Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a new wave of homeschooling parents, I’ve heard the following sentence repeated over and over: If I didn’t make my child do stuff, they’d basically do nothing and learn nothing all day. This has been a lot of people’s justification for why school exists, and why their children need to go back there ASAP.
Superficially, it’s almost compelling. I’m sure this statement, taken at face value, resonated with or made sense to many people. Lockdown was so tough on families – many parents were frustrated and overwhelmed, and many children probably took it as an opportunity to do what may have looked like nothing instead of their online learning programs, or the homeschooling their parents had planned. But if those parents, teachers and experts had dug a little deeper, they would have realized that what those young people were doing, and what they, as primary carers, could also have been doing, had a name: deschooling.
When I de-registered my children from school in March 2020, I also labored under the misapprehension that we didn’t really need to deschool. I read John Holt’s books when I was pregnant with my now 9-year old, and since then I’ve been pretty sold on the idea that self-directed home education, or unschooling, is how my children, and in fact our entire family, would live our best life. One day. But then, around age 5 and 3 respectively, both my children went to a Montessori preschool, and after that a progressive school. This made sense at the time; we moved from the UK to Hong Kong to Washington DC to Dubai all in the span of 4 years, I was tired, then I was ill, and school served a very specific purpose. Still, I read and educated myself on homeschooling, thinking maybe one day it would make sense for us (read: I would have the guts to do it).
And then Covid-19 hit, and schools where we live closed; faced with a program of online learning, I thought to myself, It’s now or never. We’re homeschooling. And even though I’d read all about deschooling, I figured that we were self-directed at heart, and I’d read all the books, and we didn’t need to deschool. Because the thing was, I also didn’t realize that the main deschooler would have to be me (because I was “sold” on it, remember?). I thought, Well I’m all deschooled and ready to go, the kids will follow my lead. I wasn’t planning on recreating school at home, and I was sure they were going to love it.
Thinking back now, I’m not sure how I could have missed the mark so badly. We launched into home education with timetables and textbooks and a Math curriculum and all the things. And after a single week of it, the shit really hit the fan. My eldest declared she hated the schedule, she hated journaling (which I was attempting to make them do every day), and most of all she HATED homeschooling. She drew a picture of us homeschooling and a huge X over it (she now claims she doesn’t remember this). When I saw it, I died a little inside, but it was so funny I also had to laugh. And I had to think, Ok, we’re clearly doing this all wrong. I wish someone had tapped me on the shoulder at that point and whispered in my ear: Because Deschooling. But sadly no one did, and I had to come to that conclusion way more slowly and painfully.
Deschooling is basically an “adjustment period”1 between de-registering from school, or any other form of rigid, adult-led education and starting Self-Directed Education or unschooling. Blake Boles, in his book Why are you still sending your kids to school?, posits that during this period “a parent should truly ask nothing of her child beyond remaining a respectful human being”1 and mentions how a commonly-held view is that it should consist of a month of deschooling for every year of school the child has attended. Akilah Richards defines deschooling as “shedding the programming and habits that resulted from other people’s agency over our time, body, thoughts, and actions”2 in her book Raising Free People.
Deschooling will look different for each family, but the way I see it it’s basically you living your life as parents or carers, and your children living their life, sometimes together and sometimes apart, and nobody exerting any kind of control over anyone else, other than the kind we inevitably exert when we aim to respectfully live together under one roof. Each family will have to negotiate this dynamic in their own way. A.S. Neill coined the phrase “freedom, not license” and this makes sense to me – it highlights the importance of personal freedom but not at the expense of a shared sense of respect and community.
For us, deschooling was allowing our children to just be – to choose their activities every day, to direct their own learning, to play when they felt like playing and read when they felt like reading and ask for help when they needed it. To feel like they could say no without repercussions, and to begin to figure out how we were all going to live together in a way that met everybody’s needs. It sounds so simple, but we’re still working on it.
Back in Spring 2020, after weeks of trying all sorts of different rhythms and projects and online classes, not to mention living through a tight lockdown, I finally felt so homeschooled out that I took a week off. To do nothing. (To deschool, basically, but still the other shoe hadn’t dropped.) And then it was summer and we were able to go back to the US for a period of time. We brought nothing that had any ulterior motive for learning with us and all we did was be by the sea, play, read, and see very few (socially-distanced) friends and family. I am, on a daily basis, aware of what a huge social, economic and educational privilege we have to be able to do this in the first place, to travel home during a pandemic, and to take time away from school and work, and I was thankful for that.
My youngest child, who only really attended kindergarten, took to deschooling and then unschooling like a duck to water. I could just tell that every day that he was living without school, was a good day for him. He had never been thrilled at the prospect of school, complaining it was “too long”, despising drop-off and claiming the only part he liked was recess. He has never been the sort of child that I can compel or persuade to do something, so anything other than unschooling was not going to work. And he has always had a narrow but intense focus on the things he cares about. Very recently we were having lunch and talking about armadillos, and seemingly out of the blue he looked at me and said, “Mamma, learning is all the time.”
My eldest, on the other hand, “did well” at school by all conventional standards, and interestingly, it was all much harder for her – adjusting to the freedom and sense of loss almost, of having to be truly, fully responsible for herself, and for constructing her own learning. Her deschooling journey has been such an enormous privilege to witness; every day that passes she learns to trust herself, follow her instincts and passions, say no to pleasing others over being true to herself. Every day, I learn to honor all of those things, and trust her to know what’s best. Most importantly, she is happy and loves what we do, for now.
