Self-determination – only with co-determination

Language: Español

(By Simona Zäh, Switzerland. Translated from German original)

In my last blog entry, I pleaded for more self-determination in schools – and only in passing did I mention that one of the basic conditions for self-determined learning is participation. In the following, I would like to explain why self-determination and participation go hand in hand, why participation is so important and who should have a say in school matters.

Why participation belongs to self-determination

Self-determination and participation go hand in hand, for two reasons:

  • Pure self-determination is only possible with very few, completely autonomous activities. Most of what we humans do affects others’ scope of action, which is why it needs rules and structures. So if I am part of a system (like family, school, or club …) my personal scope of action is defined by the framework conditions (rules and structures) that this system sets for me. If I cannot co-determine and shape these framework conditions, it may be that my individual scope for action is limited in aspects that are important to me, without me being able to change anything. My self-determination is left behind and I might feel alienated.
  • If we let our children experience and practice self-determination only then they lack the skills that are already important today – skills that might be essential in the future and that come with co-determination. Provocatively speaking, with self-determination and without participation, we might have many little egos who know what they can and want to do but they have not learned to be team players, to live in community, and to take responsibility for more than themselves.

What does participation mean?

Co-determination means for me

  • that I can bring my needs into something bigger – a system like a group, class, school, family, club, etc .;
  • that I acknowledge the needs of the other group members as well as the external environment, and together we seek solutions that are working for everyone;
  • that I take responsibility for myself as well as for the community – and therefore I can not simply point my finger at the other/ the system and complain about all the inadequacies; I am part of it and have the skills to bring about changes and improvements.


Why is participation (at school) important?

Why participation is so important for our children, for our schools and for our society? – Of course because co-determination completes and complements self-determination as described above, but there are other reasons, arguments and derivations – in the following a loose hodgepodge:

  • Co-determination is a basic need of us humans – or as the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei describes it: “Participation in a society is not an artistic choice, it’s a human need.”
  • Thanks to participation, we can use the wisdom of the crowd and reflect the diversity of the people involved – bringing more colorful, lifelike and sustainable solutions!
  • The curriculum21 (Lehrplan 21) also emphasizes that children learn to co-determine. One of three educational targets to the school is that: in their development, the students are supported in becoming independent personalities, acquiring social skills and on the path to responsible action towards their fellow human beings and the environment.
  • As described in my plea for self-determination (German original), our school system teaches students to learn to the test. This often involves minimizing the effort, which often means that students invest a great deal of creative energy in finding and making the best possible use of the loopholes of the school system. (This is of course also a form of learning, but I doubt if that is what we want to convey to our children). We teachers often find ourselves (involuntarily) in the position of law enforcement officers or system guards: we react with pressure and threaten with consequences or references, which we do not always find easy because we know that fear is an inhibitor to learning, since we also want to establish a relationship with the students at the same time. And then again – at least that’s true for me – we have often done similar things during our school years.
    But what if the pupils saw themselves as part of the school system, since they can help to shape it …? Or, in other words, can students take ownership of their own learning process at all if they can not have a say in the framework conditions?
  • The time of individual benefit optimization is over – global challenges such as climate change as well as the fact that our well-being is based to a large extent on sound relationships (as the federal government recently cited, we will, however, become increasingly lonely). We are not as autonomous as we think! The notion of Ubuntu rationality, which goes back to South Africa’s philosophy of connectedness, describes this quite aptly: “I am because we are and because we are, that’s why I am”. Or, as Silke Helfrich and David Bollier, in their highly readable book Free, Fair and Alive, rewrite the power of the Commons as “relational ontology”: “The individual experiences meaning, meaning and identity within and through the context of communities and societies – and these, in turn, are constituted by the prosperity of the individual. “It is essential for our future that we learn respectful togetherness – and in my view, that’s best (or maybe just?), if we are small to exercise.
  • Co-determination also means resolving conflicts together. How fulfilling and how difficult that is at the same time, we adults know only too well. Time and again, I find ourselves failing to realize our own needs, to integrate them “non-violently” into a larger system, and to negotiate the strategies for meeting their needs with others – be it as a couple, in the family, or in everyday working life! Many of us – including myself – often fall into a dualistic thinking and want to be right resp. asserting one’s own claim – probably often because we did not learn it differently at school and / or at home.


Who should be a decision maker in a school

When I talk about co-determination in school, I refer to different actors. According to my plea above obviously the participation of the students should be decision makers. Another kind of actors are in my view next to school management and school administration (summarized as a school organist / inside) and the teachers. And last but not least, from my point of view, it is also important that families/parents are involved in the school. At this point I already see some teachers colleagues throwing their hands: parents should be able to have a say in school matters? That must end in chaos and in sprawling discussions!

How in my view the co-determination of these different actors – also that of the families – can function and which conditions must be created for it, I will go into that in a next blog entry. At this point I would first like to show why the inclusion of families and parents is so important to me.


Why the inclusion of parents and families is so important

As emphasized several times in my blog post on Self-Determination, children need an environment of trust and supportive relationships with adult caregivers – this is the only way to give their minds and hearts free to study. In order for them to find both at school, their parents also have to stand behind the school – that is, they must have confidence in the teachers, the school and the school system. Children have fine feelers for any dissonance.

For parents to be able to stand behind the school, in my view, it needs the opportunity for participation. Parents need to see ways to bring themselves and their needs to school and how they can shape them. Being able to “shape this” is explicitly not a “must” – participation should always be voluntary! And of course that does not mean that parents should have a say in every little thing. And, of course, it does not mean that parents can expect that the school will be designed in all aspects according to their personal taste! But I am convinced that parents can identify much better with the school and see themselves as part of it, if they have the opportunity to be heard and if they can contribute to their objections and ideas being incorporated.

In addition, the mere demonstration of ways of participation prevents parents from putting their fists in the bag or pointing their finger at the school / teachers in the event of grievances – everyone involved has the opportunity to improve their school!


Co-determination in the VUCA world

My colleague Marco Jakob has highlighted in his blog entry “Schule in einer VUCA World” how school can remain relevant in a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA for short). He argues that, just like companies, only schools that focus their sensors externally on the VUCA world can pick up the critical impetus to change those skills that will be needed in life and, at best, in the future. The inclusion and co-determination of students, families / parents (and of course teachers) is just that, because together they form a not insignificant part of the VUCA world with their professional, family and social backgrounds.

I would like to conclude with a short plea for more self-determination and participation – and of course with the prospect of a blog entry, which shows how co-determination in schools can succeed.

If I can live self-determination and co-determination, I know my own needs (and skills, desires and, hopefully, my calling) and, secondly, I have learned to integrate them into a larger system and therefore more for myself than just myself to take the responsibility. And that is exactly what I wish for my and for all children – and also for the future of our society and not least of our planet.



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