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Pedagogo S3E2: Using Democratic Education Principles to Co-Create Inclusive Classrooms

At the turn of the 21st century, Art Pearl and Tony Knight published a trailblazing volume, The Democratic Classroom: Theory to Inform Practice. In this episode, two of Dr. Pearl’s former students discuss his influence on their views and careers, and the potential of democratic education to empower students, foster problem solving, and build strong citizens. Join Dr. Divya Bheda and her guest, Dr. Robin Harwick, founder of The Pearl Remote Democratic School.

Guest Bio

Robin Harwick, PhD is an author, academic, and consultant dedicated to improving the lives of children and families through research, teaching, and service. She has been a member of academic, governmental, and private research teams since 1995. She also worked extensively in direct service of children and families as a parent educator, home visitor, and therapeutic foster parent. Much of Dr. Harwick’s work focuses on the transition to adulthood, child welfare, and substance use and misuse. After years spent coaching youth and young adults on how to achieve their dreams – she decided it was time to “walk her talk” and embarked on a world schooling adventure with her teenage son and two dogs! The journey took them to Mexico, and they decided to make it home. After almost a decade of searching for a democratic learning environment for her son, he gave her the idea of starting her own school – and The Pearl Remote Democratic School was born. Dr. Harwick is published in peer-reviewed journals, blogs, zines, and anthologies. She recently published her first novel, My Sorrow. Mi Libertad about a teens experience preparing to age out of the foster care system. robinharwick.com 

Transcript

Announcer: 

Pedagogo the show that brings education to your ears and meta mastery to your assessments. Today’s episode discusses the principles of democratic education and practical ways that you can apply these principles to promote student engagement and enhance learning outcomes. Pedagogo brought to you by ExamSoft the digital assessment solution that gives you actionable data for improved learning outcomes. When integrity matters ExamSoft has you covered.

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Hello everyone. Welcome and thank you for joining us for this season and episode of Pedagogo. I am the Divya Bheda the director for education and assessment of ExamSoft, and we are exploring big ideas and trends in education with Dr. Robin Harwick today who is going to be sharing her knowledge, experience and expertise around democratic education. Now I’m so excited about this topic because as a little girl growing up on Enid Blyton books, I always wanted more autonomy and say in my education as a student, but just as much as the topic, I’m also so excited that we have Robin here to talk to us about democratic education, because just like me, she had the good fortune to directly hear about this topic and learn about this topic from Dr. Art Pearl. I may be a little bit biased, but I think she’s absolutely the best person to talk to us about this.

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

She’s actually translated inspiration and learning into action. I will let her tell you more. Robin, we have your wonderful bio on our Pedagogo webpage, but could you please start with telling us a little bit about your journey and how you got here so that people get to know you a little bit before we jump into the topic and all that you’re doing around democratic education?

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Yes. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast. I’m really looking forward to our conversation today. As you mentioned, I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Art Pearl. The amazing part about that was I was at a point in my doctoral program where I was very, very frustrated. I knew that from looking at the statistics that the school system was not working for a lot of kids and I really was struggling to figure out how can we do this better? How can we have more impact? Why are things kind of stalled out? Why do we keep doing things to kids that we know actually harms kids and doesn’t serve them well at all. I will say that my doctorate is in secondary special ed and transition.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

The youth that I was working with were really the most marginalized in the school system. I felt do we have to create something completely new? Do we have to scrap it all start over? One of my peers said, “You really need to meet Dr. Art Pearl.” I saw that he was teaching a class and we’ll talk more about that class later in the conversation I’m sure. They said, “Just go meet him.” It was transformative for sure. Since that time, which is well over a decade ago in my career as a researcher, as an interventionist, I worked towards implementing elements of democratic education, both, like I said, as an interventionist and in the school system doing teacher training, writing about it, talking about it, anyone who would hear me out, I actually took a position in Mexico at a school that was supposed to be a democratic school. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

About three weeks in, I realized that it was yet another school that had a lot of buzzwords that talking about student centered, self-directed, all of these things democratic, but it really wasn’t what was happening in practice. So to make a long story short, my son who was 16 years old at the time, got tired of me talking about democratic education and complaining about how nobody was doing it. He flippantly said, “Mom, you should just start your own school.” I said, “That’s an interesting idea.” About two days later, a Facebook friend posted, does anyone want to start a school? I thought, well, there you have it’s time. So then I posted on Facebook and I said, “What do people think about me starting an online democratic high school?” And within 24 hours, I had over a hundred comments.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Although I feel I post some really witty things on Facebook, I never get that kind of involvement. So I said, “All right, people are really into this idea. I’m going to do it.” I reached out to Art Pearl’s family, and I said, “I have this wild idea. I want to start an online democratic school and I want to call it the Pearl.” The name came to me. I was gardening and really thinking about this idea because I knew that starting a school was not something that was going to be an easy task. And by this time we were full on in a pandemic. I was out gardening and I was thinking about pearls and I’ve always loved pearls since I was a little child a lot of other kids were into diamonds and glitzy things and I like the pearl. I like that you have to go through the muck to get them. They’re really rare and they’re each very unique. I thought that’s what our students are. Education is challenging. Get in there and get the muck. And then of course the Pearl aligns with Art’s last name. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

