Context Matters | IDEA

Context Matters

Understanding history and context is vital to any effort that wishes to be strategic and collaborative. Organizing and mapping are about connecting dots, building relationships, making sense of things, and finding new ways forward. IDEA builds organizing teams and projects that connect and strengthen existing efforts and works with them to map and build collaborative strategies rooted in the history and context of people and communities.

"I was particularly struck by your commitment to 'honoring, rather than washing away, complexity.' It is a principle that we should elevate in all our work on education imporvement, including our methods of evalutiona. Too few actors in the education reform space seem to get this (much less politicians!)."

- Ben Cannon, Special Advisor for Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber

Too often, approaches to educational change are decontextualized and overly simplified. Making things clearer and simple is important. IDEA works towards clarity and precision but develops and pursues strategies that embrace context.

There are immense challenges confronting education in the United States today. A too-simple narrative runs almost nightly across the airwaves depicting the supposed brokenness of our schools, their lack of accountability, and the failure of teachers. Sometimes this oversimplified narrative also offers up oversimplified, narrow, and seductive solutions that are far removed from the complex reality of today’s students, families, teachers and communities. 

While these stories run almost without interruption, there is a different, and more powerful, story waiting to be told. A story about schools and communities, young people and teachers, families and organizations reclaiming the “public” in public education. It is a story about the thousands of places where students are offered meaningful opportunities to engage in learning that is relevant, powerful, and human. Learning where young people are equipped with the tools to problem solve, innovate, collaborate and engage in work, life and society. That unfolding story is the story of democratic education. 

Democratic education is not a type of school or research-based practice. It isn’t one kind of learning program or philosophy. It is a frame. It’s a way of gathering together a vast and powerful set of ideas, philosophies of learning, research, school models, teaching practices, policies, and community visions so that a powerful story can be told that reclaims the “public” in public education—that is, education owned by all of us. And it is a story that demands to be told. 

Democratic education is a story of values. It is the story of people and communities, of quality education, of access to opportunity, of empathy, responsibility, and humility. Values are the foundation that rests beneath every school plan, budget, strategy, project, or message. When evoked, values help us locate our best opportunities to collaborate and take practical action.

Democratic education is a story of vision. It is not a reactive frame, but rather a generative one. It is a story about the present and future of learning. It is the story of what happens when everyone is engaged in the adventure of learning. 

Democratic education is a story of relationship. It’s about people learning better ways to work together with openness, critique, and empathy. It’s about realizing equity of access, quality, and spirit.

Democratic education is not partisan. It is not a “big D blue” or “big R red” concept. It is simply about promoting educational experiences for all students that will create a thriving democracy. Democratic education is something we find almost everyone thinks is a great idea, but doesn’t quite know how to make happen.

Which is where IDEA shows up. Our work as an organization is to identify the many powerful but often localized or disconnected examples of democratic education around the country. We support students, teachers, parents, school leaders, unions, networks, policy makers, and the media to connect the dots and make the critical connections among their efforts. Education by, for, and with young people, educators, families, and communities—what we call “democratic education”—is the frame we use to identify, connect, and mobilize action around the best ideas and practices that advance learning and sustain the core democratic values of our society. 

IDEA helps show what powerful learning looks like today, and what it can look like in 2025, and creates the pathways so eventually all young people get access to that learning every day, everywhere.

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