A teacher of the local vocational school asks me to hold a presentation. The audience consists of 15 boys, 17 years old who are qualified to work as mechanics.
I hesitate to accept the offer: I am not sure how I could use the time wisely. Then I decided to start an democratic experiment…
A few days later I am in front of the class: I ask the boys to participate in a game: And they agree.
First step: figure out the most important problem of the school.
The points mentioned first are a little bit disappointing. But after a while a suitable issue is put on the agenda: the evaluation of teachers by the scholars.
Second step: Find a solution for this problem.
The task is now to find a procedure for a fair evaluation.
This problem will be solved in a democratic manner. The first group will use the parliamentary, the second group will use the direct-democratic approach.
The classroom seating arrangements will now be changed into two *nearly* equal halves—one which will work the representative democracy way (7) and the other using the direct democracy approach(8). The former group then elects three political representatives (and here starts my own astonishment—without any input on my part - they were simply assigned), and the represented students (4) retreat to the back wall of the classroom. The other group sits down together in a circle and appoints a secretary. What will the disengaged civil society at the back of the room do? This was one of the inquiries of the experiment. They now demand to have their voices heard by their elected representatives—however, the rules of the game don’t tell anything about citizen involvement.
The elected representatives are able to complete their assignment first—parliamentary democracy is more efficient!(?) The direct democratic circle, however, needs some more time. Then comes the presentation! The president informs us that the implementation of the request does not make much sense, as the most important aspect thereof—namely, the concrete consequences for the students—is not feasible and would only lead to problems and unrest in the school. Therefore, they have decided not to accede to this demand.
The class protests loudly! What can we do when we are unsatisfied with the decisions made by our elected representatives? Writing letters to the editor, protests, taking to the streets, and in extreme cases, general strikes are all possibilities. However, there is still no guarantee. Whom does it effect? People could just elect new representatives the next time, but there are still no guarantees, and in the meantime, what has been decided upon will become reality.
The spokesperson for the students who are using direct democratic decision-making comes forward. I am amazed: The proposal is meticulously crafted and even upon first glance, comes across as so well thought-out and convincing that one could very well publish it. What particulary stands out is how much sensitivity and attention is paid to the practical consequences of negative evaluation. A three-step-model with ample opportunities for probation and learning from student feedback is proposed, with grading, first and foremost, as an opportunity for self-improvement and correction, as well as an opportunity for further learning and for improved harmony with the students.
Another group comes forward—one which was not actually seen as an organized group—with their own position on the matter. The so called civil society has suffered from their exclusion. During the time which remains, a class-wide discussion about the functioning (efficient or otherwise) of democracy and its challenges and opportunities for improvement unfolds. It could not be more lively or interesting. Due to time restrictions, the teacher must call for an end to the discussion, as the teacher for the next session is waiting to begin her class.
Would it not be alluring to let many other students have such an experience? An alternative approach to social studies is just as possible as an alternative approach to politics.
Translation: Jennifer Shore, Klaus Hofmann, Stefan Wolf