For our listeners, for many of them who don’t know Dr. Pearl is no longer with us. So that’s why Robin reached out to his family, from everything that Robin has just shared with us, you can see why she’s the best person to talk about democratic education, because she’s translated theory, learning into action in the work that she’s doing with her school, which is built on these principles. To kick off the conversation, how would you define democratic education, Robin? What are its key tenets and principles for any of our listeners?

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

I think to keep it simple because we’re actually doing a book group right now, we just finished up and we’re reading his texts, the democratic classroom theory to inform practice. One of the things that we noticed is it’s really hard to be succinct with these conversations. We want to talk about them for hours, but to keep it clear, one of the things that’s really unique about democratic education is it is truly student-centered. It’s not just the buzzword that we’re hearing so much about. One of the things that’s really profound about it right now, when we’re thinking about 21st century skills, the text was written in 1999, and much of the text aligns perfectly with the 21st century skills long before we started talking about them. So we think about creativity.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

We think about critical thinking, media literacy, though it was talked about differently, but that was still very important because for a democratic education, it’s about rights and responsibilities and our students have rights and they learn how to identify those rights and how to claim rights of their own. But there’s also responsibilities with that. We talk a lot about community and how we show up for each other. What does it mean to be a participant? I think those are some of the key differences.

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

I love what you shared about his vision for democratic education or his theory of democratic education. Because for me, I remember when I took the class with him a long time back what stood out for me was that when we talk about democratic, it’s not about majority rules or majority wins or majority decisions. It is about that democratic citizen, that global citizen citizenship skills. Then often age-related, we dismiss student input or student thinking around what is valuable to them around their education. What they want to learn? So bringing back their voice in how education is designed to best support them, I think is so exciting. So I’m so glad that you’re doing what you’re doing. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Thank you. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Having shared the key tenets and principles, what would you say are some misunderstandings around democratic education? I just shared one, right? 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Yeah. I think this is where Art Pearl and Tony Knight’s vision was a little bit different than the way democratic education is seen in other settings. One of the big differences is the Art Pearl and Tony Knight talk about creating democratic citizens. One of the differences here is again about that responsibility piece as well. It’s not about students just doing whatever they want whenever they want. There’s more of a framework. One of the things I really liked about his approach is that there is a role for teachers and we are thinking about how we’re preparing students for their future. In that way, there’s more structure than in some of the other models. We make our classes culturally relevant, they help design, we co-create the curriculum together. They have input throughout, but it’s still very different than just like a free for all every day. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

If we think about translating this to higher ed, I think all our listeners can think about that idea that yes, we do want our students and future professionals and citizens to be trained in ways that they feel responsible for society, that they contribute well to society. All of that. But what would you say are the ways in which these ideas can be embedded in the curriculum and what does that look like? 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

I think it goes back to why? And meaning making and relevancy. In higher ed, it’s almost easier because in theory, your students have chosen a career path they’ve chosen a particular field that they want to study. The relevance is there for them already, right? I want to become a nurse or I want to become a environmental scientist. So you’ve got that piece. You don’t have to spend as much time up front with the relevancy, but really Art talked a lot about problem solving curriculum. We think about rather than just writing those objectives for our classes in higher ed, what problems are we teaching our students to solve? So when you’re talking about career readiness, that’s exactly where we want to go. What problems are there in the field that need to be solved? What solutions do we still need to find? How can we move that forward? That brings the social responsibility in as well. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Could you give our listeners a couple of practical examples of what that looks like in terms of a curriculum, let’s say math or science and how this building of curriculum, co-creation of curriculum as you called it with students, how did that happen? What does that look like in terms of curriculum, as well as in terms of assessment, maybe.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

One of the things that I have to work with my teachers at the Pearl, I was, “Don’t go down the road of trying to plan out.” We have 10 week sessions very much like higher ed. I was, “Don’t go down that path of trying to plan your whole session, because you don’t know your kiddos yet. You haven’t met them. You don’t know what their interests are.” You can think about I’m teaching environmental science. That’s my first degree. I can think about an arc of here’s some of the key elements in order to have a conversation about environmental science. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Here are some of the key elements that students need to know. They need to understand what a bio is. They need to understand the carbon cycle. They need to understand the water cycle and those kinds of things. We’re going to start with that. I’m going to share with you some of these key elements and for their teenagers I said, “This part might be a little bit boring because maybe we’re just talking about definitions or we’re looking at schematics or something like that. But the reason we’re doing it is because I want us to have the same vocabulary.”

