Photo Courtesy Kris Richards
We are midway through 2020, and struggling through a pandemic-fueled economic crash exacerbated by the federal government’s inadequate “stimulus” efforts. At the same time, U.S. society heaves with a sense of racial awareness and civic responsibility sparked by continual police killings of Americans. Against this traumatic backdrop, this spring’s pivot to online, at-home learning for more than 55 million K-12 students in the U.S. might seem like a benign scheduling challenge, especially for middle- and upper-class households — a “new normal” to navigate in the ongoing COVID-19 world.But the seemingly benign has brought bigger problems to light. Outrageously underfunded public school districts have struggled to provide basic online lessons, and some families went months waiting for guidance on remote schooling. The digital divide was laid bare, as some districts scrambled to distribute laptops, tablets and wifi hotspots for unconnected families, while others simply recommended that teachers and students alike park near hotspots so they could teach or attend online school in their cars.
Beyond the inequities of digital access, the U.S. public education system has been failing children for decades. Systemic racism and colonialism is baked into the standard curriculum, and the biases of majority white-administered schools are on display, whether those biases are unconscious, supported by district-approved textbooks or enshrined in law.
“Being schooled in a school rooted in white supremacy affects every single thing we do,” says Mojisola Yaï, a parent and deep thinker on education. “We have to become more mindful about how that schooling has affected us.”
That mindfulness began long before the COVID-19 crisis took hold, and today it powers a quiet revolution playing out in the backyards and front stoops of American life during this time of civil transformation. As more and more people across the nation call for an end to institutionalized racism, the realization is that for equity to take root, every level of our society needs to change. Institutions that perpetuate white supremacy, including schools, will need to change or be abolished in their current form.
And although the idea of abolishing schools in their current form might inspire some “What about the children?” pearl-clutching, Yaï and other parents in this country and around the world have already embraced a potential solution: self-directed education (SDE). SDE is an umbrella term for different types of education — often determined by the self-chosen activities and interests of the young person. Unschooling is one type, as are democratic schools such as Sudbury schools and Agile Learning Centers (ALCs) (many have sliding scales for tuition), and the intentional learning community. Within unschooling, there are home-based methods as well as travel-based — learning through cultures and language. Some people join homeschooling collectives to unschool. Some SDE parents point to robust library systems, such as Dayton Public Library, as excellent, community-based places to bring children to learn.
For parents who have embraced this approach, the challenge is to change not just how we educate and learn, but to transform the interior and exterior landscapes of our lives. Many start by “de-schooling” themselves. As the relationship with themselves, and with their children, grows, it becomes apparent our cities must transform too, to create space for children of all classes and backgrounds to learn and grow, in safe and healthy ways.
The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. — Albert Einstein
COVID-19 related school closures in the United States have affected more than 124,000 public and private schools. This spring, parents and caregivers scrambled to find last-minute childcare and switch to schooling their kids at home. Suddenly, people everywhere were “homeschooling,” and despite the immediate stress of the life-altering change, and harsh words of caution from a Harvard Law professor that unregulated homeschooling is dangerous, 40% of parents now say they are more likely to homeschool when the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Look closely at the state of public education, and it’s not hard to see why. Gross inequities saturate the public school system. Public schools often resemble prisons — and in fact are often designed by the same groups of architects. The school-to-prison pipeline has been a fact of life in the United States for decades. And new evidence shows that police murders are doing harm within schools, often by labeling the young, traumatized neighbors of the victim with the debilitating stigma of “emotional disturbance.”
“I see [SDE] as a form of collective liberation,” Akilah Richards says. “Because you are free to be who you are — not who you need to be to fit into the system.”
Photo courtesy Kris Richards
(Above: A BIPOC Homeschoolers and Unschoolers meetup in Inglewood, California.)
