Deschooling -Yes? No? How??

Dear Reader,

Have you heard this term? Deschooling gets thrown around a lot on my local homeschool lists. Loosely put it seems to mean the downtime or recovery time one needs after having been in school. Popular wisdom is that one should deschool one month for every year of formal (i.e. traditional, institutional, in a school setting) schooling. It is just a vague perception on my part, but I sense that the way this term is being used has changed recently. I have even read it suggested that a parent whose child has never even in school needs to deschool. Something about this all rubs me the wrong way so I have set myself to find out what deschooling is and whether I am for it or against it.

Defining Deschooling

The first step is to find out what exactly deschooling is so I began by googling “deschooling” and “definition.”  Wikipedia tells me that the term has been used since at least the 1970s and can mean different things in different contexts.

The key, as far as I see it, is who is being deschooled. Ivan Illich, who is credited with popularizing if not inventing the term, spoke of deschooling society (in fact that is the title on his article on the subject). I have only begun to read this article (and hope to tell you more about it in the future), but it is clear that Illich is opposed to institutions in all facets of life.  He uses the schools as his example but his opposition is really much broader. He mentions, for instance, how institutionalizing medicine has made it so people no longer think they can treat themselves at home. For Illich institutions breed dependency and create poverty (not just in monetary terms) and basically ruin us. He has some interesting ideas about how to reform education to avoid the pitfalls of institutionalism, but I will save those for a future post. For our purposes today, the point is that deschooling, for Illich, means transforming society so that it is no longer controlled by school as an institution. It is a societal, and not an individual goal, though he does say that is must be accomplished one person at a time. Behind Illich’s definition of deschooling are two fundamental ideas: that institutions are bad and have damaged us and that we can and should try to undo this damage.

In homeschooling circles, when we speak of deschooling, we are talking about something that happens to the individual. Illich’s ideas are still there, however. Deschooling assumes that institutionalized education has negative effects, that it has damaged people, and that this damage can be repaired. These are the underpinnings of deschooling, but, as I hope to show, deschooling also has something to say about the kind of damage, which in turn depends upon a certain view of the individual, and about how this damage can be repaired.

Who, What and How?

When homeschoolers speak of deschooling, they often think first of the child, but in our society it is likely that the parent also has been affected by the institutional schools so that he or she also can, and many would say must, be deschooled.

Parent or child, the immediate goal of deschooling is to get out of the “school mindset”:

“In a practical context, it refers to the mental process a person goes through after being removed from a formal schooling environment, when the “school mindset” is eroded over time. Deschooling may refer to the time period it takes for children removed from school to adjust to learning in an unstructured environment.

Families who have taken their children out of school to homeschool often find their children (and often the parents too) need a period of adjustment – learning to live without the reinforcement of grading and regimented learning.” (“Deschooling,” Wikipedia.org)

How is this done, practically speaking? AtoZ Homeschooling begins their article on deschooling with this advice: “Relax, enjoy your family, and let learning come to you naturally. Don’t force it” (“Deschooling” from http://www.atozhomeschooling.com).  “Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” describes it as follows: “Simply put, [deschooling] is a period of time after institutionalized schooling where parents let kids be free to do whatever they want and relearn their love of learning” (“Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” from http://www.examiner.com).

In both of these we begin to see a little more about the why and how behind deschooling — learning should come naturally. The love of learning has been lost (it is assumed) and must be reacquired. The way to do this is to give freedom and not to force learning.

If you are completely at a loss as to what activities one might do during the deschooling period, Homeschool 101 (“Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” from http://www.examiner.com) offers a long list of options from gardening to reading to hanging out with friends. Jeanne Faulconer also gives a list of practical tings to do during this period (“How to Start Homeschooling: Tips for Deschooling” by Jeanne Faulconer at http://www.thehomeschoolhom.com). In case you think your child might not need deschooling, Jeanne Faulconer also cautions that the child may choose school-y activities out of habit even though this is not what is what they really want or need (“From School to Homeschool: What is Deschooling?” by Jeanne Faulconer at http://www.thehomeschoolmom.com).

What’s the parent’s role in all this?  AtoZ Homeschooling sums it up succinctly: “You are doing exactly right if you are just the wallet and the wheels!” (“Deschooling” from http://www.atozhomeschooling.com).