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Then when we’re talking about environmental problems, we can understand each other and we can understand what we’re reading about these environmental problems. You look at it that way. Then I start learning from the students. What’s interesting to you? What’s happening in your hometowns? We do give assignments where I say, “I want everyone to take a week and I want you to look around in your community. What are the environmental issues that are impacting your community? What concerns you out of all these different issues?” Art talks a lot about hope and building hope. So I said, “I also want you to look at who are the helpers? Who are the people that are working on these issues right now in your communities?” 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

So then they come back and they talk about what they found and what we found was in many of the communities that our students are located in everyone was concerned about air quality. This is right, because now we have a common thread. Wow. Everyone’s really concerned about air quality, there’s air quality issues in all of these different regions. Why? What’s going on? What do we need to know to understand what’s causing this and how can we come up with solutions and then creating project-based learning opportunities around that shared concern around air quality, for example. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Wonderful. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Yeah. Those are some of the ways that we do it. I may have other examples from other courses as well, but if you remember Art talking about the center and where do we come together, where’s the center where we all have the common ground and we can have all of our differences around that, but what’s that core for us? In this scenario, the core came, everyone was, “Wow you have air quality issues in LA. We all expected that, but why is it happening in Tennessee too? Why Oakland and down in Mexico.” Then the teacher’s role is to think about those objectives that you have, that you want to meet because of your curriculum map or testing or whatever your requirements are as an instructor. How do you fit those into this interest of, and relevant topic of air quality that the students have identified. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

This is so exciting to me. As I’m listening to you, I’m so absorbed. I’m not even thinking of the next question that I want to ask you.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

That’s good. I hope the listeners are too. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Then it’s almost like you have your objectives or your outcomes that you want your students to gain. You have your maps. When we think of democratic education, we’re not asking educators to view it away completely from any of that, what we’re saying is yes, there is a logic, there is a backward design. There is some thinking and planning that goes in, but then you allow the curriculum to also be created as the course goes on, to allow for the assignments and the projects and everything to be created based on common interests, based on relevance, current events, and what is a common point of, problem solving for the cohort as a whole. Right?

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Exactly. For us, because the way that we work is we’re a homeschool partnership so that we don’t have to fall within such rigid constructs. So in our situation, we have the luxury of, if the students get really interested and really engaged and involved, we don’t have to pivot really fast. Not every teacher has the luxury of doing that because they have more set curriculum, they have to meet all of those things. But when you have that opportunity, when students are really interested, we get to go deep. This is where interdisciplinary studies come in.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Art talked and I always say Art because I met him. But Tony Knight was also the coauthor of the book, but he talked about if we could get rid of subject areas altogether, that would be fantastic. But many of us are constrained within the subject areas for lots of reasons that educators know, but when the students go deep, that’s where you start to build in other topics as well. Well you’re looking at environmental issues, what kind of arts being created to promote environmental issues. Then we talk about the citizen responsibility. How are citizens taking a stand?

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

What are their rights when they do protest about environmental issues, who makes those decisions? All of those things. You bring in social studies, you bring in math, you bring in science, you bring in art and you really have an interdisciplinary project that the students are working on. The depth of knowledge is so amazing to watch and to see the students light up. Really, you can see the intellectual growth because they’re going so deep in the subject instead of just hitting one milestone and going to the next thing. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

See you’re giving me more food for thought. Now I’m, okay all those folks who are advocating for interdisciplinary degrees have yet another advocate in you, as well as yet another argument to focus on themes and issues and problem solving around that critical thinking, creativity, all of that around that, where then you can weave in so-called subject matter elements, as opposed to focusing on subject matter alone. Then all of these themes are secondary so that you don’t get that balance. It always feels like one or the other. That seems like a whole different topic to talk about, you were going to say something.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

It’s really important because we need the interdisciplinary lens. In order to solve big problems, we can’t do it just in our silos. We see that in higher ed all the time, the most rewarding research experiences I’ve had have been on interdisciplinary teams because you have those different lenses where you’re looking at situations and your brains work in different ways, because the way our brains work, often attracts us to different fields. And so starting that early, because when you’re thinking about the challenges that our youths are going to face in the next five or 10 years, many of these are challenges that we don’t even perceive yet.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Think about the pandemic, we’re supposed to be preparing kids for 21st century skills and then 21st century came and none of us were prepared. So really we’re, “Oh, we weren’t expecting that.” How do you navigate those situations that we haven’t even thought about yet? So the interdisciplinary lens is really going to be, I think, even more important in the future.

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

The example that you shared was so wonderful around environmental science and how you do it with your school, given that it’s an online school and you’re with homeschooling partnerships. If you were to take this now and talk about what could K-12 educators do, like in high school, within the restrictions that they have, as well as higher ed, like what you are doing in your own classrooms to the best that you can, what are some ideas or suggestions that people can do? Or could you give examples as well?

