Democratic education in cooperative development

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Popular education as well as democratic education (sometimes referred to as participatory education) are forms of education where the teachers, educators, and facilitators are valued on an equal level with the students, learners, and participants. It is a collaborative process of learning and teaching that is engaging, interactive, and directly relevant to the interests of the learners.

The ways that people learn almost always influences the ways that they work. Therefore, because cooperatives are democratically owned and operated organizations, it is crucial to teach and learn about co-ops and cooperation utilizing democratic education.

History and Background

Popular, participatory, and democratic educational theories have rich histories; but they have been revolutionized in the past 50 years by a wide range of dedicated educators working in schools, universities, social/economic justice efforts (such as the Civil Rights Movement), and more. These educators include include Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, and bell hooks. Paulo Freire pioneered the modern popular education movement while helping to educate and organize landless peasants in Brazil, and his theories have had profound impacts on everything from global social movements to education reform in the United States. Myles Horton was a co-founder of the Highlander Folk School and focused heavily on educating for rural economic justice in Appalachia as well as for the civil rights movement (and taught movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks). bell hooks is a modern day educator who has concentrated on education and feminism, race, and more. Her publications include “Teaching to Transgress” and “Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope.”

The Difference

It helps to understand popular and democratic education by contrasting them to mainstream methods of education. Paulo Freire, the founder of the modern popular education movement, has called this the “banking concept” of education.

The banking concept

With the banking method, educators view learners as vessels in which they need to “deposit” information. It is the learners’ responsibility to memorize and, in one form or another, directly repeat the information presented to them.

In learning situations, the full extent of what knowledge is going to be covered and delivered is almost completely predetermined. This means that the teacher comes prepared with a set of information, no matter the interests, needs, or input of the learners. This knowledge is “given” to the learners and is viewed as unchallengeable. Participants have little to no influence over what they learn and how they learn it.

Banking education sets up a strict teacher/learner dichotomy, where the teacher has all the authority and the learners are subservient to the teacher’s will and the knowledge s/he brings forward.

Paulo Freire first defined the term “banking education” in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Here he describes the teacher as the Subject - the active participant - and the students as little more than passive objects. He writes: “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.” Later, he adds: “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.”

Democratic and Popular Education

In contrast, popular and participatory education is based on the belief that everyone has something to teach everyone else. Everyone has something important to bring to a conversation and learning situation due to their experiences and insight.

Democratic education is viewed as a cooperative process in which everyone should benefit equitably. These educational processes are built around the direct needs and interests of the learners and their communities. Every subject matter that is taught and learned in a popular education process should be examined through the lens of what these skills and knowledge could mean to the learners’ lives, their goals, and their communities (whether these are their families, towns, groups of peers, fellow workers, etc.).

Democratic education perceives the participants' perspectives and input as core elements to the design of the educational process. This means that learners have a crucial say in what they learn and how they learn it. Facilitators can, and should, offer knowledge and skills to learn, but these must be delivered in a way that directly relates to the learners' interests, needs, and efforts.

For example, a cooperative educator should not simply lead a workshop that has information which is completely predetermined. If there is a workshop addressing group conflicts in co-ops, the facilitator should not simply present standard group conflicts in co-ops and ways to address them. Instead, or on top of this, the learners’ experiences and questions should guide the process. This could be accomplished by asking questions such as: what are conflict issues that your co-op is facing? How have you tried to address these? What has worked and what has not worked? What are some of the next steps you think you should take? Why should you learn about conflicts that are common amongst other co-ops? By discussing these questions the participants are bringing their needs and interests to the forefront of the learning situation - and they affirm the importance of the knowledge and its potential impact on their efforts. Thus, it is the role of the facilitator to work with the participants in order to build: 1) how the learning experience will be delivered, 2) what content it will cover, and 3) its meaning to the learners.

Paulo Freire and subsequent popular educators have identified a number of unique methods of democratic education. Two primary elements are the “problem-posing” method and the “dialogue” based concept.


The problem-posing approach values the process of learning just as much as the content that is learned. Therefore, with this method, instead of simply stating the content for the students to remember, the facilitators create a venue that will help learners discover information, how they can use it, and its importance to their needs/interests. This is accomplished by posing problems that the participants work collaboratively to address and solve, which can be done using tools and content brought forward by both the facilitator(s) and the learners. It is important to keep in mind that these questions and problems should be directly relevant to the current situations and overall goals of the learners. For example, instead of simply asking “Why are cooperatives good for communities?”, a cooperative educator should pose questions such as the following: “What nutritional and economic challenges is your community facing that a Food cooperative could address?”, “How could starting a Worker cooperative improve your own working and living conditions?”, and so on.


In addition, the dialogue-based approach holds that the best way to learn and solve problems collaboratively is through conversations. True democracy - in both learning experiences and cooperatives - can only be achieved through dialogue. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes: "Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers." By this, Freire means that when everyone speaks and interacts on an equal plane - as opposed to simply having content delivered to learners by teachers - everyone becomes free to learn from and teach one another. In these situations it is the responsibility of the teacher to both facilitate the conversation while simultaneously listening to (and learning from) the learners. However, facilitators should also be assisting the learners to develop their ability to facilitate dialogues within learning situations (workshops, etc.) - a skill that can then be transferred to other situations (cooperative meetings, etc.).

For example, rather than simply telling aspiring cooperators why cooperatives help keep money in communities, cooperative educators should facilitate a discussion on the ways co-ops have been used as tools of economic development in other communities - and explore with participants how they think these examples could be transferable to their own situations and community. Eventually, after initially introducing and organizing the conversation, the facilitator might ask a participant to take the lead in facilitating the rest of the discussion (and help out with the facilitation when s/he is needed).

Table: Banking Education vs. Democratic Education

Banking Concept
Popular, Democratic, and Participatory
Educators... ...“deposit” knowledge in learners' minds. with learners to discover information and its impact on their lives/efforts.
Learners... ...passively accept and repeat information delivered to them. ...challenge information that is given to them; seek ways to discover information and determine its relevance/meaning to their work, lives, and communities; learn from and teach each other.
Educators... ...predetermine what information will be taught and how it will be delivered. ...collaborate with learners to determine what is important to them and how they will learn information.
Knowledge... viewed as an object that is owned by the teacher and given to the learners. viewed as something that everyone has, which they can share with others.
Learners... ...are subservient to the authority of the teachers. ...are viewed as equals and partners with their teachers.

Using Participatory Education with Cooperative Groups

What not to do

  • Simply tell learners what you think they should know.
  • Make the excuse that this subject is complex so you just need to sit the cooperators down and tell them about it.
  • Reject challenges that learners make to your claims or the information you present.
  • Talk more than the learners talk.

What to do

  • Help the people you are working with evaluate where they stand and what they know - in addition to what they need to do and learn next.
  • Facilitate experiences where the learners impact what happens next.
  • Actively listen to participants and create an environment where their voices matter the most. (Some popular educators follow the 20/80 rule - this means that a facilitator should talk only 20% of the time, while learners talk 80% of the time).
  • Design learning experiences so that they are flexible.
  • Design learning experiences so that they are directly relevant to the learners’ situations, needs, and interests.
  • Make sure that everyone feels that their voice is heard.
  • Use the problem-posing method to help groups collaborate in the process of learning. (Remember: learning is a process of discovery, and how that process happens is just as important as what is learned.)
  • Use the dialogue-method to make sure everyone is communicating and practicing democracy.

See Also

Cultivate.Coop's Educational Resources section has a number of democratic, popular, and participatory educational tools - including workshops, activities, and more. Some of these include: