This is the second in a four-part series about Democracy in Practice’s work replacing student elections with lotteries in schools in Bolivia. It speaks to students learning early about ways in which they can directly impact their own governments by participating in Deliberative Democracy, a key role in Building A New Reality.
By Adam Cronkright
In the first post of this series, I highlighted some of the problems with traditional student government, and explained that our organization, Democracy In Practice, has been helping schools in Bolivia reinvent civic education.
Our approach has centered on replacing competitive elections with voluntary lotteries. This gives every student, even those lacking the charisma and popularity to win an election, an equal chance to become a student representative and develop civic and leadership skills.
When we first started replacing elections, we did it because we felt every student deserves an equal chance to develop civic and leadership skills.
We figured that the “unelectable” students, those who were finally given an opportunity through the lotteries, would need more support. Likewise, we assumed that the few charismatic high-achievers selected in the lotteries would require less of our attention and provide critical leadership for their peers. But for the most part, our experience has been the opposite.
Lotteries and Leadership
Student government lotteries revealed that leadership can come from the unlikeliest of places.
In our work, we found that critical leadership has regularly come from students who struggle with homework, making friends, or speaking in public. They worry us at first, but prove us wrong by showing up for meetings, listening to their teammates, and following through with the things they say they will do.
Now, obviously not every popular kid is a terrible teammate and not every shy student becomes a standout.
It is also true that confidence and charisma are important aspects of leadership. But especially in democratic settings, leadership requires many other important traits and comes in many diverse forms. We’ve found it much easier to teach respectful and reliable teammates to overcome their fear of public speaking, than it is to teach students who talk the talk, to set aside their egos, work well with others, and walk the walk.
Yet in our assessment of leadership potential we are continuously fooled by the presence (or lack) of confidence, charisma, and credentials (which in a school setting amount to academic or athletic achievement). I have heard teachers sing the praises of a student they saw as a ‘leader,’ unaware that the student was on the verge of being voted out of the student government. The reverse can also be true, as the story of a student whom I’ll call José will illustrate.
When José was selected in the lottery, a teacher warned me that he was a “bad student” who was repeating the eighth-grade and would “not work out.” A semester later, José received special recognition for going above and beyond during his term of office.
We can’t take credit for any magical transformation. Truth is, he still struggled in the classroom. But to everyone’s surprise (including ours), he showed other important interests and qualities that he had never been given chance to discover, develop, and demonstrate.
Unlearning Leadership Biases
Elections channel and reinforce our narrow and superficial leadership biases. Only students with competitive ambition, charisma, and popularity tend to win elections and get labeled as “leaders.” Therefore, young people learn that those are the key characteristics needed to be a leader. When we look at the state of adult politics, is this really what we want to be teaching the next generation?
I used to think that elections were unfair because they favor the most promising student leaders and rob all others of the opportunity to develop skills they desperately lack.
I still believe every young person should have the opportunity. However, having worked closely with hundreds of student representatives who were selected in both lotteries and elections, I’ve come to realize that I was wrong in my assessment of promise and lack.
The truth is, elections advantage and often select students with the least leadership potential and close the door to students with the most.
Fortunately, lotteries provide a simple and fair way to sidestep our deeply ingrained leadership biases and give students the opportunity to surprise us all.
Adam Cronkright is the co-founder and director of Democracy in Practice. The nonprofit focuses on reinventing student government and has worked primarily in schools in Bolivia. Democracy in Practice is part of a growing movement of democratic innovation that is challenging traditional approaches to governance all around the world.