Democratic Schools

A response to The Atlantic's article on Finding Your Passion

"Passions aren’t 'found,' they’re developed." That's what Carol Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford argue in a recent Atlantic article by Olga Khazan.

We've been slow to repost this article because we wanted to make sure we responded to it appropriately. And here it is (stream of consciousness almost, so it will be to the point).

First, Dweck's (and others') research that primes a participant to be fixed or growth minded in the moment is not very compelling in terms of suggesting how those participants actually tackle real world challenges.

That aside, I believe that a level of intellectual inquiry, or curiosity about the world is far more informative and relevant than a so-called growth mindset orientation. And growth mindset orientation may be better understood by the term self-efficacy.

Second, and more importantly, what is it that puts people in Dweck's stated growth mindset versus that of the fixed mindset? She, unsurprisingly, centers much her argument, research, and thinking on what parents and schools can do to help promote a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset among young children and young people. But it is the school environment that pushes so many from a natural, inborn growth mindset orientation to that of a fixed one. This is because schools tell them that they are of a certain level of competency, intelligence, work ethic - and they know this because they are tested, graded, and ranked accordingly. So I agree with Dweck on avoiding sending the message to students that they are fixed mindset oriented, but in order to do so one would have to withdraw children from any age-segregated, standardized, testing based, grading based, ranking based school. And to do so for all children means removing them from 99.9% of all schools (democratic, free schools, and self-directed education centers are the exception), and that is just the starting point.

Third, what is it about her so-called growth mindset that allows people to explore a variety of interests in order for them to find a new one? In a school-based society that requires a teacher, expert, or authority figure to introduce an opportunity to someone already having a growth mindset for them to identify that new interest to chase down. But that's absurd on multiple levels. One, the diversity of opportunities far exceed what any curriculum could ever expose any student two. Two, the best way to be introduced to possible interest areas are in meaningful, real world ways. For example, do you think someone is going to get excited about Astronomy by being introduced to a video as part of a class, or do you think that they might become more excited by going to an observatory, meeting an astronomer, or having the opportunity to stare into the night sky through a telescope? Three, people tend to get excited when they see their peers exhibiting interests. What do we get at schools? The most interested students are interested in getting straight As and getting ahead. There is no time for genuine interests. What they need is lots of free time, access to a large variety of opportunities that are not limited by curriculum, and lots of multi-age (meaning not just their age) peers to interact with.

The article goes on to say that "with the right help, most people can get interested in almost anything. Before the age of 8, she said, kids will try anything. Between the ages of 8 and 12, they start to compare themselves with others and become insecure if they’re not as good as their peers at something." Then it says, "That’s when educators have to start to find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects." This should be a red flag to everyone who reads the article! Why do kids start to compare themselves to each other ... in school? It's because of school! Educators don't have to "find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects." What educators need to do is get out of the way and stop pushing them into certain subjects where they are going to be compared to one another!

The article ends asking the question of "how to cultivate a “growth” mind-set in the young, future-psychology-experiment subjects of America?" Their answer was terrible. "If you’re a parent, you can avoid dropping new hobbies as soon as they become difficult." As we've made clear many times, you can also avoid dropping your children into standardized, age-segregated, testing and ranking based environments.

Finally, I agree that "find your passion" or "find your genius" is terrible advice. No person is preordained with a particular passion or genius. It is only through our experiences and interactions with the world that we are able to determine the degree to which we may want to leverage our individual differences toward certain endeavors.


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. 

Election 2016: Democracy and Education

It is Election Day 2016, and as I look around at Abrome, I recognize that the people in our community who will be most impacted by this election are the ones who are too young to vote. Our Learning Coaches (the adults) each voted early, although I would be willing to bet that none of them did so enthusiastically. No matter what your political affiliation or orientation, I think most of us can agree that the 2016 election has brought out the worst in many, and that it highlights some glaring flaws in the American political system.

First and foremost, the political system is not democratic by any means. As I previously alluded to, not everyone has a say in who is elected. Children, high numbers of the infirm or mentally disabled, many homeless, most incarcerated felons, many ex-felons, residents of US territories, and foreign nationals are locked out of the process, even though they most often feel the brunt of public policy decisions.

Among those who can vote, the process is still not truly democratic. Voter turnout issues aside, a vote in New Hampshire carries more weight than a vote in Wisconsin, which carries more weight than a vote in California. This is a function of the Electoral College, and clearly violates the notion of “one person, one vote.” And even if all votes were equal, those who directly and heavily contribute to candidates have an outsized influence on the policy positions that those candidates take once in office.

