just as much as teachers. They rise to that responsibility and understand how big that responsibility is; they have a genuine choice in helping to shape what their education looks like . . . a genuine choice! It is so rewarding to see a change in students’ minds about what school is.”
Principal Kiri Pearce
- Teachers and students work to “unlearn” ideas of what school should be and how the roles of teachers and students interact. Teachers have needed to challenge themselves to step back and allow students the opportunity to decide for themselves or work through difficulty before stepping in to provide resolution.
- Parents have struggled with “unlearning” traditional modes of involvement and decision- making in their children’s education. Teachers work on educating families as well as students on how consent-based decision making functions. Parents have had difficulty giving full control over to the Student Circle and really trusting students to make all the decisions. Understanding the level of unconditional trust in student decision- making is a process for many caretakers.
- Communication and flow of information between circles is a constantly evolving process. The school is working on determining how much information flow among circles best supports student autonomy. In this current phase of development, Principal Kiri Pearce serves as the main conduit of information flow between circles.
Where is Enkindle Village School headed?
- Growing with the students by adding one grade level each year until the school has a full educational program, from prep (pre-school) to high school graduation
- Involving students in the process of selecting new school staff
- Modeling democratic and sociocratic practices for other schools and teachers through school visits. Becoming a leader in the democratic school movement in Queensland and bringing the benefits of sociocracy and democratic school principles to the wider community. Students advocating for democratic schooling in the wider community
- Providing professional development to other teachers and schools, and assisting with the implementation of specific, selected practices of sociocracy and/or of fully-democratic programs
- 1For more information on the film see Schoolcirclesfilm.com.