No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era landmark legislation that was supposed to lift every child in America up, has enabled more and more children to fall into the ever-widening chasm between the children in communities with resources, and those without, notes Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College. “A lot of what are called reforms are justified primarily by trying to reduce that gap, in test scores, finishing a high school degree. What’s interesting is everything that has been done within public education [to achieve that] has been unsuccessful.”
Maleka Diggs, founder of Eclectic Learning Network, based in Philadelphia, says the pandemic has forced a reset in our lives. “People are frustrated. Angry. Tired… It’s political, racism, and education. I realized it’s not the school — it’s the system. I realized it’s not the principal, it’s the principles [the system] was upholding. Yes our learning institutions are ridiculously overcrowded and test-driven. [But] even if those numbers are evened out, the curriculum is still in place.”
“For so many in Black culture, the way that we identify success and validation is through how much we produce or perform, and that goes back to enslavement, [when] our safety relied on how much we produced,” says Akilah Richards, the co-founder of Raising Free People and board member of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. “There is a genetic and social imprint,” of that. To look at children solely as their capacity to produce and perform in school perpetuates that imprint, she explains. What if we don’t focus on classroom performance, or on obtaining degrees, but on what each person’s brilliance is?
“I see that as a form of collective liberation,” Richards says. “Because you are free to be who you are — not who you need to be to fit into the system.”
“Inequity is not only tied to money, it’s tied to the side effects of not feeling seen or heard,” Richards continues. It’s “what you’re willing to accept because you feel fearful or limited.”
Yaï is an unschooling parent from Benin whose American education experience began when she came to this country at age 8 and ultimately brought her to unschooling. Her reason for unschooling is rooted in decolonization. “The whole society is based on, rooted in, oppressive culture — oppressing the person smaller or different and we do it over and over again without realizing it,” she says.
In Africa, she says, schools are an obvious extension of the colonizer’s agenda. She points to how colonizers forced Indigenous people into religious schools, forced them to learn their language, forced them to adopt Christian names. All of these things happened to her father in French-occupied Benin. Yet, she just as likely could be speaking of Indigenous peoples and immigrants in the U.S. During the 19th and well into the 20th century, official U.S. policy was to force young Native Americans into residential schools, and to force them to take Christian names and speak English. Students were violently punished for speaking their Native languages. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was the mantra of this type of education for decades. And the policy wasn’t limited to Natives. Mexican-Americans were also forced to assimilate throughout the 20th century.
That punishment — and perspective — extends especially to students of color, inside and outside of the classroom. “What happens [in schools] is there are assumptions that are made that if you are Black you’re not going to perform as well, and [that can become] a self-fulfilling prophecy,” notes Gray. “African-American children are punished more severely than white children within school just as they are outside of school.”
“We’re food for a system of oppression,” says Richards. “We end up embodying aspects of the system and spreading it through schoolishness. It’s not just the classroom and the building. It’s the philosophies that school indoctrinates in us. The traits are [forced upon us in] school, but we deal with them everywhere.”
Is it any wonder that parents seek other ways to educate their children?
Pat Farenga, President of Holt Growing Without Schooling (GWS), and co-author of the John Holt Book of Homeschooling 2003, notes that attending school is a modern idea that separates children from adults.
The original impetus for public education, notes Farenga, was to teach the King James Bible. (Have you ever noticed how a classroom’s desks line up like pews, with the teacher at the front lecturing the way a preacher would?) From there, widespread education became a tool for assimilating immigrants. “The idea was that all these Irish Catholics and the Chinese working on the railroads needed to be Americanized, and taught a curriculum to make them American.”
Over time, mass public education became a tool of capitalism, a pipeline that prepared people for factory work. The ringing of the bell to switch classes echoed the ringing of the bell on the factory line. A “factory of learning” was meant to create obedient workers. Schools, Farenga says, became “places of control, where you learn to be controlled.”
