Democracy in the Classroom: DEI and a Sense of Belonging

by Joshua Stoll, HS Humanities Teacher


How do we bring diversity, equity, and inclusion into the classroom? There are, of course, a variety of ways to do this. Perhaps most obviously, we can highlight and focus on marginalized voices in the content we study. This is a vitally important practice, and it is something that we do at SF Waldorf. For example, in our U.S. history class at the High School, we engage with the perspectives of the enslaved people whose labor has built the physical and economic infrastructure that the United States has stood on rather than focusing solely on the “founding fathers” or touching abstractly and at an arm’s length on the topic of slavery. We also examine Native American perspectives on the arrival of Europeans to their lands rather than studying only the European perspective of Columbus’ “discovery” or the “first” Thanksgiving. But another way of doing this, and the way which I’d like to address here, is by focusing on the form of the class. In particular, we can bring diversity, equity, and inclusion into the classroom by setting up a situation where a plurality of voices can be heard, given equal consideration, and integrated into our lessons—in other words by bringing democracy into the classroom.

When I talk about democracy in the classroom, I’m referring to the 20th century American philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey’s understanding of democracy and education. He talks about education as preparing students to not just participate in democratic institutions or politics but also to develop democratic habits, mindsets, and ways of living. Education, then, is not only to teach students about civics or history or math or science but to help cultivate a sense of community spirit and dynamic cooperation in a self-aware group organization. We can think of these ideas in terms of the relation between identity and community. Our identity, our sense of self, is a process that manifests itself within an evolving relational context of social networks. Thus, cultivating democracy in the classroom, in this Deweyan sense, requires us to think about this identity-community interaction.  

Identity is something that is always growing and evolving. The self is a continuous work in progress and, even at moments in our lives when we have a more stable understanding of who we are, we still reflect in many ways on that most philosophical question, “Who am I?” We ask, for example: What kind of friend am I? What kind of friend do I want to be? Have I achieved that yet? How can I become that kind of friend? And, of course, we can replace “friend” with any kind of social role: partner, teacher, mother, father, sibling, citizen, etc. But these kinds of questions, and the progress required to become who we are, are virtually unending. High school students are in a particularly intense period of identity formation. They’re really beginning to ask these massive questions seriously and consciously: Who am I? Who do I want to be? How can I become that person? Related to these questions are concerns about one’s confidence, one’s sense of accomplishment, and one’s sense of autonomy. 

“We are cultivating an attentiveness

to how a plurality of voices

contributes to our individual and collective understanding.”

A democratic classroom emphasizes the importance and value of these questions and concerns. And there is a strong philosophical precedent for this. Socrates, as reported by Plato, famously held the Delphic maxim “know thyself”—one half of our Waldorf motto—as being central to wisdom. Plato, using Socrates as his mouthpiece, talks about “caring for your soul” by which he meant that we should examine our lives, asking questions about who we are, what we believe, and how our values ground these beliefs and guide our actions. A better understanding of who one is, what one believes, and what one values produces a certain kind of organization in the soul, as Plato puts it, that allows us to more efficiently pursue those things that would lead to more fulfilling and enriched lives. Education, Plato and Socrates argue, orients the student towards the kinds of feeling and thinking that result in deeper self-understanding.

Self-understanding has also been central to South Asian philosophical and religious traditions. Despite their varied differences, Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions all see the question of the self as being of paramount importance. In Buddhism, for example, confusion about the long-term stability of self-identity results in living through cycles of dissatisfaction and suffering—cycles that extend over multiple lifetimes—since we thereby attach value to the illusion of an eternally unchanging entity. Awareness of the impermanence of self-identity—of its dynamic, ever-changing quality—leads to liberation from such cycles. The kind of spiritual and mental training we see in Buddhist monasteries is intended to lead us to clearer insights about our self-identity.  

But, as these traditions also understand, community is central to identity. Thus, Plato emphasized that the structure of society must be such as to encourage self-knowledge, and Buddhism has emphasized the role the sangha—or spiritual community—plays in training and practice. Here, we have a recognition that our relation to others and the integrity of our relations are key to the development of our self-identity. Understanding ourselves always means understanding ourselves in a relational context. Again, consider the questions asked above: What kind of partner am I? What kind of friend? What kind of parent? What kind of partner/friend/parent do I want to be? Have I achieved that? How can I best enact my roles in my relationships and become the best partner/friend/parent I can be? These questions, posed in terms of the social roles we play, show that self-understanding is always already tied to understanding where we stand with respect to others and, as the other half of our Waldorf motto says, to understanding our world. A democratic classroom therefore educates toward identity formation in community. 