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Plugging the book again, Art’s vision was for public schools to have democratic classrooms. The book is specifically talking about how can you, even if your school is not democratic, how can you make your classroom democratic? And I just had a conversation with two teachers today that are in a more traditional setting. They talked about, well what is it like if my classroom is democratic and the other classrooms are not, and I’ve had that experience with the school that I worked at as well. So you can bring these elements into your classroom and you can start off by having the students create a bill of rights. Wow. What do we want this classroom, this space to look like, what are our rights and responsibilities? And have them work on that. It may take some time. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

You might have to revisit them because they’ve never had that opportunity to, “What I have rights.” Children are very good at realizing this is the rules in Divya’s class, and this is not going to be okay in somebody else’s class because this is the democratic classroom. I’m not saying that the whole school is democratic. We’re saying we’re creating rights and responsibilities for our classroom as we get started. Then one of the things that our teachers did last term, and she got really excited about things that she wanted to teach. So she created a full syllabus and I said, “Okay, you’re going to have to slow down a little bit. Remember the students get to give input. We don’t know yet what the students really want to study and look at.” What she did is she gave the students a syllabus and said, “Read it, what do you like about it? What do you not like about, what do you know right now that you want changed?”

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

This is something you can imagine. Students never get this opportunity. So it’s really difficult to get your students to read the syllabus often. Thinking higher ed, but what if you said, “I want you to look it over because I want you to tell me what would be changed… What you would change if you had made this.” One of the things that happens organically is this is where you get cultural studies and LGBTQ studies and all of those kinds of things come into the syllabus very organically when you do this, because then your students are saying, “Why aren’t we reading any activity Butler? Why aren’t we reading any… You have no scholars in your syllabus.” You’re, “Oh, I didn’t notice that. Tell me, who would you like to see in there?” You learn a lot too, because we can’t know everything about every author or every scientist that’s out there. So your students participate in this and then they’re much more engaged from the very beginning. Those are some ways that you can allow student voice and choice. You’re getting excited. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

You’re, you can see the grin, like end to end, the big grin on my face. It’s just because you see on Facebook or any of the listservs where faculty are talking to each other or any of the group forums where it’s, “I can’t get my students to even read the syllabus and they don’t read the deadlines and they don’t read whatever.” Here is such a simple way to get everyone invested because they are having a say in what they’re learning. They get to have a voice in saying, “Wait, we already know this stuff. Can we replace this stuff? Would there be a better scholar or a better study?” Oh, wow. Okay. This is awesome. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

The other key point is it brings everyone to the table and now everybody has a role. This was another conversation we were just having where there’s nothing worse than being in a classroom where you feel like it doesn’t really matter if you’re there or not. To think about that. So now you can say, “Well, my culture isn’t represented at all.” And now everybody’s chiming in. So wait, “I want to have my favorite author as part of the syllabus, or I want to look at this aspect of what happened in my community when my grandparents were children.” Or something like that depending of course, your subject area but this is not only are they reading the syllabus but they’re engaged and they feel like they are part of the community and that it matters whether or not they’re there because their voice is being heard. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

This is such a great tip and strategy. Any others to share in terms of how folks can make their classroom more democratic.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Oh yeah. Easy. Rubrics. Again having the students, co-create the rubrics, it saves you a lot of time as well. They have buy-in, it helps what does it look like to achieve excellence in this type of project? So then you have buy-in as well, because they’re thinking about what does it mean for me to excel? But the other thing is then they know exactly what the expectation is because they help create it. It’s easier for students to hit the mark if they help create the rubrics. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

It’s a lot more transparent too, because like everyone’s figuring out, okay, what do you mean by this? That my paper or project or presentation has to demonstrate this, there’s more cohesion and understanding because a lot of times that’s what’s left out. That’s a wonderful strategy. As I’m listening to you. I want to give you more time for more strategies, but as I’m listening to you I’m wearing the hat of the naysayer who will say “No, I can’t engage in democratic education principles in my classroom just because I have so much, so many other things to do.” With that lens the first thing that comes to mind is time. Where do I create time for co-creating a syllabus? Or how should faculty be thinking about their classroom in terms of time management to allow for these discussions and allow for a rubric creation, because it always feels like there’s no time. I have to teach the subject matter. How can I give time for rubric creation? I have to teach this content, how can I give time for syllabus co-creation? What’s your response or what’s your advice?

