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How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools

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Courtesy of Fairhaven School
Courtesy of Fairhaven School

While teaching at Catholic and public schools in the 1990s, Mark McCaig and his wife, Kim, grew increasingly frustrated with the amount of time they were having to devote to managing behavior and teaching material that didn’t interest students. They started reading about different approaches and were intrigued by the Sudbury Valley School, a democratic school in Massachusetts where students are in charge of what and how they learn. After paying a visit, they quit their teaching jobs to create a Sudbury-type school in Maryland.

The Fairhaven School, which opened its doors in 1998, has no tests or grades, and no assigned homework. Its goal is to help students develop two core traits: agency and autonomy. (In response to one of the most common questions posed by prospective parents, one parent and former staffer wrote a blog post explaining how a democratic school differs from other alternative approaches to education.)

To foster those traits, the school aims “to strike that balance between freedom and responsibility,” McCaig says, which he sees as two sides of the same coin. The institutional framework -- rules and community responsibilities and related meetings -- “provides a sense of order that is vital, but around that, students have a lot of liberty to shape their day.” They have at their disposal a large meeting hall, a workshop, two kitchens, several smaller meeting rooms, a library, and rooms dedicated to art, computer gaming, digital arts, and play. The grounds include a stream, a forest, playing fields, a basketball court, a playground, and lots of porches.

How it Works

Designed to be an affordable, “green” learning space with a heterogeneous student body, the school is in a racially diverse, middle-class suburb of Washington, DC. Today about 15 percent of the students are non-white, and the school provides grants or reduced tuition to low-income families. The only entrance requirement is a trial week to ensure prospective students are interacting positively with others and not endangering anyone, including themselves.


The roughly 60 students range in age from five to 18, with a fairly even distribution of ages, except for a recent uptick in 11-year-old boys who have transferred there from conventional schools. The children and adults mix freely, creating the essential “scaffolding” experiences for the younger members of the community. All of the children, regardless of their ages, “know what they want to do, and learning is a by-product of what they do,” McCaig says. “Learning is the result of doing, not vice versa.”

Five-year-olds who haven’t been exposed to formal classrooms are in many ways better prepared for this ‘discovery learning’ approach, because they are more attuned to this “natural way of interacting,” says David Bjorklund, a professor at Florida Atlantic University who specializes in developmental psychology. “Children begin as explorers—they explore the environment around them, watch others, and try out what peers as well as adults are doing. … What they need to acquire, they are able to acquire quite proficiently through ‘discovery learning.’”

Courtesy of Fairhaven School
Courtesy of Fairhaven School

Newcomers respond to this environment in different ways, reflecting their varied personalities, interests and needs (students who enroll at Fairhaven are not necessarily any more self directed to start with than other children, McCaig says, especially if they’ve grown accustomed to having lots of restrictions). Those who crave more structure, he says, create it for themselves. Some exult in their newfound freedom and immerse themselves in previously curtailed activities such as playing video games, but eventually “they figure out how to manage that part of their lives,” he notes. On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who have become so accustomed to doing what they’re told and being praised by teachers, that they find it harder to adjust to the freedom than to the responsibility.

The most significant responsibility at the school is that “you are responsible for what you make of your life,” McCaig says. To graduate, students write and defend a thesis that they have “prepared themselves to become effective adults in the larger community.”

The students’ endeavors are supported by five adult staff members, who bring varied skills and interests to the table: two are former schoolteachers; one is an artist; another is a former nature center interpreter; and the third is a movie sound technician. (The former schoolteachers also had some “unlearning” to do in order to work there effectively, McCaig says, including himself.) They help students clarify and achieve their goals, handle administrative matters, and serve as mentors or “village elders -- people with life experience who know some interesting things and can help in a crisis,” as McCaig puts it. The entire school community -- staff and students alike -- votes each year to decide whether or not to extend each staffer’s contract.

The adults facilitate but don’t drive anything for the students, McCaig explains. “The hard work [the students] do here is learning how to become agents of their own lives and how to make things happen, whether it’s something academic, or organizing a fundraiser, or another event.” Technology, he says, “has increased efficiency and opportunity for our students; nevertheless, the liberty, respect, and community the school provides seem far more important and valuable than laptops or smart phones.”