School as a place where young people gain access to education sounds lovely, says Diggs. But the reality is that persistent racism and gender discrimination characterizes a system that was not created for everyone. That the only way for Black folks to “make it” is to acquiesce to a highly colonized system, she explains, causes Black Americans to be, for generations, “tethered to the point where we lose our culture, we lose our identity.” The system, she says, has been “pedestalized.”
“No matter how I feel about institutionalized education, being forced into something you didn’t ask for is gut wrenching,” says Diggs. “In no way would I want to push [unschooling] on any one. But if you have deep questions and you are already unsure, the pandemic is the catalyst for change.”
“Everyone is saying ‘now we are forced to homeschool,’” says Richards. “It’s important to recognize what’s happening now isn’t homeschooling. It’s crisis schooling.”
Homeschooling, Richards says, is a deliberate decision, and often starts by bringing the classwork into the home. Tiffany Sandoval, co-president of the Homeschool Association of California, says she is hearing from more and more parents ready to make the change to homeschooling for the 2020-2021 academic year. In the past, she’s seen parents turn to homeschooling for religious reasons, for example when California decided to reform its teachings in public schools on sex education. Other parents turned to homeschooling when the state passed a new vaccination law. And some parents have turned to homeschooling when they realized other children in their child’s class were heavily medicated. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 388,000 children ages 2-5 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and 7 million carry the diagnosis between ages 6-17. Seventy-five percent of these children are medicated, often for other ailments as well, such as anxiety.) Often, says Sandoval, the turn to homeschooling is preceded by a tour through other options: public schools, charter schools, Montessori, Waldorf. Sandoval herself went through that with her daughter, noting, “I knew the light in her eye was going out, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Parents often start by following a traditional homeschool curriculum. That can range from a highly regulated (and highly colonized) course of study to programs with a strong religious orientation (heavy on creationism) to customized programs with a hefty price tag that give parents the illusion of action. This generally continues for about two years, as parents realize that the school work too often manifests as busywork. As the relationship with the child grows, the parent notices the child’s interests, and often starts finding ways to feed them. Education then becomes a conversation between parent and child. Sandoval says rarely is the move to unschooling a straight line from school. It’s usually a progression.
Unschooling goes beyond a method to follow and rather is a lifestyle to live, It makes room for a child to know they are responsible for their learning, and that they have partners who will support them. It is never pre-determined and is inclusive of the learner’s consent and interest.
Photo courtesy Decolonise Unconference Organizers
(Above: Maleka Diggs, founder of Eclectic Learning Network, leads a discussion around community building at the 2019 Decolonise Unconference in Soweto, South Africa.)
Almost every expert interviewed for this article points out that the child needs time to get out of “schooled” mode. The first year becomes a “deschooling” process — estimate for every year the child has been in school, they need a month to decompress, to trust their house isn’t going to turn into a school. For some young people, it can take longer to recover from the oppression, the bullying, and the trauma they encountered at school.
While homeschooling presupposes learning requirements, unschooling is void of a predetermined curricula: Learning is natural. Schooling is a choice. Learning is always happening; it’s schoolish adults who believe that learning looks like identifiable, data-driven metrics, or sitting quietly in a classroom as one would at church.
Sandoval thinks of it as having options. For her youngest, who is self-motivated and driven, self-directed learning is great. But both Sandoval and her middle child, a teenage son, have realized the same rules do not apply to him that would apply to the children of her white friends. Those white children, she says, might not need a degree — but for her son and other young people of color, the degree can be the key to a door that is too often closed to communities of color.
Unschooling, says Diggs, goes beyond a method to follow and rather is a lifestyle to live, making room for a child to know they are responsible for their learning, and that they have partners who will support them. It is never pre-determined and is inclusive of the learner’s consent and interest.
“For me it’s very important kids know [school] is a choice,” stresses Yaï. “That’s part of unschooling. It’s a choice. Not a must.”