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

We want to share the responsibility. That’s one of the things is I’ve got too much to do. I’ve got too much to do so. Okay. We hear you let’s share the responsibility. We’re going to share the responsibility and we’re going to co-create this together. The other thing about it is when we say, and this is one of the things that I laughed about when I was getting my doctoral degree and one of my areas of frustration was we know how people learn best. We’ve been studying, learning for a very, very long time, but that’s not what we do in higher ed. Many classrooms in higher ed are still lecture based and we know that that’s not how the learners learn best so we can spew out the content to get it all in.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

But if we really want our students to engage with the content and learn from the content, then we need to rethink what we’re doing. Especially in teacher prep programs, because if we continue doing teacher prep programs, not using best practices of teaching and learning, then it’s no wonder that those teachers then go into schools and they also use the standard lecture-based teaching. We also know that that’s not how young people learn best, right? If we really want to connect with our students, if we really want deep learning to occur, we have to switch the paradigm. We’ve been talking about it for so, so long that lecture-based learning is just not the way that most students learn.

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

We have to model the behavior that we want to see. It’s doesn’t feel new and it doesn’t feel awkward. People already have experienced it as a learner. I love that. I think what I’m paying attention to now in terms of what you’re saying, as I’m thinking about this after all these years listening to Art is that the idea of responsibility that we are telling students, “Hey, you are also responsible for your education.” But the way we are framing it is positive, because a lot of times, the way educators, we talk about responsibilities that the students should know better. They need to submit their assignment on time. They are adults. They need to be responsible for themselves. But over here, we’re saying, “Hey, let’s come together. We all have a responsibility for each other’s learning and our own learning. So let’s see what excites us, what interests us and what we can get out of this topic that we can use in our own future career paths.” Right? 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Yes, absolutely. I have two thoughts about that. One thing that I’ve done to save myself time is having the students develop their own projects. If you know that you want them to do critical analysis of… I was teaching a class, a critical analysis of popular media. Then the students can come up with what kind of media do they want to look at? Maybe one person wants to look at a song. Another person wants to look at a film and another person wants to look at magazines. So they write a project proposal, which how helpful is that in so many career. They write their project proposal and they create their own rubric. They’re giving me a package, but the proposal, This is like, this is what I want to do. This is how I’m going to do it.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

This is how I’m going to know if I hit the mark. Then of course, as the instructor, you can give feedback and say, “Well, I don’t know if that’s really measuring your understanding.” So you have those discussions, but again, you don’t have to differentiate the rubric for every student. You can have the students do it and they can work in pairs. Then sometimes the rubrics are created and you can plan for this to where if you know there’s going to be a lot of essays or there’s going to be a lot of presentations, then co-create that rubric and use it throughout the whole term so that you don’t have to do a new one for each one. Again, that’s kind of a time-saver and then the other thing I just want to mention real quickly, because you mentioned it was deadlines.

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

This is one of the things that drives me crazy. They say, “Okay, well they missed the deadline, so they’re going to get an F.” Why? How often does that happen to us in real life? What we want the young people to learn is how to say to a potential supervisor in the future. “You know what I’m running a little bit behind. Is this a hard deadline? Is this an external communication that has to be out on this day? Or is it okay if I give it to you Monday instead?” Because a lot of times in our careers, they’re really not that super hard deadlines. If we’re going for a grant that it is it’s five o’clock and then you know that like that’s real, that really has to happen. But the data analysis doesn’t matter if it’s Wednesday or Friday, a lot of times it doesn’t. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

We want young people to understand how to have that conversation because a lot of times what they do is they just give up. They say, “Well, I’m not going to make it. So I’m just not going to do it at all.” Instead, we want them to learn how to communicate. Communicate about their needs, communicate what is getting in the way. Again, for young people, this is where you get to help teach executive functioning skills. Was it a time management issue? Was it because they didn’t know how to ask their support resources they needed? This is where they learn to self-advocate. Or is it legit, we’re in a pandemic and I’m really worried about my grandparents and I just can’t do this right now. Okay, “Well, what do you need to be okay?”

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Even from a mental health perspective, sometimes you won’t even know what you’re going through in terms of why you’re not able to be motivated or why you’re not able to perform. So I think this for young people K-12 education for sure. But even for higher ed, when we say, “They are adults, they should know better.” It’s still a learning process that I think I commend you for sharing that perspective that we do need to say, “Why is that deadline a hard deadline and equal to an F.”