The staff members organize classes when students request them. Staffers will teach the classes or hire someone else. Some of the classes are just one to one. If students lose interest in the subject and stop coming to class, there is no penalty, but there is a consequence. “I will say we’re done,” McCaig explains. “I don’t want to spend time preparing for something and not have the social contract met. … That is part of our job, to give students the reality of how to do things.”

One staffer, he notes, describes Fairhaven as a place to “practice life.” Students are given the opportunity to “practice the skills that one succeeds in life with, such as communicating with people, taking on jobs, learning how to cook. Academics may be just a part of that.” He adds: “A lot of what happens seems almost invisible. … Play and conversation, broadly defined, are the two most common categories of activity here, and seldom do these ‘look like school.’ Nevertheless, our students are constantly practicing life itself, and the rewards of this practice are as profound as they are difficult to measure.”

Some students shift their main focus to academics after they leave Fairhaven, or during the hours they’re not in school. “We’ve had people go on to college who did few academic things when they were here, to study all sorts of subjects,” ranging from social work to biology and creative writing, McCaig says.

Courtesy of Fairhaven School
Courtesy of Fairhaven School

The Pluses and Minuses of a Democratic School

The freedom of democratic school does not translate into license to do whatever students wish. There is a “thick law book,” McCaig says, that has been developed over the course of 17 years at the “School Meeting,” where each staff member and student gets an equal vote. (Among other things, it describes the level of skill students need to demonstrate before being able to use expensive or potentially dangerous equipment, such as workshop tools or microwave ovens.) The students are required to participate in judiciary committees, follow the school rules, and record their hours of attendance. Students must attend school for a minimum of five hours each day, though many stay longer. The school’s governance system is explained in more detail here.

Freedom is relative -- some families who are accustomed to homeschooling find the rules at Fairhaven too constraining, and also don’t like the fact that, like all schools, it’s cloistered from the surrounding community. There are also those who prefer to be exposed to more adult-initiated activities. A small school such as Fairhaven is also limited by its size, McCaig notes. It doesn’t have a completely stocked science lab, for example, or a large faculty to consult. “Some students arrange those kinds of experiences for themselves off campus,” he adds. “They get internships or jobs, or take community college classes.”

What the students do have at Fairhaven is “basic freedoms, like freedom of movement,” McCaig says, and the ability to devote themselves to projects for as long as they want. The responsibilities that are attached to the freedoms help the students mature, he adds: “To be exposed to a place where there is so much responsibility leads to responsible people.”

The school culture and the transparent and democratic judicial system have made bullying almost non-existent, he says, but “we are not immune to the normal challenges life presents. People have conflicts. … The young people here are working on figuring out what to do with their lives, and answering this question and discovering how to make it happen can involve difficult work. People struggle here from time to time, and we expect this. What’s empowering is that we do not have to label or assess their struggles; rather, we are present to support and witness the students as they overcome life’s challenges.”

Leaving Fairhaven For Other Schools And College

A significant number of students (including the younger of McCaig’s two teenage daughters) eventually opt to transfer to a larger school, to meet more people, take advantage of the academic or extracurricular offerings, or just see what else is out there. “The macro issue is that students should be in charge of what they do, and if that means they want to go to public school, more power to them,” McCaig says. “It feels like a different thing than compelling them to do so.”

Long-time students often “want to see if they measure up, because we don’t evaluate them,” he adds. “They treat [the conventional high school] like college. They take it seriously, they know what they want, and they are there to master it.” Many have to really apply themselves at first and get additional support to catch up academically, he says, but most go on to make the honor roll within a year. “A significant number then come back,” he adds, “because they decide they find it boring.”

Fairhaven alumni have not experienced any particular difficulties getting into colleges, especially if they can distinguish themselves by going for interviews or submitting video interviews, McCaig says. But students with very specific goals -- such as attending a technical college with less flexible requirements—“need a conscious plan,” which often involves taking specific community college classes on the side while they’re enrolled at Fairhaven.

Alumni have gone on to careers as varied as helicopter technician in the military, organic farmer and social worker. McCaig gauges the success of the school in terms of whether the alumni are satisfied with their lives: “Are they happy and thriving, doing something they want to do, and making a living?” Fairhaven has not collected hard data on its alumni, but the staffers do keep in touch with them, and McCaig says their experiences are comparable to those documented by Peter Gray and by the Sudbury Valley School in its book, Legacy of Trust.

Watch the trailer for “Voices from the New American Schoolhouse” below, a 2005 documentary about Fairhaven School by Danny Mydlack:


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