What I learned from this time was that the person who needed the most deschooling was, in fact, me. Not a surprise given that I attended a pretty conventional British school for 15 years of my life, followed by a pretty competitive university, and then did all the things I was supposed to do after that, to varying degrees of success. During our deschooling period I realised I wasn’t, in fact, sold. Yes, there were certainly things I was aware of and that intellectually made sense to me, from reading John Holt all those years ago and practicing a degree of respectful parenting, but there were so many other things that I was only just beginning to unearth and process – things like the pervasiveness of adultism, the way the vast majority of institutions for children are almost by definition coercive, how this is connected to children’s rights, and how they in turn are inextricably linked to the rights of all marginalised groups. Also, what Self-Directed Education really looked like, what it might look like for us, and how I could know unschooling was right for us and still regularly get in my own (and my children’s) way.
Deschooling meets you wherever you are. For us adults, it can be the process of shedding our preconceived ideas about what education should look like, ideas we got from our own schooling and from society in general. Preconceived images of what learning should look like, what being successful means, what it means to achieve and accomplish, where our value as human beings truly lies; also conceptions of how we may project our own agendas on to our children; the role of correction and evaluation, of expectations, coercion and consent, of teaching and academic subjects. Akilah Richards touches on this when she defines deschooling as “shedding the programming and habits that resulted from other people’s agency over our time, body, thoughts, and actions”2.
Lucy Aitkenread writes so eloquently on her blog about the “school wound”, which she defines as:
..the pain of being raised in an institution that did not have your best interests at heart. It’s the shame from specific incidences that happened at the hand of the teachers or students who were cogs in a toxic system. It’s the oppression of your character and choices because of the long term and systematic messaging from your school days – an oppression that you are still living under today.3
She writes in detail about how this can manifest throughout our life, and impact our relationship with our children. The manifestations of the school wound can become our modus operandi, and unconsciously seep into all aspects of our lives and being. I’ve found it so helpful to reflect on this as part of my deschooling process, and have open, developmentally appropriate conversations with my children about it.
Deschooling has so many layers to it, and it’s endless, because the “schooled” mentality we are attempting to slowly let go of is so pervasive and systemic. Sophie Christophy talks about the role of “critical self-reflection”4 in deschooling and writes about “asking yourself the question: is it true? two times” in order to really get to the root of the things we take for granted.
For many families from marginalized or less privileged backgrounds, deschooling can also be a path to reclaiming parenting and education on their terms. “An education that does not actively dismantle this [colonization] process perpetuates systems of oppression throughout the rest of society,” claims unschooling mother, activist and writer Adele Jarrett-Kerr5. She tells her deschooling story of moving from a more classical home education to unschooling, as a vehicle of decolonization and liberation. Akilah Richards looks into the link between self-directed practices and healing work, as a way to discover and work to eradicate the effects of oppression.
Patrick Farenga describes unschooling as “allowing your children as much freedom to explore the world around them in their own ways as you can comfortably bear.”6 It makes me chuckle because I know exactly what “comfortably bear” refers to, and I love it because it puts the deschooling process squarely in the hands of individual families, to carry out in their own individual way. It also emphasizes how unschooling is not really about children doing whatever they like, or “nothing”, but rather it is a family, community and societal endeavor; deschooling is our opportunity to give each other time and space to take back our freedom, and to find those relationships, values and connections that may have been lost along the way. It is not only about children shedding any beliefs they have from school, society, peers and family, but also (and in some cases mostly) about the adults in their lives going through a similar process of shedding our schooled skins.
For those of us who are part of the majority culture, or who hold privilege in different ways, it can (should?) also be about educating ourselves and learning from the experiences of marginalized or oppressed groups. Recognizing the tools of oppression, how they manifest and how we may be complicit in them – whether they be capitalism, colonialism or white supremacy – and processing ways we can change course, could also be part of our deschooling process.
Laura Weldon says in her book, that home educating is about questioning everything, opening ourselves up to different ideas and points of view, and reimagining the things our society values and the ways it operates. She calls this a “quiet revolution”7, and emphasizes how everything is connected to everything else and that once you start recognizing this you are opening yourself up to an increasing number of connections7. Deschooling is our vehicle on this path – it is a life-long, sometimes excruciating, always worthwhile journey.
If your child or young person is struggling with homeschooling, or you catch yourself panicking that they are doing nothing and will never learn all the things you feel they should be learning, I’m tapping you gently on the shoulder and whispering, Maybe try deschooling.
 Boles, Blake. Why are you still sending your kid to school? Tells Peak Press, 2020
 Richards, Akilah. Raising Free People. PM Press, 2020
 Aitkenread, Lucy. “The School Wound.” Lulastic, https://lulastic.co.uk/writing/the-school-wound/
 Christophy, Sophie. “Critical Self-Reflection” Sophie Christophy blog, https://sophiechristophy.wordpress.com/2020/12/14/critical-self-reflection-for-deschooling/
 Jarrett-Kerr, Adele. “Unschooling for decolonisation ” Adele Jarret-Kerr blog, https://www.adelejarrettkerr.com/unschooling-for-decolonisation/
 Farenga, Patrick. “The Foundations of Unschooling” John Holt GWS, https://www.johnholtgws.com/the-foundations-of-unschooling
 Weldon, Laura Grace. Free Range Learning. How Homeschooling Changes Everything. Hohm Press, 2010