Deschooling: An Unschooler’s ‘How to’!
Chances are, if you’re thinking about home educating right now or already are, you’ve come across the term ‘deschooling’. There is much written about the period of transition from formal schooling to no-school and whatever your home school pathway looks like, you will likely explore this concept, consciously or accidentally.
Where many ‘definitions’ of deschooling fall short, in my mind, is that they try too hard to do just that – define and compartmentalise something which is as vast a concept as the ocean and as long as a life lived. Defining something, having a word for a process, can be helpful in developing a common understanding and thus, common ground. It can also be limiting and, in the case of building a life outside of school, this can be counterintuitive.
School, as a construct, when you really break it down, does far more than educate children for 12 plus years. School, particularly where it’s a natural extension of nursery, child care and pre-school/kindergarten, seeks to take small, empty vessels that are our children and turn them into something worthy of the term ‘positively contributing adult’. Now, if you believe that children are in fact empty vessels that need their young mouldable minds to be, well, moulded, then likely school is a good fit for your family. BUT if you’re exploring the notion that maybe school isn’t the only place for education and learning (and the two aren’t necessarily the same thing!) then you’re probably also open to the idea that actually children aren’t the empty vessels we’ve been taught to think they are.
To describe deschooling, we need to explore, in some depth, what school offers aside from the obvious – that’s where the real work of breaking free from that system really takes us.
If I said to you, and many definitions will say exactly this ( they’re not wrong – I just don’t believe that they go far enough), that for every year of school, your child will need approximately 2 months of conscious deschooling, you could probably fairly easily plan for that right? 2 months if they are 6 and have completed reception; 10-12 months if they are 10 and started school at 5. Deschooling in itself is usually defined as a period of transition from when you leave the school system until…well, that’s the tricky part! If you’re a parent who has been schooled, and most of us have, we have our own deschooling to factor in. The years we’ve spent in formal schooling which may also include university or other tertiary education and arguably the years post formal education where we’ve continued to live within a system based on schooling. And this is where it gets interesting. If I suggested to you that actually, much of what you were taught at school wasn’t necessary and could even have been damaging and that it might take a lifetime to unlearn it – well, that’s a different proposition.
Think about everyday life; the way order is upheld; the constructs we have in place to measure success; how almost all organised mechanisms of modern society are arranged including hierarchy, performance management, punitive law….it goes on. All taught and learned in school. Small children lining up to go into their classroom; the requirement to sit on the mat with their legs crossed; washing their hands before they are allowed to eat their snack in kindergarten; sometimes where and with whom they can play in the schoolyard; which way to go down (and certainly not up!!) the slide!
Most of the things I’ve listed here are arbitrary – that is, not having any particular logic aside from a perceived need to provide structure and order and all based on the idea that children won’t do the ‘right’ thing unless explicitly taught. What exactly would happen if we didn’t force children to line up outside of their classroom (and yes, I use the word ‘force’ intentionally – I’m sure many of us have witnessed children being shouted at and even punished for not holding a straight enough line)? Would milling about outside of the door in a seemingly random fashion really result in chaos? And what then? Would that render children incapable of learning?
Taking this even further, we might question why children are taught certain concepts at nominated ages while other curriculum areas are withheld from them until the appointed time. I recall a ridiculous situation when my second child was entering second grade (and this was really when the death knell for school was tolling) and the teacher was explaining a model for ‘design thinking’. It was my son that identified that the model, which was mandated as part of a specific activity in the classroom, was simply reteaching what he had known for some years but had been prevented from using in the former grades. It seemed to me, in that moment, very clear that certain methods of teaching and in fact the way information can be controlled within the school system, sets children up very nicely to believe, as they grow, that information can not only be used to manipulate but can be held by those in positions of privilege and power, to be metered out arbitrarily.
When my children first stopped attending school, we approached a period of deschooling with some intention. That is, I understood the ‘recommended’ timeframe within which this transition might occur, allowing for some quirks of being a larger family and taking into account individual personalities. We planned, as a family, to simply ‘hang out’ – treat this time as a holiday during which we’d make few plans other than some camping trips and socialising with friends. I knew that breaking free of the structures of the school system would require time and the space for us all to reflect, to be bored and to reconnect with ourselves and each other. It wasn’t difficult because we’d never entertained alot of structure outside of school and it was easy to fill our days with zoo trips, beach holidays, all day park hangs – the way you might approach the summer break.
What I couldn’t have anticipated was that living a life without school, naturally took us on a journey of questioning everything. Of course you can continue to school your children and still question everything. I certainly understand that the majority of families will send their to school either because of a belief that this is the best place for learning or because an alternative cannot fit other aspects of life. But deschooling, or, the intentional act of questioning everything that a schooled system presents to us, can be a useful tool for all families and, in fact, can enable you to advocate for your schooled children by providing the scaffolding through which you will naturally notice and unpack the entire construct of a schooled world.
What you might notice, once immersed in this conscious period of deschooling, is that because your mind is now being untrained, the former framework of your day – and your life as a family – will fall away. Children will no longer need to be woken up at 7am for school; breakfast won’t have to served at 7.15 and lunchboxes can stay packed away in the pantry. You might even eat pancakes on a weekday! The hallmarks of an ordered family life will be challenged; relying on connection and communication to provide the glue rather than external pressures determined by the typical school day schedule; throwing out the routines that were important in guiding your children towards the inevitable – everything is now optional!
Imagine not having to pull your children away from an activity in which they are deeply engaged, in order to get dressed; or stopping the flow of creativity because it’s time to do homework or have a bath. Let your mind see a life where a Marvel movie marathon forms the basis of discussion around social justice and relationships; or where an afternoon spent on Tiktok prompts a conversation about capital punishment or feminism. Deschooling opens the door to seeing value everywhere and learning all around us.
Many families still opt for planned curriculum and certainly deschooling doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But the point is it can! You choose, as a family. You can choose which structures suit your family and which don’t. By embracing a period of transition where everything is on the table but nothing has to be achieved, you are free to explore how your family wants to live and what makes sense to you.
Encouraging your family to ‘do nothing’, even for a while, shows them that how they choose to spend their time holds value which, to a child, naturally extrapolates to them having value!