Sandoval works closely with the immigrant community, and notes that immigrants often carry both an entrepreneurial spirit and a huge responsibility to elevate the family with education. “Self-directed education and unschooling can work to prevent the programming that happens in school: that [the student] can’t question, that they need permission,” she notes. But being outside of the school system runs the risk of denying the young person the same opportunities as students within the system. While self-directed education is “meant to help, not harm,” Sandoval notes that telling that to a community that is already harmed might be preemptively dismissive.
School, then, can be a useful tool depending on the child. “If you are coming from an economically and educationally deprived home, you won’t have the same opportunity as you would in other elements of social class,” says Gray. “Are there books in the home? Are [family members] involved in the community in positive ways? [Unschooling] works well when it’s a family well-connected with culture at large, and parents feel confident they are able to help their child learn. If your parents aren’t in that, then you have less opportunity to be exposed to kinds of experiences [you need] to rise out of poverty.”
Sandoval points out that many homeless and undocumented immigrant families have been unschooling out of necessity for years: Already excluded from the system, or even in hiding, children in these families are still learning and figuring out the world, often with the support of extended family or community, and without the laptops, tablets, and broadband internet of their more resourced peers. They are still able to flourish. Indeed, homeless families are often known at public libraries.
Forty-nine percent of low-income households have no access to the internet at home, and the US continues to struggle with the digital divide. For example, seventy percent of children in Detroit have no access to the internet at home. Libraries and learning centers can help young people get the skills they need to navigate the digital realm.
Gray suggests other solutions can be found in centers rooted in self-directed education, such as the Agile Learning Centers or Sudbury schools, where kids aren’t segregated by age, and where the learning resources range from books to games to computers to a woodworking shop, gardens and a kitchen. Field trips are encouraged, and fees are accessible and based on ability to pay. They provide a wide range of options for self-directed learning, and provide students with a pressure-free space to discover what they want to learn — and how they learn best.
“In theory, this kind of education is even more valuable for those coming from underprivileged backgrounds,” notes Gray. “We don’t have enough experience to test statistically, but enough anecdotally to say it works well.”
Sandoval notes that some perspectives are often missing from SDE conversations — the voices of Indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ and single-parent families, as well as families of kids with special needs (such as those who are deaf). In each of those communities, SDE will likely look different than it will in other communities, and what works for one might not work for the others. For example, young people in an Indigenous community might learn their own language, culture, and traditions, such as agriculture, and are likely expected to follow their elders’ guidance and direction. Yet in white SDE communities, the child’s interests often come first. “When you’re unschooling from a white perspective, you have to find the ‘yes’ — but there have to be hard ‘no’s,’” says Sandoval.
These differences also surface in community: White parents may be at a loss as to how to both work from home and facilitate learning with their children, while some families will turn to their families and communities instinctually for collaboration and support.
Richards notes the pandemic and nationwide rebellions have presented the opportunity to get back to our communities. “There are communal ways of being together that we forget about,” says Richards — ways we can turn to now, both to unschool and to restore relationships as young people continue to learn.
Farenga suggests letting your child’s opinion count—what do they want to read? To learn? To do? Then providing children with access to materials, and providing them with people who can answer their questions when they are asked. Who in your family or community has hobbies, skills or a profession that lends itself to teaching the young people something they want to learn? He gives an example of the Anatomy Coloring Book, which he used with his own kids and their fellow SDE students. They wanted to learn more, so one of the other parents asked a chiropractor they knew to teach them. It turned into six weeks of learning with the chiropractor. Farenga says it might require thinking outside the box, but why can’t a chiropractor teach your child anatomy? Or an accountant teach them math? If you don’t know anyone, expand your social network, or turn to groups like Diggs’, which can help coordinate programs and learning opportunities for your children. Finding the support for your child might actually support you more, too.
Mojisola Yaï and her daughter, Sena. Unschooling, Yaï says, “removes you from the system. You can start building relationships, rather than fitting them into the slots society has given to you.” (Photo courtesy Mojisola Yaï)
SDE, then, creates an opportunity to get off the conveyor belt of education and reconnect with family and community, and creates an opportunity for identifying who can help your child learn. It gets back to a way of learning that has served humanity until very recently.