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Strike one year out or I can’t accept that, I’m sorry, like you automatically get a C or you automatically lose 10 points. We have all of these policies, which we seem to claim that it’s for equity or it’s to level the playing field when it doesn’t, because it’s a disservice to those who most need that extra time. We are not even teaching them the skills to advocate for themselves or to be able to communicate effectively, proactively all of that. Thank you. Thank you. Any other tips in terms of the syllabus that you are creating for the courses in higher ed that you are teaching any other tips that folks can do to incorporate democratic principles into their classroom? 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Are always thinking about culturally relevant and personally meaningful. And that means you have to get to know your students a little bit. And you want to think about who decides what is meaningful, who decides what is culturally relevant? It should be our students. They decide what is meaningful and relevant. So you want to leave space in your curriculum for that. If you do need to have your full syllabus before you start, what I like to do at the Pearl is I encourage my teachers to not do any planning more than three weeks out. This is really hard for those that have gone through curriculum instruction programs. Because you learn more about what the students are interested in and you can keep building from that, but you have a backup plan because sometimes you think that, the students are really going to fill in the curriculum for you. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Sometimes they’re, “No, no, I’m not sure.” So you need to have your plan B. Then what I do is I offer a menu. This is when you’re doing your planning, you have a menu. It would be like, “What would you like to investigate environmental issues through watching some films about environmental issues? Would you like to do some virtual tours of nature reserves?” And then see where students are, “Ooh, that sounds pretty interesting.” And you can go from there. It takes some planning, but for experienced teachers, you have so many lesson plans and everything already in your toolbox, you’re just getting ready to pull out the ones that are going to connect you with the students that you currently have. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Wonderful. Any other tips? 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Be flexible and be humble. This is one of the things that you need to say I don’t know, and be okay with that. I always share this story. You may have already heard it. I went to see the Dalai Lama speak in front of like 30,000 people in Austin, Texas. Somebody asked him a question and he giggled and he’s got like the cutest giggle, if you have ever heard him speak. He said in front of 30,000 people, he’s, “I don’t know.” I thought, wow. If the Dalai Lama could tell 30,000 people, he doesn’t know, it was really a powerful moment for me in my career. I realized I can say there’s a lot of things I know that I don’t know anything about. If you want to share the responsibility and the knowledge in the classroom, it’s so powerful for you as a professor to say, “I don’t know.” Because then… Talk about opening the floor for taking intellectual risks. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

You’re like there’s people in this classroom that know a lot more about certain things that I don’t know anything about, and that humility opens you up for learning. When you get to a place where you can just say, “I don’t know.” It’s such a relief because you get to let go of that weight of, “Well, I’m the professor. I should know everything.” I’m 50 years old. I know a lot of stuff and there’s still a lot of stuff I don’t know. I know what I know. I’m okay with knowing what I don’t know but that’s part of the beauty of the democratic classroom. You don’t have to know everything, but your role is how do we find out.  

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

As I’m listening to you it also feels there are skillsets. We already talked about how higher ed is often… All the research that we do around teaching and learning. That’s not implemented in higher ed in practice as educators. So when we think about adopting the democratic principles and rethinking your classroom in that way in higher ed or in K-12, whatever it may be, I think about then what skills do educators need, or what training do educators need to be able to do that? If they want to do it through their center for teaching and learning or faculty development, that’s something that they can do, that they can come up with some tools for their own school and program or university. I feel they would need conflict resolution, how do I manage different interests from students? I feel they would need some of that maybe as a skill, how do I manage different interests? How do I manage students say, “No, this is not the way we should go. This is more important.” How would they navigate that conversation?  

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

What’s really interesting about that is once you have the community built, that doesn’t happen as much. So the overall conflict in the classroom goes way down once the community is built, because we talk again and I mentioned it earlier, we talk about how do we show up for each other and how do we make sure that everyone’s voice is heard? That goes into the roles and responsibilities. And so I’ve noticed that there’s much less conflict. There’s much more openness to listen to other sides, even when people strongly disagree with them. Because you’re creating a culture of respect. We talk about reciprocity in the classroom. Well, this time Divya really wants to focus on looking environmental issues through film. I don’t really like film, but you guys last time you read some short stories with me and that was something that I was interested in. I think, yes, it’s always good to have those conflict resolution skills, but I don’t think that that’s like the primary focus, the focus for democratic teachers is what do I need to do to build community? 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

How do you get rid of the hierarchy? Everyone shouldn’t be answering the questions only to the instructor, this kind of from the Socratic education model where you want to make sure that if you draw the little arrows between who’s talking, it’s not just directly to the instructor all the time. So you’re having that community and you’re thinking about, well, what about this person who doesn’t say very much? 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

I remember. I remember in Art Pearl’s class now that you bring it up. All of us sat in a circle. He made us move- 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Move the desk. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

… yes move the desk and all of us sat in a circle and we were learning from each other, everyone. Yeah. Oh, wow. Yes. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

So changing the structure of the classroom so you’re not behind the podium. It’s also really disrupts the thing that if you go and you sit down with the students and they’re, “Wait, what are you doing? You’re not up there.” You’re building that collaboration. Flexibility is really key. I do joke. I’ve done improv music for decades. I think that helps prepare. It doesn’t even mean you have to be an improviser, but if you’ve done improv theater or anything like that, I think much more comfortable because you’re used to have switching and pivoting, but in the business world, this is also what people are looking for is they’re looking for people on their teams that can pivot quickly and then change when we need to change. With our world, the way it is right now, we have to pivot. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