Parents are not completely off the hook, however. They have their own deschooling to do. Since most adults today were themselves educated in institutional schools, parents’ notions of what education can and should look like are often much more deeply rooted than those of their children:

“You will also find that parents themselves need to ‘deschool’. We have to get past the idea that learning only happens in a classroom, in 40-minute periods, or with workbooks and pens. Education does not start at nine o’clock in the morning, nor does it necessarily stop in the middle of the afternoon.”(“Deschooling” from Home Education in the UK)

“Even if you have been dreaming of homeschooling for years or planning it for months, you have still been institutionalized by having been in school yourself and by experiencing school again through your children. It may be just as tough for you, if not even more challenging, to through off the shackles of scheduling every minute of the day, of grading on a letter scale, of assessing knowledge through standardized tests, and of feeling the pressure to race through topics the way a traditional school does.” (“Deschooling: Important Homeschooling Step or Useless Buzzword?” from http://www.offthegridnews.com)

“Deschooling for Parents” from http://www.unschoolinglife.com gives a very good, personal account of how one parent deschooled herself and why she needed to do so.

Benefits of Deschooling

Homeschool 101 offers a nice list of benefits to deschooling. These can be sorted into two categories, those that directly benefit the child and those that are for the parent’s benefit. In the former category we have getting control of their own education, getting over damage done by the schools, de-stressing, finding their own interests, and seeing that education can be fun. In the latter, we find allowing time to prepare for homeschooling and finding out how their children learn (“Homeschool 101: What is Deschooling?” from http://www.examiner.com).

There are also familial benefits. Home Education in the UK speaks of these as does Homeschooling-Ideas (“Deschooling” from http://www.homeschooling-ideas.com). The deschooling period allows parents and children to get to know one another again and also allows siblings to learn to be together:

“If you have more than one child, it also gives them a chance to get used to being in each others company again.” (“Deschooling” from http://www.homeschooling-ideas.com)

Deschooling and Unschooling

Because of the similarity in their names, and because the terms are not always used consistently, deschooling and unschooling may be confused. Unschooling refers to a particular approach to homeschooling, deschooling to a period of transition between traditional schooling and homeschooling.

Advocates of deschooling often make a point of saying that deschooling need not lead to unschooling and can (and should) be used before any approach to homeschooling:

Deschooling is important for all families who are starting homeschooling, even if they will ultimately use an ongoing approach or homeschooling style that is not unschooling. ” (“Deschooloing vs. Unschooling: What’s the Difference?” by Jeanne Faulconer from http://www.thehomeschoolmom.com)

Despite these assertions, there does seem to be a close connection between the two. Both Sandra Dodd and Pam Larrichia define deschooling as the transition period to unschooling (“Deschooling for Parents” by Sandra Dodd on http://www.sandradodd.com, originally published in Home Education Magazine, Sept/Oct 2002; “Why Deschooling?” by Pam Larrichia at livingjoyfully.ca/blog/). The whole concept of deschooling, as it is used within homeschooling circles, seems fairly new to me. At least I hadn’t heard of it 8 or 10 years ago. I’m not sure what the actual evolution of the term is, but Sandra Dodd’s article is from 2002. I rather suspect that deschooling started within the unschooling community and was, as she defines it, a way of transitioning to unschooling, and that since then its use has expanded so that now we speak of deschooling as a necessary transition period no matter what your educational philosophy.

Indeed, the movement from deschooling to unschooling seems like a very natural one. Larrichia describes such a gradual transition saying that deschooling should last “long enough that when you’re nearing the end, hopefully you’ve reached the point where you’re not even looking for the ‘end’ any more” (“Why Deschooling?” by Pam Larrichia at livingjoyfully.ca/blog/). A letter on Sandra Dodd’s website (“Deschooling” on http://www.sandradodd.com) from a parent identified as Rachel Marie describes just such a process. She writes that though she committed to deschooling for 6 months with the intention of then moving on to more formal homeschooling, 6 months became a year and then 2 years before she knew it. Even those who do not define deschooling as the precursor to unschooling acknowledge that the former leads naturally into the latter:

“You may find that this period of deschooling gradually evolves into the kind of learning – autonomous education, or ‘unschooling’ that so many home educators do over many years.” (“Deschooling” from Home Education in the UK)

In truth, the ideas behind deschooling meld better with unschooling than with any other approach to homeschooling.