Another option is to identify local learning centers, which may even teach them more about democracy than kids learn in public schools. “You can’t overcome a hierarchical authoritarian mentality if you are growing up in a school system that embraces it,” notes Gray. At both ALCs and Sudbury schools, rules are determined democratically, so every student, regardless of age, has one vote, notes Gray. This way, the student has experience with democracy, not top-down control. Giving students a voice in making the rules empowers them.
“I see it as healing work,” says Richards. “What it means to be together and own ourselves. It’s recognizing how we oppress others. It is communal and non-hierarchical. It’s about ancient collaborative ways of being, that have nothing to do with being rich and white.”
For Richards, this is a prime opportunity to exercise the skills inherent in unschooling, such as intergenerational relationship building. School teaches segregation by age, and this in turn plays out well into the workplace later in life — one needs to only look at the gap of understanding and lack of relationships among generations of workers to see how learned ageism is passed down and used as a tool of bullying into adulthood and later in life.
The deschooling journey is lifelong, with young people in your life growing and maturing just as you are. The idea is to come to those relationships with respect. Otherwise, “we reduce education to a transactional thing about employment,” notes Farenga.
Yet education is not the solution to racism, notes scholar Ibram X Kendi. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion,” he says. “The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural [self-interest].”
“A lot of people agree that the education system in the U.S. is not a good one and that it is one rooted in white supremacy,” says Yaï. Unschooling, she says, lets you observe how it shows up in your life and in relationships.
What we call self-directed education is, in fact, how children learned for thousands of years, outside of the Eurocentric notion of what it means to be ‘learned.’ The idea that the COVID-19 crisis has created “a lost generation of knowledge,” notes Farenga, is “such bullshit.”
Advocates point out that while society values the degree, one can obtain a degree and still not know how to read. In fact, 19% of high school graduates are illiterate.
If self-directed education still inspires discomfort, it might be helpful to remember that Henry Ford only occasionally attended class when he wasn’t working on his family’s farm; Amelia Earhart was homeschooled; and Louis Armstrong stopped attending school in the 5th grade.
Yaï’s daughter Sena, 10-and-a-half, liked her time at U.S. school — except, she tells Next City, for the “small” stuff, “like people getting in trouble, or getting suspended.” For her, going to school in Benin was also challenging, because classes were conducted in French — not her first language. Yet Sena speaks fluent English, Yoruba, a bit of Japanese and Fon, in addition to some French.
“I like how I am learning now,” she says of her self-directed education. “Mostly I learn stuff by asking questions, watching stuff, seeing stuff. And books. I like to read. And sometimes games.”
Sena says she wants to be a digital artist or a scientist, and is currently interested in learning more about the brain and anatomy.
When Yaï sent Sena to school in Africa, she wanted her to see the difference between Africa and the U.S. In Africa, it’s more strict. Still, “teachers have all the power in both places. Teachers are allowed to hit the kids,” Yaï notes. In the U.S., corporal punishment is legal in the public schools of 19 states.
When Yaï realized that both systems were deeply rooted in colonialism and oppression, she decided to unschool in both places.
“Equity isn’t the goal,” Yaï stresses. “With unschooling you can be as oppressive as you want to be.” The key, for her, is to think critically about why you would choose to unschool.
“The unschooling that I think we all need to do, that would provide equity, has to do more with relationships than with learning,” says Yaï. “For me, it’s seeing my relationship with my daughter, and how I use my power over her. I am bigger than her. I birthed her. She looks up to me. She is more likely to do what I say. And so being careful about how I use that power, and being observant about how she responds to that power dynamic, translates how I navigate power dynamics between myself and others.”