There are many ways of setting up a democratic classroom. The way I have approached it has been inspired by a movement known as Philosophy for Children or p4c—particularly the version of p4c implemented in Hawai’i. This form of classroom democracy puts special emphasis on the creation of a community of inquiry. At SF Waldorf, we want to create a community within the classroom in which we feel comfortable sharing our thoughts and feelings. The idea is to give students' voices, views, and questions precedence. It centers the learning experience on student agency and responsibility. The aim is to give students the potent sense that what they think matters, that they have significant and compelling questions and views that deserve serious consideration. Forming such a community taps directly into students’ identity and fosters in them a kind of cognitive autonomy and confidence in their thinking.

In forming this community, it is made explicit that we are in this learning experience together and that we have much to learn from each other. Others have experience and understanding that can significantly contribute to our own. As such, dialogue will enhance our learning. We can approach a more objective kind of truth by giving space for and listening to a plurality of voices. Coming together in this way, our explicit goal is to work towards developing a more complex and nuanced understanding of our subject and how it affects our lives. This makes clear the role that our community of inquiry plays in identity formation, in how our self-knowledge and knowledge develop.

A good way to build a community of inquiry is to start the school year by having everyone in a class contribute to a single project that represents the diversity and integration of its members. My classes have started, for example, with making a community ball, a multi-colored ball of yarn. As we come together to make this ball, each student shares a bit about themselves (for example, their passions) and their expectations for class. We also sometimes engage with other relevant questions about the subject (for example, in my grammar class, we talked about the question, “What is language?”). Once it’s finished, I explain the significance of what we have done: we have worked together to build the ball. In building the ball, we’re building our community, and we each put a bit of ourselves (physical work as well as “soul” work) into the ball. The ball itself, when complete, reflects our community. It is a variety of strands with different lengths and colors, but they are all tied together to facilitate a singular goal: working together to learn. 

The ball is used to help direct the community’s inquiry and conversation, and it comes with some rules that contribute to the flow of the inquiry. For example, the person with the ball speaks. With respect, we listen to the person with the ball. Additionally, whoever has the ball can choose who speaks next. Thus, students become responsible for including others' voices and for observing who has something to say. Crucially, this makes class more dynamic; now, students must make eye contact with the class at large and not just with the teacher. They must look around at each other’s raised hands or any body language that says, “I have something to contribute.” Finally, if the ball happens to land in your lap, you can always pass. This provides a certain degree of safety: there is no pressure to speak when you don’t want to or don’t feel like you have something to contribute to the current discussion. In these ways, the community is made simultaneously aware of the individuality and the collective intentionality of its members.

Additionally, in building the community of inquiry, it is a good idea to establish together some basic guidelines and expectations for how to conduct ourselves. This is especially the case if the class will be touching on sensitive and controversial topics. On their own, students come up with wonderful guidelines that themselves are lessons in democratic living. For example, many students emphasize open-mindedness and listening to understand. Here, there is a recognition that we are limited in our knowledge and can always learn from each other. A concern for mindfulness of language is also common. This is a recognition that what we say and, just as importantly, how we say it, matters. It impacts the learning experience of others—whether they understand and whether and how they engage or disengage with the class. In doing this, they make explicit for themselves the kind of democratic habits of mind that we are looking to exercise and cultivate. They make clear for themselves the importance of integrating diverse perspectives into the learning experience.

Ultimately, in establishing such a community, however it is done, we are encouraging the formation of democratic habits. In this, we are—as is essential to Waldorf pedagogy—acknowledging and educating the whole person. We are cultivating an attentiveness to how a plurality of voices contributes to our individual and collective understanding. Additionally, such a community creates space for equal consideration of these different voices and views. Moreover, it integrates this plurality into a common goal: working together to know ourselves and to know our world. ~

Josh Stoll earned a Ph.D. in cross-cultural philosophy. His passion is promoting liberal arts and humanities education to encourage personal and communal inquiry into who we are and how we can live well together.