We are often asked at our school, Centre for Learning (CFL), how our children will survive in the ‘outside world’, how they will adjust to systems once they graduate, and how they will fare in society—the ‘real’ society. Essentially, these are questions about how the children will fit into the society that exists somewhere else. We are brought up to believe school is a place which prepares one for a society out there. But our intuitive response at CFL to such a query is to explain how we are a society already, a microcosm, an experimental space for children and adults to practice participative community life, learn to live together, listen to one another, work to keep the place going, and work to keep a culture fresh and alive.

We would venture to say that this microcosm is a ‘democratic’ space. Recently a few of us teachers attended a conference on democracy and it made us re-look at the culture we are trying to create here in CFL. Of course ‘democracy’ is a complex word, carrying with it equally complex concepts like justice, liberty, fraternity and equality. Perhaps, we are one attempt to create such a space where voices are heard, freedom of thought and feeling is exercised, and a ground of common humanity is being created. Easily said and written, but the road is a long and arduous one! So here is a description of one school’s journey in creating a democratic space.

Once we use the word democratic, questions that follow could be: Do the children then have choice in creating the curriculum? Do they have choice in coming to the learning when they are ready? Do they feel free to learn what they would like to, and pursue their interests? Our responses to these questions of individual freedom are often intricate or involved. Children experience a sense of freedom on campus, but it does not literally manifest into individual choice on a day-to-day basis or individual preference with regard to a timetable or activity. Isn’t freedom something greater than these day-to-day choices? We would examine the notion of freedom, but by taking it to another level in dialogues with each other and the children, and here is possibly how:

Freedom usually implies expression of one’s personal choice or right. While free expression of thoughts and ideas has its place, we feel there also needs to be a turning inward to ask: What does freedom mean when my own mind creates divisions and hierarchies in any context—class, caste, ability, appearance? What are the patterns of thought in children’s own minds that make for mechanical, non-free action and behaviour? Can there be freedom from the continuous labelling of others and ourselves?

We also work to create a space where every voice is heard and we are all participating in the community. Again, echoes of democracy come to mind, where consensus and dialogue are paramount. In school, it is captured through the act of sitting down together and talking, whether one-on-one, in a small group, a whole class, or the whole school of 75 children and 15 adults. We have regular weekly time set aside, but unstructured dialogue is also the medium through which we communicate and relate at many points.

There is also continuing dialogue about community norms with the senior-most classes in school. These can be around food, music played on campus, lack of sensitivity to dirty dishes, habits of gossiping, water as a scarce resource, hostel sleep times, snacking in rooms, and so on! Looking at the list, it covers both—habits of groups, as well as the needs of a community space such as ours. The norms over the years have formed from real situations and feelings, rather than personal idiosyncrasies. The children and we arrive at these through dialogue and understanding, rather than receiving them as ‘rules’. For instance, it makes sense to clean school spaces ourselves before the day begins, or wash our own plates and cups after a meal. It goes from these kinds of concrete examples all the way to leaving our living spaces open and trusting each other not to take things, steal or damage others’ items. Despite these norms ‘making sense’, the human condition and temptation expose themselves in the community time and time again, and we go back to dialogue and understanding. It is a work in progress, really. But without practicing and living these processes on a small scale such as ours, how will children learn to be responsible, intelligent, and thoughtful members of society at large?

Therefore, when we engage in conversation, the focus is on being a responsible citizen of this community. Dialogues help us understand why norms have formed, why it feels difficult for us to follow them, how it cannot be a majority-wins situation, why living in a group implies adjustment and looking critically at one’s own needs and preferences, how living together cannot be based on a collection of each one’s freedoms and needs, but rather, a seeing of what is safe or caring or efficient or sensible for all ages and all members, and then coming to the norm. We encourage proposals for change from children when these can enhance the campus in some way. However, children also know that many times norms stay the same even after long discussion and that the point of the dialogue is something else. Living together with this spirit of dialogue helps us see that the implications of our own choice-based actions have repercussions, socially and emotionally.

Often we discover that at the base of our daily work is a feeling of being divided from the other, and an urge to belong. The urge to belong is not just confined to the wider society with its nations and religions, for example. Its roots are right here, right now in each of us, and we would like to recognize it in each of us.

We had been talking about looks, colour of skin, cinema and gender stereotypes for a couple of weeks with a group of eleven year olds. In one of the discussions, when asked who they feel different from, a child blurted out, “Basically, someone who is not ME”! Perhaps she had meant, “Someone who is not like me”. But her simple statement said it all! We feel separated from the ‘other’ all the way from countries, states, communities, religious sects, and neighbourhoods, to the person sitting next to me. Feeling separate is the crucial point. We would like children and ourselves to observe this feeling of being separate while immersed in the ups and downs of daily school and community life. Or perhaps recognize the ‘hyper-need’ to find similarities of culture, looks, experience and background, which overshadows the humanness of being together, no matter who you are or where you are from. How can we respond with compassion to each other rather than sizing each other up based on a mental list? It occurs to us that this is what fraternity implies.

I return to the question I began with, but now shifting from, “How will the children fit?” to “How will the children respond?” A response to the world should emerge from sensitivity, care and a feeling of responsibility. Typically one acts from a centre or an identity, which drives the action. An example would be feelings of guilt. But our identities and ‘reasons’ for action can narrow our responses and somehow make us feel we have ‘done our bit’. So, in our microcosm, here’s what we are trying to nurture—a global mind with a feeling for the world as a whole; a questioning mind that can look at all of one’s stereotypes, not only some; a sense of wonder, connection and humility; a mind which does not seek security in identities; and finally, a sense of democracy that resides within each one of us.