When you focus on those power dynamics, explains Yaï, and not on micromanaging the household and controlling the people and kids around you, you also notice how people do that to you. You notice how you do that to others outside the household. Then you see it at work in society writ large. Unschooling, Yaï says, “removes you from the system. You can start building relationships, rather than fitting them into the slots society has given to you.”
A child’s “socialization” is often used as an argument against unschooling and in favor of a classroom environment. Yet self-directed education highlights social issues that extend beyond white supremacy: Many people who came through “official” educational channels do not have knowledge of self, do not practice self-care, and do not have leadership skills. Most do not ask questions, lack their own time management skills, and many don’t even know what they are genuinely interested in. Schooling is structured in a way that does not cultivate these skills in most people.
“Everyone is saying ‘now we are forced to homeschool,’ It’s important to recognize what’s happening now isn’t homeschooling. It’s crisis schooling.”
The primary thing kids miss about school, says Gray, is seeing friends. According to his research, that’s the main reason kids want to go back to school now. Parents, then, need to find ways to bring their children’s friends together, online at least, so kids can play and learn how to solve their own problems — which is what children have been deprived of for decades: The opportunity to self-govern.
One of Gray’s projects, Let Grow, works with cities to help them become welcoming of children in public spaces. “Children learn to be adults by solving their own problems,” says Gray. “For thousands of years, this has been what children do. [Being] outdoors, playing and exploring with other children. It’s where they learn the most important things, working with others, [when] you’re confident in doing things yourself.”
Let Grow promotes a culture where kids can navigate their community safely and independently — a place where they can walk to the library alone, play in the park, walk on sidewalks. This is something cities should address actively to overcome the culture of fear, he says.
“Over my lifetime … there’s been a continuous decline in children’s freedom to be in public spaces, and I think that’s had a debilitating impact,” notes Gray. “That’s why we’re seeing record levels of depression and anxiety; we’ve deprived them of being children.”.
Gray doesn’t completely discount the dangers of what has come to be known as “free-range parenting” in cities. In most neighborhoods, he says, the biggest problem is traffic. “There’s always been traffic in cities. But kids were [still] out playing in the park. Teach them to be careful about traffic. If it keeps being a problem, then something needs to be done about traffic.”
For parents worried about the bogeymen they imagine lurking in the shadows, from pedophiles to drug dealers, Gray points out that statistically, overall crime has decreased significantly from where it was in the early 1990s. At a time when the culture of fear has ratcheted up, many places are safer today than in years past. Incidents of strangers grabbing kids off the street are rarer than TV crime dramas would have you believe: According to RAINN, 93% of children know their abuser; and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children states that non-family abductions are very rare, comprising only 1% of all missing children cases reported each year. If there are concerns — about crime, about drug dealers — some places have addressed these issues successfully with interventions that do not involve police, including the legalization and regulation of drugs and creating a more equitable economic environment.
As Gray works with cities to become more child-friendly, parents, students and people nationwide look for new ways to decolonize our society — to eliminate white supremacy and to change how we conceive and practice everything from policing to education to work and communication. And while there is no easy cure-all to the problems we face, acknowledging those problems and supporting others in trying to change them is something we can all do in our daily lives. Accepting that communities of color, Indigenous, and immigrant communities might need more resources or might need to approach unschooling from different perspectives is also important.
Sandoval says there is no perfect way to undertake self-directed education or unschooling. The important part, she says, is “being 100% into whatever you’re doing.”
Self-directed education can be about “unlearning and building new systems and collaborating. Live and let live, and learn from different things and make space for other people,” says Yaï. “That’s how it will change the world.”
And as these powerful shifts take place, there is a question Richards regularly asks herself that may be wise for all of us to ask, in all our relationships: “How am I in the way of someone else’s right to be free?”
Valerie Vande Panne is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow and a freelance writer. She travels extensively throughout the United States. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, and Politico, among many other outlets. She is a former news editor of High Times magazine, and the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times.