The Ideas behind Deschooling

Ideas matter. I have said many times that the ideas behind your homeschooling curriculum matter. Most advocates of deschooling claim to be neutral; they say that deschooling, as they define it, not only works with but should be used before any approach to homeschooling. But there are ideas behind deschooling and they may or may not fit with your intended approach to homeschooling.

I recently published a quiz to help you determine your best homeschooling approach. I tried to look particularly at the philosophy behind each approach (and I considered 16 of them). If I apply this quiz to deschooling, I find that its answers pretty much line up with those of homeschooling (you can find the nitty-gritty details here if you really care; deschooling’s answers are in bold). I should say this is true for those questions for which deschooling provides an answer; it does not address every issue. And, of course, deschooling is  a temporary state.

Deschooling is essentially temporary unschooling. Like unschooling, it does not have an agenda, limits the role of the parent/teacher, says that learning happens through free play or at least free time. It is child-directed.  It says that the child will get what they need without adult involvement. Its goals — though they are intermediate goals — are to revive the love of learning and to allow the child to find interests, or possibly to find himself.

I think the core ideas behind deschooling are these:

  1. Institutional schooling has a negative effect and has likely damaged anyone who has been subject to it.
  2. Children have an innate love of learning which is essential to true education.
  3. The primary negative effect of institutional schooling is to kill this love of learning.
  4. This damage can and should be undone so that the love of learning is reclaimed.
  5. The way to undo the damage and to enable children to reclaim their love of learning is to allow them time and space to be as un-school-like as possible. Parents should not interfere or direct. They should not push any kind of learning or educational activities. Children should be given freedom to do what they want.

Evaluating Deschooling: Will it work for you?

So is deschooling a good fit for your family? The answer depends on what your personal philosophy of education is. If you have chosen to homeschool, odds are you are dissatisfied with the schools available to you in some way.  It is likely that you will consciously do something differently than the schools do (for some examples see “Deschooling: The School Rules You Need to Break” and “Deschooling: More School Rules You Need to Break” by Rebecca Capuano at http://www.thehomeschoolmom.com). But that doesn’t mean that you need to accept all that deschooling implies.

If you look again at the list above of ideas behind deshcooling, the later ones tend to depend upon the earlier ones, but they are not necessary results. You can go through this list and think about each one in turn. You may get to the end of the list and say, yes, I agree with all of that. If so, deschooling is for you. But if you find yourself disagreeing at any point, then deschooling, as it is usually defined, may not be the best for your family.

While many homeschooling families are consciously rejecting the system of institutional schools, some are not. You may homeschool because you have no native language schools near you, because you are in the military, or your child has a sport or business they pursue aggressively, or because your child misses the school cut-off age. In any of these cases, you might be perfectly okay with the school system we have or even want to keep on target to have your child re-enter it at some point. In such cases, you may not even agree with point 1 above and getting out of the school-mode probably doesn’t fit your needs.

Ideas 2 through 4 have to do with the love of learning. While I would hope that any parent would view such a love as a good thing, many homeschool approaches don’t depend upon it or view it is as something which is developed later rather than being innate. This may not rule deschooling out entirely but might at least affect how one goes about it.

Which brings us to idea 5. Personally I agree with ideas 1 through 4, but I differ when it comes to the last point. I don’t think complete freedom is the best way to rebuild the love of learning.  I take a Charlotte Mason (CM) approach to homeschooling so I will speak of how I think she would have addressed the problem. Other philosophies which also rely upon or seek to build the love of learning may have their own takes on the best ways to go about it.

I do think children are born with the desire for knowledge and that traditional schooling kills that but that it can be reclaimed. But I do not think complete freedom is the way to go about it. While Charlotte Mason saw the value of free time (“masterly inactivity”), she believed the way to keep the desire to learn foremost was: 1) to not subvert it by catering to other desires such as the desire for rewards (grades) and 2) to supply the mind with quality materials such as “living books,” fine art, and good music. She frequently uses the analogy of a meal. The mind, she says, needs to be fed on ideas in order to thrive. One does not force-feed intellectual foods; one presents them and the child-mind will take in what is right for it. But this is not complete freedom. The banquet is chosen by the parent/teacher and presented, but it is up to the child to “eat” what he will. To extend this analogy to the problem at hand, we would say that the child who has been damaged by schooling is like one whose appetite has been ruined by a diet of what basically amounts to intellectual sawdust, and that only fed on an arbitrary and artificial schedule. The solution is not to allow complete freedom but to place before the child good, nutritious food without forcing them to eat.

