A groundbreaking idea that transforms the notion of learning

Democratic Education School Varna 2.jpg

Traditional education models put children into a passive role, expecting from them to obey rules they often do not understand and rebel against. Democratic Education is a private school that challenges this idea.

Based in Varna, it is the first licensed school in Bulgaria applying a democratic educational model after the principles of Yaacov Hecht. At Democratic Education Private High-School, children are empowered to have their say in school's work and life, and marks are just a tool for progress evaluation. Students are taught how to use and unleash their true potential and are trusted to self-guide and self-govern – which they do, learning to become masters of their own fates and to respect the others.

The school was established seven years ago by a group of women seeking an alternative to traditional education. We talked to two of them – Tanya Zdravkova, manager, and Veronika Furnadzhieva, mentor and psychologist.

What inspired you to become the co-founder of Democratic Education?

Tanya Zdravkova: One day I found Yaacov Hecht's book Democratic Education. The excitement and enthusiasm that this book provoked in me were huge. My daughter was in 2nd grade at the time and I was already seeing the negatives of traditional school. The book answered many questions, and eventually I decided that I wanted to become a part of another educational reality. We started as a cooperative. After three years, we did something unique for Bulgaria – we combined the principles of democratic education and the requirements of the Ministry of Education. Democratic Education has been a licensed high-school for 4 years now.

Veronika Furnadzhieva: By chance, I found myself in the company of people with shared ideas. I felt as a part of a very special brainstorm unleashed on the territory of a topic that was of particular interest to me – school. My third child was an infant, and my first one was finishing their first year in a traditional school... I definitely had my own opinion on what was going on there. So, a group of five mothers formed spontaneously. Our conversations on how we envisaged good education (proper education) were so passionate and inspiring that meetings would last between eight and ten hours. I have never consciously wanted to become the co-founder of a school. We just enjoyed the imaginary picture that we were painting together. We had fun.

What is the core concept of the school?

TZ: We believe that everyone has the inherent potential to achieve goals and the necessity to realise it. This need for self-fulfilment is the motor of development. We are born with different talents and the educational system should create conditions to support children in their interests, not to impose a unified curriculum on everyone. This is in short the concept of self-guided learning that is the core value of democratic education.

Self-governance is the second pillar of this concept. The school community decides on everything that concerns it via discussion between children and adults. All the rules and a significant part of the internal procedures for school life are voted on at these meetings. Participation is voluntary, but obeying the accepted decisions is obligatory for everyone.

VF: Self-guidance: the right to have your say and the opportunity to choose to bring meaning and joy in your life. Being aware of your input in your own life empowers you and makes you more responsible.

Equality: no matter the age, the need for connection and respect takes first place in everyone's hierarchy of needs. Since birth, the little human deserves recognition and respect.

Why does this approach work and what does it give to children?

TZ: Relations based on equality and mutual respect with children and unconditional acceptance are the foundation of everything, including academic achievement.

We want to provide children with the skills and attitudes required to navigate their own lives in a satisfying way and with awareness of their own responsibility for the results.

Children learn how to balance their lives with respect towards their own and others' needs by finding mutually satisfying solutions.

The other unique thing at Democratic Education is the time for unstructured play and exploration of the world and the free interaction with the other children and the adults in our team.

How do you motivate children at Democratic Education to follow the rules and to study properly?

TZ: We do not start from the position that we, as adults, always know that is the best for a child and that we have to motivate them to achieve the goals that we have set for them. Instead, we encourage them to explore their own motivation, to set their own goals and to support them in the process. This approach towards communication with children suggests that we are all in the same boat. Hence, the problems with discipline disappear naturally.

We create the rules together, for us it is only natural for children to want to change something. We believe that rules are made to serve us and if they are not well thought over it is best to change them. Still, rules are important as they ensure safety, tranquillity, order and protection of rights. When a rule has been broken, a committee of children and adults decides on the consequences.

As for learning, we believe it is best when it meets the children's needs.

VF: Children at Democratic Education get homework, but they write these only if they see them as important for them. The teachers will support their choice.

At Democratic Education we shift the focus of children's attention from getting high marks to finding their own personal motivation to study. For us, marks simply reflect a moment in the educational process. I believe that they spoil the true essence of studying, but they definitely teach children many important life skills, such as strategic thinking, evasion, dealing with stressful situations, and critical thinking of the sort "why should I learn this?".

What type of parents have trusted Democratic Education?

VF: "Our" parents have open minds and are curious and aware. Some are worried for their children's emotional and psychological health and others just seek an alternative to mass education.

TZ: I would like to quote, with permission, one of our students, Manol, 9 years old: "Parents should give choice to their children and believe that they will do what is right for them."

Can you tell us more about your students?

VF: They escape description, each of them is their own person. All of them, however, start to change after a year or two with us. They become more perceptive to other people besides their peers and more aware of their rights, they start to help one another and to respect the rights of the others, they question some of their old beliefs and become more actively engaged with the school's life, they smile more and become calmer and more proactive.

TZ: Outsiders are always impressed by our students' open communication and curiosity, that they are opinionated and are not afraid to speak up in a calm and assertive way.

Democratic Education has been around for 7 years already. What are the lives of your first students now?

VF: Most of our first students are still with us, they will graduate in 2027. They are curious and constantly explore their and the envionment's capabilities.

Did you change anything in your teaching methods in these seven years?

VF: We constantly strive at improving the teaching process with new methods and approaches. Many new teachers have joined us in the past couple of years. What we have not changed and have no intention to change is the teachers' aim to establish trusted connections with the children. The interaction with the children is based on acceptance, respect, understanding, and support.

TZ: What does not change are our values and principles: freedom, non-violence, respect, equality.

We believe that children learn informally as well, through play and free communication, and we have provided conditions for these. We also have extracurricular activities such as cooking, gardening, sports, playing music instruments; there are clubs for rollerblades, fly yoga and additional languages.

What is the most important thing that modern children should learn at school in order to grow into successful and happy adults?

VZ: I cannot single out just one thing. In my opinion what matters is that everyone finds their own measure and understanding of success, feel what brings them joy and know that everyone has the right to follow them.

TZ: To learn to be happy today. To find what is meaningful and excites them, and to turn it into their profession. To create wholesome relations with the others, and respect their own and other people's needs.

How do you select the people in the team of Democratic Education?

TZ: We seek people who love what they do and know that there is no universal "correct" knowledge when working with children. We also seek certain attitudes for development, change, and readiness to test "universal" truths. The attitude that the role of the adult is to walk along the children in their journey of exploration and understanding the world. We also seek skills for non-violent communication. In short, we value most specific personal qualities, skills and attitudes. For us the atmosphere of closeness, trust and partnership with the entire team is crucial.

VZ: In the past year we even created a committee that decides who will join our team. Some children are part of it.

What is the main thing that you want the school to achieve in the next seven years?

VZ: To inspire as many families as possible with the idea of self-guided learning. To turn Democratic Education High-School into the foundation for radical changes in Bulgaria's system of education.

To create the most beneficial and rich educational environment that empowers children to identify and develop their talents.

TZ: To share with more people what we believe in and what we do. To be the reason for a broader shift in thinking and notions about education, its goals and how it should happen.

Varna, Alen Mak, 84 Yanko Slavchev St

Ivelina Staneva, Director: 0878 601 604


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