Youth Engagement in Democratic Education

Way back in 2008, I presented a few workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference. I had dabbled in the “DemEd” community for a few years by then, and this was my first push to really inject the movement I stand for: Youth engagement. While it seems antithetical for democratic education to be anything other than engaging for youth, as a student and parent who has experienced democratic education for years, I have experienced it to be otherwise. At IDEC I wanted to share those experiences with folks.
Now, five years later, I’ve continued to be involved in a variety of ways, both locally and nationally. However, what I’ve seen in the last several years has shocked me as I’ve become more alert to the reality of democratic education as its practiced across the country.

What I have seen is that youth engagement in democratic education is still expressly focused on youth as consumers of learning. In this way, they’re granted a lot more leverage than traditional learners: Allowed to design and determine their own learning experiences in many ways, all democratic education experiences generally give young people a lot of leeway in learning what they want.

However, the experience of owning the democratic education experience generally belongs to the parents of students, the adults on the boards of directors, and the learning environment leaders (i.e. teachers, learning guides, etc.), instead of students themselves.

Generally, students in democratic schools…

  • Don’t have a say over the budgets of their democratic schools 
  • Don’t control the facilities 
  • Don’t generally hire the teachers 
  • Don’t vote on the boards of directors 
  • Don’t make operating rules 
  • Aren’t invited to review grant proposals 
  • Don’t determine whether or not they actually go to the schools in the first place. 


Generally, democratic education is still done to students or for students instead of with students or by students themselves.

While a lot of people are resolved that democratic education generally respects learners, gets past memorization and standardization, and moves away from forced learning, they don’t recognize the reality of most democratic education environments. That is, in this way of doing education that is done for and to students, we generally aren’t addressing the real issues that face students in the long run. Instead, we’re focused on the day-to-day experience of learning. By trying to make schools as affable and immediately gratifying as we can, we deny their ultimate necessity in the democracy we live in.

Democracy is not borne overnight on the backs of angels; instead, its an active, interactive, and hyperactive exchange of passion, purpose, and power that happens over vast time and spaces. The Butterfly Effect is fully actualized within democracy. That’s why its vital to infuse democratic education, and all education within a democracy, with Meaningful Student Involvement.

Meaningful Student Involvement positions all learners as full partners with adults throughout the education system. Learn more about it here.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

3 thoughts on “Youth Engagement in Democratic Education

  1. Can you point out a specific negative outcome of the limitations that you believe are so detrimental to the students in Democratic Education? And I don’t mean hypothetically, give me at least anecdotes of particular real people who went to a democratic school and had some negative outcome to support your contention, but preferably data. I have recently been studying psychology to moderate my tendency to take ideological stances that might not be informed by real world data or experience. The reason I ask you to provide data or at least anecdotes is because I suspect you might have an ideological comittment to students having the powers you enumerate, but that your ideological comittment might cause you to suspect harm where none actually exists. I could be wrong, but I am not convinced that students must have access to every kind of decision or organizational process in order to have a fulfilling and excellent education. If I am right then your concern might ultimately be counter productive if it distracts educators from addressing real harms that might be occurring or promoting adequate, though not ideologically perfect, solutions.In my own research I cite the data that establishes the clear harm done systematically in traditional schools and then documented two schools that systematically do no harm. Here’s a link to my research on the patterns of motivation in two alternative schools, one of which was a democratic school:


  2. Hi Don, and thanks for your comment. You’ll notice that in this piece I didn’t specifically say there was a negative outcome because of the current ways many democratic learning environments are administered for students. I did suggest they weren’t living up to their necessary role within democratic society.If you’re measuring democratic learning for academic achievement you will find a specific outcome that may or may not appease critics. However, as for measuring its application towards the purpose of democracy building, civic engagement, or youth development, I hypothesize that it consistently falls short. That’s because, as I summarized above, it is done /to/ students, /for/ students, and not with them as partners.My contentions are research-supported. You can find a research summary I wrote about student engagement which includes the approach I advocate at and a short book I published at – and these are not my studies. There is a half-century of research and almost a century of practice supporting my contention.Thanks for sharing your research on motivation. However, it appears that ultimately we’re talking about two different perspectives, which I allude to above: You are discussing students’ motivation for learning, while I’m examining ways to engage people in changing the world, starting with schools.


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