To my mind deschooling says let them eat whatever they want in an effort to restore their intellectual appetites. And I do think that could work for some children. Perhaps even many children. I suspect most still have a shred of their original appetites left and on their own they may seek out what will sustain them. But I also think that some will be so burnt out and damaged that they will fill themselves with what is essentially intellectual junk food, better perhaps than the school’s sawdust but still not what is healthiest for them. I also think many (most?) people are inherently lazy. Left to their own devices, many children will choose what amounts to intellectual junk food, what CM called “twaddle.” It’s better than the sawdust the schools provide, but it is not truly nourishing.

Conclusions

I think there are some good ideas behind deschooling. I do think its proponents have identified a problem and are trying to address it. In fact, I guess you could say I agree with 80% of what they have to say. Where I differ is in the how of it all. I do not think that complete freedom is the best way to rebuild the love of learning. I realize I have my own presuppositions which are informing my position. One of the key ones would be that there are better and worse things to be reading and studying. If you have other approaches to homeschooling, you may have your own ideas about what the best way to rebuild that love of learning is.

For the parent, I do recommend taking some time to evaluate how you want to do this thing called homeschooling. There are plenty of approaches to education out there to choose from (again you can take a quiz to get you started). Jeanne Faulconer also offers a similar list of questions to ask yourself as you begin your homeschooling journey (“Parental-Deschooling: Find Your Non-School Normal: Part 1” by Jeanne Faulconer at http://www.homeschoolmom.com).

Lastly, I heartily second a tip from  “Beyond School Daze: The Descholling Process” at http://www.engagedhomeschooling.com which is to always ask why you are doing what you are doing — “whether there is school reason or a good reason to do things with your homeschooling child.”

Nebby

Books on Deschooling:

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. His original essay  of that name is available as a free pdf here. I’m not honestly sure if the book adds more or not.

Deschooling Gently by Tammy Takahashi is recommended by AtoZ Homeschooling. I could not, however, find the Kindle book available anymore and was unwilling to pay $58 for the print version.

Deschooling for Parents by Sara McGrath — The Amazon blurb on this book calls deschooling a “cleansing, deprogramming process.”

Deschooling Our Lives by Matt Hern — This book seems to be aimed at reforming the educational system and is not a how-to guide for homeschoolers.

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] my recent post on deschooling, I mentioned “Deschooling Society” by Ivan Illich (read it online as a pdf here). […]

    Reply

  2. […] I said I would let Charlotte speak for herself, but I am going to digress a bit and give you some of my own understanding of this issue because I think it is so often misunderstood — Atmosphere happens when our lives spill over into our children’s. If I go and select edifying paintings to put on the walls and classical music to play during snack time but have no interest in these things myself, that is an artificial environment. If, on the other hand, the same paintings and music are present because I love them and enjoy them myself, that is atmosphere.  I met a family recently; the father is a public school physics teacher and the children all go to public school. But in the few hours I visited their house, they discussed the books they were reading and built ramps from wooden blocks to amuse the youngest family member. These things were all done naturally and casually. There was real interest and intellectual curiosity that the kids had clearly picked up from their parents. This is atmosphere. On the flip side, we can see the effects of a poor atmosphere — How many parents withdrawing their kids from public school complain that the child has no desire to do schoolwork or to learn? We have even come to expect this of children and are surprised when a child beyond the age of 10  (or 8 or 6)still loves to learn. The child’s (bad) atmosphere has taught him not to love knowledge and to be embarrassed by learning. [Digression within a digression: Many homeschoolers argue that the antidote to such an attitude is “deschooling.” I do not think Charlotte would have agreed. I think in such cases when the child has already been damaged by a negative atmosphere, we need to do more than let them alone; we need to be proactive. See this post.] […]

    Reply

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