All of the teachers, even if they think they’re not very flexible, most of us were forced to pivot very quickly in the pandemic and did. Even if you’re a listener and you’re, “But I’m not that flexible.” Think about what you pulled off for the pandemic and what you were able to do. Using that as a skill, and then I think flexibility, critical thinking skills. If we want to teach our students this, we have to have them ourselves, our research skills have to be solid as well. All of those kinds of things that… Basically all the things that we’re asking for our students to be able to do, we should be able to do those things too. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Yes. going back to the modeling model what you want to see in yourself and live your values and principles. The one last question that I have for you on this topic is there’s a lot of pressure for faculty, for teachers. It often feels… Again, like I said earlier, there’s never enough time. What are some challenges that you come up against or people should expect to come up against that they can realize is normal? If you’re moving from however, you have been teaching in your classroom and you want to move towards a more democratic way of teaching and learning and adopt those principles, what should they expect as challenges that they should say, “This is part of the process. Yes. My discomfort is part of the process. This too shall pass and I will get to the other side.” Could you share some of that?  

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Yes. I think the number one thing is when you’re creating a democratic classroom for students who have never had a democratic classroom experience, they don’t know how to use their voice and choice yet. This is one of the things that we keep seeing over and over again. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

And this is irrespective of age, right? Irrespective-  

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Irrespective of age. If you have a kindergarten or first grader and they started in democratic school, then that’s just what they’ve always known. But for many of us, most of us, we went to school in a very authoritarian environment. When you’re saying, “I want to hear from you, I want you to participate in the curriculum development.” Those kinds of things. They’re just, “What do you mean? I don’t have any ideas. You’re the teacher.” That’s where I say you use the menu options. Because you want to give them voice and choice. But if they’re not used to having it, first of all, they’re not going to believe you. You need to give them opportunities for input and actually listen to it. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Even if you don’t like it, is it going to get you where you need to go. It doesn’t have to be an activity or a project that you’re really into. This is about the students and not yourself. So providing that menu of options, “Here, I had some ideas.” And we’ve definitely had to do this when students come in and they haven’t had a democratic experience before, because they don’t know how to do project-based learning, where they create their own project. Many schools talk about project-based learning at the higher ed end K-12, but they’re, “We’re going to do project-based learning. Here’s your project, here’s your deadlines, here’s your supplies list.” It’s missing so much that project based learning brings because it’s all about helping them learn to create an idea and come up with knowing what they need and all of these things. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

We miss all those steps. For students in those situations, you can say, “I had some ideas. Would you like to hear those? Here’s some ideas that I had about the project, anybody interested in these?” And then that can help students start going, “Well, actually, I like this idea, but could we do this and this and this instead?” And you say, “Yes, you can.” So let’s talk about that more. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

The point that you also raise is a lot of faculty, especially faculty of color or female faculty also worry that there is a perception if they do something like this, where they give more power to students to have a voice and to co-create and all of that, that they will be perceived as incompetent, which is often something that they face otherwise anyway. I appreciate you raising that point that if students don’t know what it looks like, don’t know what it is and you are orienting them to this idea of democratic education for the first time, then to phase them in slowly. It’s partly educating them also about what this looks like and that this is a process and that it is based on theory and it is based on scholarship. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

That’s a good point. What I do for those naysayers is people say, “That’s so innovative. Wow, you’re doing something like so new.” I say, “No, actually it’s not new. This has been around for a long time. It’s well studied and our foundational text is from 1999.” So then when you’re up with somebody’s ego, who might be saying, “Oh, this is so new.” Because they really are being suspicious of you doing something different than what other instructors are doing. Then when they realize what you’re doing is based on even if you just referenced this text from 1999 and, “Oh, you haven’t read about this. Really. This has been around since 1999.” 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

It shifts that dynamic and because people often think like I made all this up and I’m just, “Oh no, no, this is not mine.” We’re thinking about how does it look now in the 21st century in a pandemic, online. That’s new, but we stick to the foundation. There’s a lot of other things out there. I want to take what Art and Tony gave us and find more ways to infuse this in higher ed and K-12. Once you build support systems for teachers so that you don’t feel you’re the only one in your school, that’s doing it and you’re all alone. If you are feeling that we want to build a community to support each other, when you have those moments of I’m trying to give my students choice, but they don’t want it. How do we let them know that it’s okay to want it and to share their voices? 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

I remember once you telling me also that there will be times that something just doesn’t work the way you plan, the conversation doesn’t go… Or the project doesn’t go the way you planned it. So just take a step back and say, okay, that didn’t… Like acknowledging and being able to say, “I don’t know.” the Dalai Lama, I don’t know. The same thing, that didn’t go as I had planned it, for sure. “I know you all must be wondering”, and to be able to allow students to recognize that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s okay that something failed and we can try something new. That’s also good modeling. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