Add on top of the undemocratic nature of these elections from the people’s perspective, the two-party system that has a tight grip on the electoral process makes the notion of democracy in politics a laughable one. The parties are semi-private organizations that cater to a tiny number of powerful constituencies that are out of step with the majority of Americans, but the overwhelming majority of voters believe that they must fall in line behind one of the main party candidates on Election Day.

So what does this have to do with education? Considering that schools are a key tool used to prepare young people for engagement in society, a considerable amount. Unfortunately, the roles current students are being trained to hold in society are not nearly as idealistic as we have been led to believe. Fundamental to the purpose of schooling was a sorting function to create different classes of people, most of which were to serve at the convenience of those who controlled society. While the makeup of the people who control society has evolved, and while there is a greater possibility for mobility from the lowest classes to the controlling classes today than when the schools were created, from a functional perspective modern day schools further entrench disparities instead of serving as a great equalizer. And as noted before, inequality is incompatible with true democracy.

There is a nation-wide collection of “Democratic Schools” that argues that by creating democratic settings in the schoolhouse, where every child has as much of a say as every adult, that we can create a democratic society where the people take control of the political machine. Although we love Democratic Schools, we disagree with this hypothesis.

Democracy is not a silver bullet solution to our problems, as any black man in East Texas or any homeless man in the streets of San Francisco might be able to attest to. Democracy in its worst form allows for the minority to be abused by the majority. It is essential that an enlightened society respect the rights of all people, in spite of biases and privilege. While we agree that there is tremendous value to be gained by giving young people as much of a voice as adults in schools—promoting democracy in education does not solve the problems of the status quo, and in many ways it serves as a distraction.

So how can education get us to a better future? Three powerful ways it can move us there are (1) by promoting empathy within the populace, (2) by creating an informed, thoughtful populace that is not easily moved by false promises or dogmatic rhetoric, and (3) by allowing all members of society to believe they can improve the human condition.

First, many of the problems of our political system revolve around a fear or hatred of the other. These manifest themselves most powerfully in an anti- stance against entire communities such as black people, immigrants, Muslims, Jewish people, people with mental illness, the homeless, drug users, and people who identify as LGBTQ, among others. Politicians recognize this fear and often times play on it, promising policies that will directly harm these groups so that the bulk of voters can feel safer in the status quo.

An Emancipated Learning environment that embraces diversity of people, ages, and ideologies would directly undermine the divisions that require a lack of empathy to sustain. When people are introduced to those they are told to be scared of, they quickly recognize that we are all far more alike than we are different. Diversity brings tremendous value to our lives in terms of enrichment, creativity, and connection. The age diversity component of empathy building cannot be emphasized enough. In most schools we segregate children by age, taking away a critical opportunity for them to develop empathy by way of caring for those who are younger than them.

Second, our current political system requires a largely uniformed or apathetic populace. This may sound pessimistic, but it is easily affirmed by looking at what politicians promise and what their donors advocate, and comparing them with the decisions politicians make once in office. While society is much better off now than it was a century ago, there are still large swaths of the American populace that are marginalized or oppressed by the political and private institutions that most accept as necessary. An informed populace that also has empathy for marginalized and oppressed communities would not tolerate the current structure of society.

An Emancipated Learning environment, free of a status quo promoting standardized curriculum, and free of hierarchical structures that demand subservience, allows Learners to seek truth in their world. It allows them to question narratives that are presented to them, and to have the courage to seek out alternative explanations, or novel solutions. These people are far less likely to be moved by empty promises or exaggerated threats.

Third, our political system is tailored to appeal to the belief that we cannot improve the world around us. We are left to look for saviors who will come in and manipulate the political institutions to organize society in a way that benefits us, most often at the expense of others. It is not a system that encourages people to try to create a better society for themselves. It tells people that a vote every several years is how one performs their civic duty, while suggesting that how they spend the rest of their lives is irrelevant (except when politicians decide to alter their daily behavior for the benefit of others). 

An Emancipated Learning environment would reject the notion that our value can be captured in a vote. Instead, it would remind us that we can all lead remarkable lives—lives in which we have a positive impact on the communities around us. It allows us to realize that we can be happy, healthy, and serve others so that we can all be better off. And these people are the ones who do not need to rely on the established institutions that have left them virtually powerless.

On Election Day 2016, our Learners are unable to vote on the person who is going to have an outsized impact on their lives over the next decade, for better or worse. But far more importantly, they are in an educational environment that allows them to recognize that they can transcend the limitations of electoral politics. These Learners know that they can purposefully and directly improve the human condition.


Photo: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominees (Wikipedia)