What is deschooling? Well, if schoolingis the process of being trained for something,self-directed educationis the experience of creating what you want. Deschooling, then, is the transition from being the object in training to being the active agent in creating.

Intellectually, we understand that learning is natural and happening all the time. But because so much of our experiences have been formed through the direct association of learning with schooling (and schooling with learning), it’s easy to fall back on old assumptions. Most of us grew up immersed in systems that believe children cannot be trusted to make good decisions. We went to schools that limited our choices to a narrow menu of classes, activities, and majors that would lead us to “success.” As a result, there are times when all of us will struggle to trust that children’s choices are valid and authentically reflect their needs as they learn and grow. This is especially true when the child makes a choice we perceive as unproductive. Deconstructing your expectations of a “valid learning experience” and learning to trust children’s choices is a vital part of facilitation.

The deschooling experience varies significantly from person to person. However, there are certain patterns and characteristics of the process that are recognizable. Understanding deschooling and how it manifests in facilitators, parents, and children is key to developing a healthy culture of self-direction at your ALC.

Deschooling in ALFs

If you have experience teaching or working with children in the past, chances are you (or your boss) was the one running the show. Making the transition to facilitating in a self-directed environment can be both liberating and terrifying. Your work will largely be with yourself and your old ways of thinking as you shift from trying to manage the behavior of young people to creating authentic partnerships with them. If you are feeling anxious about the kinds of choices your students are making, ask yourself:

  • What skills are being practiced in this activity?
  • Which modes of intelligence are being engaged?
  • What is this child doing now that they weren’t doing last week/last month/at the beginning of the school year?

Deschooling in Parents

Supporting parents as they as they deschool themselves and learn to trust their children is one of the hardest and most important parts of your job as a facilitator.

A parent’s motivation for seeking out ALC is usually indicative of what their deschooling process will look like. While some parents have done a lot of research or even spent time in self-directed environments, others may be interested in ALC simply because their child is unhappy in school and they are looking for alternative solutions. The latter is a common scenario, and one that can produce a wide variety of deschooling struggles for the parent in question.

It is very likely that a child who is unhappy with school will be extremely pleased with their newfound freedom in the ALC environment. While there is an immediate improvement in their affect, mood, communication, and general openness, the parent tends to have a bit of a honeymoon experience with the ALC -- simply grateful to have the light reappear in their child. During this honeymoon phase, any anxiety the parent may be feeling around the ways in which their child is choosing to spend time at school is easily overshadowed by the fact that their kid is suddenly eager to wake up on a Monday morning.

It’s usually the second month or about six weeks into the transition that the honeymoon phase ends. The parent has, perhaps, heard their child tell them that they played all day, or worse, their response to the typical afternoon parental inquiry has consistently been, “not much”. This is where the parent has their first major challenge in trusting the process, and ultimately trusting their child.

If a parent puts their child in an ALC with the expectation of seeing “X” but instead “PQRY” emerges, they will be constantly disappointed that “X” didn’t appear and fail to trust that “PQRY” is what the child really needs. It’s your job as a facilitator to help the parent release “X” and see the value of “PQRY.”

Deschooling in Children

The deschooling process in children is, obviously, related to the amount of time they’ve spent in other schools. A 13-year-old who attended traditional school all her life will have a different experience than a 7-year-old who has been exclusively homeschooled. There is no formula for how long deschooling takes, nor is there a script for what it looks like. Sometimes, the deschooling experience will involve raucous games and running around; sometimes, it will involve withdrawing to a quiet place to draw, or play Minecraft, or read a book. Kids who come from a culture where mean-spirited teasing, ridiculing, or shaming were rampant are likely to continue these behavior patterns at your ALC while they figure out what cultural norms have power there.

As an ALF, your role in this process is reflective: make explicit the implicit assumptions and motivations that you perceive under the choices the child is making, and the intended and unintended consequences of those choices. It can be difficult for children from traditional settings to even recognize when they are making choices, nevermind feel ownership over them. Keep your observations light and non-judgemental: I notice when you do X, Y happens.

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