Teaching Matters: How democratic is your ESL classroom?

“Education is a kind of continuing dialogue and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view.”  

~Robert Hutchins (1899-1977), former President of University of Chicago and educational philosopher


Continuing on the theme of creating a better classroom this semester, it is essential to make sure there is an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students. With this in mind, ask yourself: Who gets to speak in class? Whose ideas count? Who chooses the assignments? How do students receive feedback? Do students have a chance to conference with their instructors? Do you want your students to become self-directed – or autotelic  – in their studies?

Here’s a quick checklist that ESL teachers that I created for a CATESOL workshop a while back called “Techniques for a More Democratic Classroom”. My core assumption remains that giving students more opportunities to literally speak, write, and share their insights leads to a more engaging, dynamic, and valuable classroom experience. Here are some more questions to consider:

1. What are some of the students’ personal interests?
2. Who do you currently teach? How would you describe the students?
3. How can student interests be better incorporated into the curriculum?
4. Which assignments do students currently choose? Which seems most successful? Why?
5. What are some benefits of greater student participation?
6. What are some risks of greater student participation?
7. Do you want to increase the number of choices students make?
8. What critical language skills can be taught by tapping into their interests?
9. How can you tweak current material to better individualize instruction?
10. What internet resources can you use to augment the current curriculum?
11. Which exercises or activities do you find most successful in your classroom?
12. What decisions do you keep as your prerogative as the instructor?
13. How can you encourage your students to become self-directed learners?
14. What skills do your English students need to realize that goal?
15. What habits do students need to practice in a democratic classroom?
16. What are some obstacles to a more democratic classroom?
17. How does technology encourage a more democratic classroom?
18. How can you create a more democratic classroom?

From my perspective, a more democratic classroom provides immigrants and international students with a chance to demonstrate both linguistic skills and personal freedom. Many immigrants, especially from more closed societies, continue to believe that the only good student is the quiet student who listens, takes notes, memorizes, and repeats back the teacher’s words. Therefore, it behooves ESL teachers working in democratic societies to demonstrate a different definition of a good student where all students share their experiences, contribute their knowledge, and use their expanding English vocabulary to contribute. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

For more content related to making and breaking habits – and discussing them in the classroom – check out Chapter 3: Making and Breaking Habits from Compelling American Conversations, with expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!

Ask more. Know more. Share more.

Create Compelling Conversations.


  1. Great to see someone who hasn’t forgotten (in a world obsessed with technology) that education in a democracy needs to be education for democracy. Let me just suggest that there needs to be a focus not just on the form but also on the content of education, so in addition to your list we need, for instance, to ensure that no child leaves the school without having at least heard of the Magna Carta and without having looked at a few snippets from what is arguably the canon of the democratic tradition.

  2. You’re absolutely correct that no child in a democratic country should graduate without a few snippets from the democratic tradition. It’s essential for students – and citizens – to be able to share their experiences and opinions so they can continue to grow, learn, and prosper.

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