Democratic versus Autocratic Teaching Methods

Last updated 11 June 1995

Educators are now beginning to recognize the change in our social fabric from autocratic relationships of superior/inferior, to ones that are based more on democratic relationships among equals. To many, democracy means the freedom of choice to do as one pleases. Many children today presume this is their right, resulting in classrooms and households full of tyrants. However, this is not freedom nor democracy, but anarchy. When everyone chooses to do as he or she pleases, we have constant friction. At some point, one must come to the realization that we cannot have freedom unless we respect the freedom of others. This is the subtle restriction that we place on freedom in order to enjoy freedom. In a democratic society, there is a constant interplay and regulation between the needs of society and that of the individual. At present, the achievement of the ideal of the democratic relationships is more possible than ever, since so many share in this belief. However, let me also add that the democratic ideal in not entirely without fault. In the regulation of conflict in a democratic society, majority rules, resulting in possibly a resentful minority. Some forward thinkers are attempting to forge a new concept, called "consensus" where the needs of everyone are taken into account.

Freedom implies responsibility. If society has deemed that one should drive on the right hand side of the road, then if you drive on the left, you quickly run into trouble. Thus, while I have freedom to drive most everywhere, I do have some restrictions placed upon me to insure the safety of others, and not infringe upon their freedoms. It is my responsibility to uphold the rules of society. And society has mechanisms whereby these responsibilities can be collectively maintained for the mutual benefit of all individuals.

While we duly affirm our belief in responsibility, there are certain situations that will challenge an individual's ability to act responsibly. It is a fact of life that there exist unequal relationships in individual power. Examples include the newborn child and the parent, the healthy versus the infirm, the teacher and student, and the administrator and teacher. Even though I am in a position of power, I still have the responsibility to regulate myself, and not fall into the trap of abusing my power. Furthermore, I have the responsibility to protect those in positions of lesser power, and accord them the same due process as I wish accorded to me. This power trap is extremely difficult to avoid, because the feeling of power is so satisfying. There is that oft quoted adage, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

To help you identify and recognize the characteristics and differences between democratic and autocratic traditions, I duplicate a chart provided by Dreikurs, "Maintaining Sanity in the Classroom, Illustrated Teaching Techniques." I do not have the actual text in front of me, so I duplicate this from my notes.

        Autocratic                Democratic

        Boss                          Leader
        Sharp voice                   Friendly voice
        Command                       Invitation
        Power                         Influence
        Pressure                      Stimulation
        Demanding cooperation         Winning cooperation
        I tell you what you should do Majority decides what you should do
        Imposing ideas                Selling ideas
        Domination                    Guidance
        Criticism                     Encouragement
        Fault finding                 Acknowledgement
        Punishing                     Helping
        I tell you                    Discussion
        I decide, you obey            I suggest and help you decide
        Sole responsibility of boss   Shared responsibility
To give a more concrete example, recently, I had a situation in one of my classrooms, where I applied both democratic and consensus teaching techniques over a two day period. I will also confess to you that I am not wholly perfect, and I am not always entirely successful in the application of either of these techniques. On the first day, I conducted a discussion regarding the invention of a particular toy, mostly of interest to boys, rather than girls. Most of the girls did not participate, and I had them do another activity requiring lesser supervision. This is an example of what I term, "consensus" style teaching.

The boys particularly enjoyed their discussion. The boy who originally contributed the idea, was especially enamored of his idea, so much so that he requested, and indeed almost demanded in class on the following day, to continue the discussion. Now this boy has a tendency anyway to want an inordinate amount of attention, and I realized that I myself would have difficulty telling him alone that we needed to go on to other work. However, I wanted to avoid any sense of a power struggle.

So, this is how I handled this incident in the democratic tradition. I gave the whole class several options, and asked the class if they wished to continue the discussion suggested by the boy, or do some other option. Not a single student in the class wanted to continue with the boy's topic and so the boy accepted the decision with equanimity, and made no further fuss during the rest of the class. If I simply exerted my authority as a teacher and told the boy that we could not discuss this topic that day, I believe the boy would hold a special resentment towards me, which would be troublesome to deal with sometime later. Thus, I believe the collective power of the class regulated the actions of the boy far more effectively than I could have alone.

Copyright © 1995 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved. Permission is automatically granted to duplicate this page for non-profit educational uses. Otherwise, please request my permission.

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