Nearly one hundred years have passed since Alexander Sutherland Neill channeled his discontent with the British conventional education system into establishing the first school based on the growth and development of children in freedom. Summerhill was the first democratic learning environment, ahead of its time, as has been the case with most alternative educational movements. This circumstance would make it the target of criticism and persecution by educational inspectors. But neither the pressure of the institutions nor the arguments of the traditional pedagogues managed to end the Neill project, which remains one of the main pedagogical references for democratic education, internationally. Its model, based on student participation, self-management, self-regulation of learning, and freedom of choice continues to be a success today, evidenced not only by external evaluations but also by the opinions of students, teachers, and families.
This model of democratic education and self-directed learning has been replicated in many schools around the world, and although each has different nuances and peculiarities depending on the context, all have common pedagogical principles and obtain similar results.
As for the results obtained from democratic education, in 2011, the famous educational researcher Derry Hannam, conducted a comprehensive review of studies that investigated the effect of democratic dynamics in schools. Hannam found that students who are involved in the construction of their duties and rights exhibit higher levels of self-esteem, greater perceived support from their peers and teachers, a greater understanding of their rights and responsibilities, more supportive behaviors towards younger children, and more respectful behavior toward others.
Among the pedagogical principles of this type of education and learning is the involvement of all members of the educational community in the decision-making process. It is important to emphasize the importance of students’ opinions being taken as seriously as those of adults. In this sense, each member of the community participates in the creation of limits and rules governing behavior so that the use of individual freedom does not harm the freedom of others.
Existing models of democratic education have shown that it is possible for students to thrive, and even to exceed conventional standards, in a school setting without being compelled or coerced. The difference is not found in the curricular contents; to the contrary, it is found in the other stimuli in which the students are involved and which have a direct relationship with their capacity for self-regulation of learning, caring for their self-esteem, self-knowledge, and critical relationship-building with others, as well as with the environment.
Seeking to create experiences of development in freedom, DIWO City was created in the summer of 2016. The project, co-produced by Madrid City Council and the Santander Bank Foundation, follows the principles of democratic and self-directed learning in its purest essence, where children attend meetings to debate, propose, decide, and carry out different activities and projects co-organized by themselves and accompanied by adults. City DIWO emerges as a non-formal education initiative that converts public spaces of the city of Madrid (Medialab Prado and Matadero Madrid) into learning environments.
Meetings are the fundamental axis of the adventure space, and these become the framework for decision making. This structure of meetings, activities, and start-up of projects gives children the opportunity to express their ideas to the group at the beginning and end of each day. The adult companions guide the children through project management. These meetings provide a space for communication where participation and community-building are promoted as the children seek consensus in addressing problems, making commitments and checking compliance.
Each day, two meetings are held: one in the morning, oriented to the organization of activities, projects and management of space, and another in the afternoon to provide an opportunity to reflect on the day, the participants’ emotions and conflict resolution. Two children and two adults are appointed daily to guide and energize the meetings as designated moderators and secretaries. The meetings are also a venue for setting the principles of the adventure space and for sharing the proposals made by the children.
In DIWO City, children ages 6 to 12 spend two weeks each summer thinking and building the adventure space they want to have. Through this experience of freedom, children reflect on the world they live in and how they can change it. That is why their proposal is a space in which there are no bells or whistles, there are no more obligations than the ones that children generate from the things that they decide to do.
City DIWO is a place of real participation in which children decide what they want to do and transform the act of learning into a living experience. The children strive to make every moment a vital experience, shedding the materialistic conception of education that believes childhood and youth is a preparation for adult life. This is achieved by their participation in the organization and management of the adventure space, guided by adults who assume roles of companions and facilitators of processes initiated and self-directed by children, who are the real protagonists.
A short video about DIWO City in Madrid (1:32).
The activities are proposed by the children in a space called ‘the refrigerator,’ where they write their ideas and interests. This space is key to ensure maximum participation and encourage divergent thinking, as they can formulate their proposals without the bias of others’ opinions. We know that group decision making is a social process, and sometimes relational dynamics can minimize the potential of more introverted children in favor of strong social leadership. That is why, in DIWO City, “the fridge” is an important space for free expression and individual reflection. Later, it is in the assembly that these proposals are debated and the children decide which they want to carry out.
Activities change every day and are different each time. They are always conceived based on the children’s proposals, and in the case of logistical necessity, the companions can intervene with some ideas that accompany the kids’ interests. The projects are proposals to make during the days that the camp lasts. The first days the children propose projects that they would like to do during the two weeks and by consensus or voting decide which three projects will be carried out. The number of projects carried out is related to the number of adults available to accompany the initiatives.
Among the projects that have been carried out in the DIWO City of Matadero Madrid at the initiative of the assembly are, for example, a birdhouse to be installed in the center, a film about the things the children wanted to change from Madrid called “Los Dreams of DIWO, ” or the creation of a city in the workspace “El Taller,” with a restaurant, a bank, a chill-out area, etc. In Medialab Prado, a board game was created to preserve the ecology of the city, a card game about the expression of emotions, and a film about the zombie invasion of pollution.
The first edition of the DIWO City adventure space was carried out as a pilot project during the months of June and July 2016, in tandem with a research project on how this adventure space can influence the happiness of the children. This year the research project will continue during the second iteration of DIWO City in the months of June and July. Some of the results and proposals of the project were presented at the 24th International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) held in Israel between March 28 and April 3, 2017. Currently, DIWO City is an excellent scenario that can allow us to understand in greater depth how self-regulation processes occur in self-directed learning, and to what extent the processes of participation and decision-making of students in school can and should be integrated. The DIWO experience shows how important it is for children to take responsibility for and commit themselves to projects that are chosen in freedom and to defend, with words—the dignity of children and young people.
These were some of the testimonies of children and families at the end of the project last year:
“The most important of all is that we enjoy and have fun playing” Lucia, 11 years.
“For me, the most representative of this camp is that we decide what we do” Julia, 11 years.
“I was doing an investigation about the camp, what did the children think, the answer was that it is freer” Daniela, 11 years old.
“What struck me most of what my son told me is the rules, there were no strict rules, everyone decided what they wanted to do.” Mother of Dani.
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