You probably remember Art talked a lot about humor in the classroom. That’s where the humor comes in. Where you’re, “That was such a great idea. Totally flopped, didn’t it.” Then you’re laughing and the students can laugh. We’re, “Was there any way that that would have worked better? Or was it just a bad idea all around?” But again, one of the things that we want students to do is to take intellectual risks. That’s how we learn. If you get to have some flops and just laugh about it, if you try to cover it up, it’s just a disaster because everybody else knows that flop too. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

You just own it and you laugh about it and you talk about in our lives, we all make lots of mistakes and it’s okay. We talk about little deal, big deal. This is a little deal. We had one class session that didn’t go, well, that’s not something to really beat yourself up about. We want our students to learn. Maybe they have one essay, they tried to do something different. Maybe they were trying a different form of short story writing. It just did not work, well now they know, and now they can improve. But if you don’t make mistakes, then you really can’t learn. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Yeah. Wonderful. Again, such great ideas. I know I said the last question was the last one, but I think this is going to be possibly the last one. For faculty, you had said earlier that the most important thing is learning how to build community. You said, “Build time in your curriculum for that to get to know your students.” What are some steps or what are some ideas and how do folks get to know their students better given again always the issue that comes up is I have such limited time, I have such limited time. What are some easy, simple, effective ways to build community within a classroom?  

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Easy ways. I show up five or 10 minutes early, and I always linger a few minutes after. When I show up early, I start with just, “Hey, good to see you. How was your week?” Really, really simple normalizing the conversation and seeing what students want to share. And it doesn’t have to be about content. It could be about anything. You get to really quickly know that’s somebody’s cat or you try to track those things like, “Oh, how’s the kitty doing? You had to take the cat to the vet. That’s why you said you were late. How’s that going?” It’s interesting when you present in a way that you are truly interested in your students, they feel that and they get it and you can start building that community pretty quickly. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

And it doesn’t have to be a lot of time. I’m teaching all virtually now, which most people probably are too. I log in five minutes early and I’m surprised who’s there already five minutes early and I log in and they start chatting and we just talk. Then I always try to make myself available for a few minutes after I make sure that I never turn my camera off until all the students are gone, because you never know who’s there trying to connect with you. Also by doing the co-creation of the syllabus. Those are ways that you can start understanding what’s important to people because they’re sharing with you. I want more black scholars, I want more queer scholars included in this, more female scholars. There’s no critical theorists here. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Those kinds of things. And, “Oh, well, why is critical theory important to this person?” It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but it just has to be really authentic. You have to really want that community. I think that one of my hopes is that the pandemic has taught us how much we really need each other and how interconnected we are. Living in the United States community is not as valued as in other cultures. I definitely see that one because I don’t live in the United States right now. Also from traveling into other cultures as well. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

And so bringing that sense of community back, I’ve seen that shift in the United States externally watching people talk about building community and mutual aid networks and those kinds of things that I hadn’t really heard much about since the ’90s where people are, “Oh yeah we do need each other.” So I think that that’s an important shift is like, what are we doing with education? Why are we pushing it the way it is? Wrapping back to Art Pearl and Tony Knight the purpose of a democratic education is to build people that are responsible to their communities and are prepared to be in a democratic society. So we have to think about what are we creating if we’re not doing democratic education, what kind of citizens are we creating and how does that impact our society and our planet?  

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

What a poignant question to leave us on, because I think that’s the question that we all need to be grappling with. That it’s not just about perfection and skills. It’s also how are we creating global citizens who care about each other, are in community with each other and responsible for each other. Like you said, at the beginning of this conversation, we could go on and on and on it’s such a big topic. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

I want to say thank you for your time Robin, the school that you have started, it’s a nonprofit and the work that you’re doing, you said you wanted to share it beyond the work that you’re doing at your school. You want to build more of momentum around democratic education. How do people get in touch with you? How can they support you? Could you just share some contact information so that our listeners can reach out to you if they are listening to this as they are walking and they don’t visit our website. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Sure. We’re at the pearlhighschool.org that’s the main website and on there is my contact information and lots of information about the school as well. That’s probably the easiest place to find me is through there. Then my email is also drharwick@thepearlhighschool.org 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Wonderful. Thank you, Dr. Robin Harwick, thank you for teaching us and helping me relearn about democratic education. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Thank you. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Any other parting words? 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

No, thank you. This has been a pleasure. It’s really been nice having this opportunity to talk about something that I am so passionate about, what you may have noticed. Listeners, if you are interested in this topic, feel free to reach out. 

Dr. Divya Bheda: 

Thank you all for listening. I hope that this conversation inspires all of you to start thinking about adopting some democratic principles and concepts and strategies into your own classrooms. Thank you so much. Thank you again, Robin. 

Dr. Robin Harwick: 

Thank you. 

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