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Photo by William Hall Raine, Photographic Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library
Deschooling in School
Is it possible?

An Introduction

Several years ago, a group of my colleagues and fellow parents formed a group around our shared dissatisfaction with conventional schooling. We decided to develop and submit an application for a charter school based on the idea of trusting young people to make decisions about their own education, a concept that, at that time, I only dreamed might be real.

Deschooling in School

The powers-that-be rejected our application, but I wasn’t ready to give up. While we were researching our application, I learned about and met people who were already running Self-Directed Education programs, such as Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, The Independent Project in Great Barrington, and NorthStar: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland. I knew right away I wanted to do what they were doing and began implementing self-directed learning approaches with my students. My experience changed my practice on a deep, cellular level. I could never be a traditional teacher again. I knew I had to do everything I could to make this approach available to more families in central Massachusetts.

I proposed a program at my high school, but was unwilling to wait for the school administration’s glacial pace of change to “approve” my approach. I joined Liberated Learners, Inc., formed a board, and created my own non-profit, Self-Directed Education program called Ingenuity Hub, Personalized Learning Collaborative. Ingenuity Hub is open and serves Central Massachusetts teens who want to control their own education. While my Board and I grow Ingenuity Hub, I continue to work full-time at a very traditional, comprehensive public high school. But I can no longer play the game. I am committed to helping young people make decisions about what, how, and why to learn. My school administration is very supportive, as are many of my colleagues, though there is powerful institutional antipathy to change.

I have stumbled quite a bit over the past years, and my school district has experienced a lot of political turmoil, which has hampered my efforts. But for the rest of my career, including my time in traditional schooling, I will do what I can to encourage autodidacts in my classroom. I am working to chronicle my attempts to do this in a series of essays called, “Deschooling in School.” The first in the series follows.

The Study

Part 1: Is it possible?

Prisoners released after serving long sentences often struggle to adjust to freedom.

Young people who leave school to pursue other ways of living and learning do too. Most students in traditional, coercive schooling live by this equation:

Education = Obedience1

Learning is a process of doing what they are told—when, how, and where they are told to do it. As with former prisoners, “former schoolers” discover freedom is difficult. Prisoners are denied the simple freedoms we take for granted. What to do with our free time. When to eat. When to sleep or exercise. Upon release, former prisoners often experience significant difficulties making these decisions. Students in conventional schooling, too, are not permitted to make decisions about their own learning. When they find themselves free to make those decisions, they often cannot. Struggling with freedom is a very personal experience, and no two people react in exactly the same way.

Deschooling in School

When coercion is removed, and young people are “allowed” to learn what, how, and why they want, they often don’t know what to do, at first. They need time to figure out how to live and learn freely. Many in the Self-Directed Education movement call this process deschooling.

It is a powerful experience. I don’t have to go to school ever again... Now what? This question leads young people to amazing places. Those who run Self-Directed Education programs know this, and are comfortable “allowing” kids as much time as they need to figure things out for themselves. We know this investment in time yields huge dividends in confidence and real learning. Once kids start deciding what, how, and why to learn, no one can stop them.

However, right now my students and I find ourselves in a very peculiar situation: we are attempting to engage in self-directed learning WHILE still within the confines of a coercive schooling environment.

We have one period a day during which we can each decide what, how, and why we want to learn. We have added a struggle on top of a struggle:

Can we deschool while in school?

This is a real question, and as of yet, we do not know the answer. Are we a tiny island of freedom surrounded by a sea of roiling, overpowering tides? Or are we kidding ourselves? Are we really just a “yard” within the walls of an educational prison?

Can we deschool while in school? Some days, it seems like, yes, sure, of course we can! During this one period of the day, WE are in control of our own learning. We learn what we want, how we want, and for reasons of our own choosing. After all, no one can prevent us from learning what we want to learn.

Other days, though, we are not so confident. The regular process of deschooling is usually done in the context of a shift in one’s whole life. “Former schoolers” are former schoolers; they leave the conventions of schooling behind, and must face the challenge of freedom immediately: I don’t have to go to school anymore! Um... now what do I do? Former schoolers must confront the fact that school rules, grading systems, assignments, seating charts, rubrics, course requirements, quizzes, tests, discipline policies, and all the other aspects of coercive schooling are simply tools of their own educational imprisonment. These things were imposed on them by well-meaning people who do not trust them or believe in their innate, intrinsic, human ability to learn. They are shackles, not on their ankles and wrists, but on their own perception of themselves as learners. No tests? No homework? No grades? How can I learn without those things? That’s deschooling: learning how to walk away once the shackles that they unknowingly wore for 8-11 years are removed.

My students are not former schoolers. Can we take the shackles off for an hour a day and then voluntarily put them back on in order to “learn” algebra or chemistry or poetry?

Deschooling in School

It’s still early in our experiment. Some young people are eager to take the shackles off, and may be finding that once off, they can never be put back on. This may mean they withdraw from school and seek out alternatives. It may mean they stay in school but resist more actively. Those in power may forcibly attempt to re-apply the shackles, but once a young person’s mind is free, it can never fully be chained again.

Others are struggling beautifully in their hour of freedom a day, pulling at the shackles but unable to remove them. They “do nothing” for an hour because they are free to, but may never see their freedom as anything more than that because they cannot overcome so many years of educational imprisonment. Others refuse to believe that they are shackled at all, and I do not blame them. Being forced to learn things might work on some levels for some kids. Maybe they do learn just fine that way.

(But I suspect that at some level, they decided to learn the way their jailers commanded them to learn, so they are self-directed learners, too. They just don’t know it. And I worry most about them. What will they do when they encounter this new, emerging world that requires them to identify entirely new problems and figure out entirely new solutions using technology, ingenuity, and skills that their jailers cannot teach them?)

I hope to write more soon about our experiment, and to have a clearer answer to the question, “Can we deschool in school?” I am hopeful, but realistic. My hope lies in the good nature of most educators, who I believe will see the benefits of this approach which seems so counterintuitive to them right now. When they see that this works, I believe they will begin to provide more time and space for more kids to get through the deschooling process and out the other end. I want kids to believe that nothing can prevent them from learning what, how, and why they want to learn, but the kids tell me, “Yes, Mr. Lane, there’s one thing that can: school.”

Maybe they’re right. I hope they’re wrong.


[1] A student suggested I have that backwards. “It should say Obedience = Education,” he said.