Deschooling: How Long Does it Take?

Parents should not enroll their children in traditional schools when their children become school-aged, especially public schools, even if they are advocates of public schooling. The reason being is that they do not know what the future holds for their children, and it is easier to go from a self-directed learning environment (e.g., emancipated learning, unschooling) to a schooling environment than vice versa. For example, if one enrolls their child in school and that child later decides to homeschool, the family opens itself up to the very real risk of malicious truancy claims by school officials.[1] Homeschoolers, however, will not be calling the police if your teenage child leaves the local homeschool co-op to enroll in a public high school. The more likely risk parents invite when they enroll their children in traditional schools is that their children’s inborn love of learning will be replaced with a passive resignation that learning is only relevant and worthwhile when it is being measured by people in positions of power.

We live in a society that emphasizes conformity over curiosity, tradition over progress, and authority over liberation. Schools are both a reflection of society and a force that perpetuates the worst of it. Our society and our schools are most forgiving to those who have the most, and most punitive against those who have the least.[2] And while affluent and white students are usually given the benefit of the doubt in terms of grading and discipline relative to low SES students and students of color, all students are reminded every day that they are viewed as incompetent and ignorant, and needing constant direction from adults. Schools do not allow young people to believe that they are able to chart their own course in life. After all, there is a curriculum that the students must conform to. There is only one approved path that students can take, and it is the same path that their peers are expected to take.

The rigid and unforgiving practices and structures of schooling leave students incapable of experiencing true autonomy or intellectual vitality. The learning that matters most is the learning that is mandated for everyone, without concern for the unique needs, goals, interests, and contexts of individual students. The best students are those who subjugate their curiosity to meet the needs of adults who believe that a student’s value is determined by where they rank relative to same-age peers. The worst students are those who get distracted and wander down paths of personal inquiry, or those who engage in acts of resistance in the hope of holding onto a piece of themselves. And the majority of students who make up the center of the bell curve are those who do what is necessary to keep moving along through the conveyor belt of schooling from one grade to another. Most students quickly resign themselves to the reality that their education is not their own. And that leaves most of them helpless when presented with the opportunity to make meaningful decisions about their education. It is this learned helplessness that gave rise to the practice of deschooling as a transition from school to self-directed learning.

Deschooling is the “process of decompression from the effects of school.”[3] It is an adjustment period where parents step back and allow children to be free of all formal schooling activities such as required attendance, readings, journal entries, worksheets, and tests. It allows them to begin to recuperate from a schooling environment that in many ways mimicked the structures and practices of prisons or factory farms. Deschooling also allows children to break away from the schooling mindset and mentality that learning is about performing for adults, and that meaning is dictated as opposed to discovered. It allows them to restructure their concept of learning, and reframe their understanding of their role and responsibility in their own life. Deschooling also allows for rejuvenation, as they rediscover that they can have interests that are worth pursuing for their own sake, as opposed to for the sake of appeasing adults.

For parents who believe that education is about keeping young people busy and engaged, deschooling can be difficult. It asks parents to step back and not interfere with the child for a protected period of time. In this way, parents also go through a period of deschooling.

The general rule of thumb for deschooling is that it should last one month for every year a young person was in traditional school.[4][5] Abrome finds this rule of thumb problematic for three reasons. First, just one year of traditional schooling can do immense harm to a child. One month of freedom is unlikely to be sufficient to allow a first grader to embrace learning again. Second, the effects of schooling compound over time, making it much more difficult to rewire one’s mind after years in traditional school. It is this reason that teenagers who try to move from a schooling environment to a self-directed learning environment often flounder for extended periods of time.[4] And third, every person learns and develops on their own timeline. Just as schools wrongly expect every student to learn by standardized periods of time, it is wrong to expect every formerly schooled child to be able to transition to self-directed learning along a preset period of time.  

A better rule of thumb for deschooling is to step back and wait for them to celebrate their freedom, then get bored of their freedom, and then actively make use of their freedom. At Abrome, we have Learners who came to us from traditional public schools, traditional private schools, alternative private schools, and who have been homeschooled or unschooled their whole lives. Those who have been subjected to the more formal schooling of public and private schools have a much more difficult time deschooling than those who have only had progressive schooling or homeschooling experiences. For these reasons, a 13-year-old who spent eight years in traditional schools may require up to two years to navigate the deschooling process, while a 9-year-old who comes from a more progressive school may only need a couple of months, and a 5-year-old who was never subjected to schooling can transition seamlessly.

It is best for parents to not put their children in a position where they need to deschool in the first place. Extend unschooling beyond the age of five, and allow young people to retain their natural love of learning in a self-directed learning environment through adolescence and into early adulthood. Parents should seek out homeschooling and unschooling groups and cooperatives, or find self-directed learning spaces such as Abrome or democratic schools to enroll their children in. However, for families who enrolled their children in traditional schools because they thought it was the best option at the time, the most important step they can take in the present is to immediately withdraw their children from traditional school and begin the process of deschooling. The longer they leave their children in traditional school, the longer (and more difficult) it is going to take for them to move to a self-directed learning mindset.

 

1.     Every year, there are numerous examples of school districts harassing, threatening, and calling the authorities on families who decide to pull their children out of school to homeschool them. Some parents have even been arrested and have had their children taken from them. The Home School Legal Defense Association often posts about such examples on their website

2.     As both Bryan Stevenson and Immortal Technique have pointed out, you are better off rich and guilty than poor and innocent. Being identified as an ‘other’ in terms of ability, age, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, physical appearance, race, religion, self-expression, sexual orientation, or other identifier often becomes an aggravating factor when it comes to the way society collectively treats someone.

3.     The Homeschooling Option by Lisa Rivero

4.     Summer breaks should not be considered deschooling periods. Many students already see the summer as a season of respite from school, and if we hope to free children from the mindset of schooling, they need to recognize that they are being released from the practices and structures of schooling during periods in which they would normally be in school.