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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The complexity of a participatory democracy in a public primary classroom : the interplay of student autonomy and responsibility Collins, Steve


This dissertation presents a case study of a grade one-two class in the suburbs of Vancouver. The twenty-two students are diverse in terms of academic ability, culture, language, age, and personality. Participatory Democracy is researched. Participatory Collaborative Action Research is the methodology. The researcher, classroom teacher, and the students themselves, are immersed in the research setting as partners. Participatory Democracy is an inclusive arrangement where classroom members contribute to decision-making affecting the classroom. Therefore, the research methodology and the research topic are the same activity in which reflection by the participants yields both data and learning outcomes. The research and the classroom community develop together. Within this social orientation, autonomy and responsibility are investigated. An analysis of each concept and their relationship is offered. Possibilities for shared authority are also examined. These and other elements are conceptually intertwined and not easily separated. Complexity Theory is presented as a way of framing classroom research. A Participatory Democratic classroom is conceived of as a dynamic adaptive system, similar to an organism or society. This community is understood ecologically. It is self-organizing and continually coevolving. The importance of a sense of community as a context for learning about social elements becomes evident. An understanding of autonomy, responsibility, shared authority, and their relationship is demonstrated by children through their friendships and sometimes through verbal expression. The students and teacher establish negotiated, dynamic boundaries in which students express their autonomy within the limits of responsibility to the community. Since participation depends on discourse, non-verbal active discourse is encouraged in this community as legitimate communication and a support for language development. Authority, understood as embedded in the community, with the teacher as its interpreter, is shared with students. Rule setting is complex and dynamic, not absolute. Rules are explained and negotiated. An effort to achieve consensus forms the basis of decision-making. Within a democratic community that promotes participation and appreciates the complexity of social structures, the teacher must promote a sense of community, negotiate curriculum, negotiate frames for behavior and learning, plan and assess collaboratively, and reflect on the constantly changing complexity of the classroom community.

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