What is deschooling and why does it matter?

Deschooling is not a clearly defined concept and means different things to different people. I’m going to share my own personal perspective on it after 15 years of unschooling rather than try and pull together what others have said. 

Some people use it to describe the process by which children recover from unpleasant experiences they have had at school and rediscover their natural love of learning. This is usually seen as a short term thing. I’ve also heard it used in relation to adults who want to take their education into their own hands rather than rely on universities or college. 

For others, deschooling is about parents getting out of a school mindset and actively supporting their children in a child-led or self-directed learning process. I recently saw it described like this in a post on Facebook: 

“Deschooling is an important process in the unschooling philosophy- it’s about you moving from viewing school-like activities as valuable learning through to seeing and understanding the value and connection in learning through all aspects of life.” 

My interest in deschooling stems from my own experience of unlearning the school mindset and supporting my children through their home education journey. My children didn’t didn’t go to school until they chose that option at ages 15 and 17, so I don’t have experience of deschooling for children who have recently left school. I believe that children are most likely to recover from difficult school experiences when their parents are actively deschooling themselves, so my focus is on helping other parents. 

The school mindset 

I see the school mindset as a set of widely held beliefs about what is best for children’s education. It’s basically a list of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”: 

  • Children should learn the school curriculum.
  • Children should learn facts and skills in a particular order and at a certain age.
  • Children should learn by sitting down at a desk and reading books and by writing.
  • They shouldn’t engage in activities that distract them from the school curriculum.
  • They should be compared with their peers and their learning assessed against a predetermined set of criteria.
  • Parents/teachers should teach primarily by feeding children information. 
  • They should direct and control their children’s learning according to the school curriculum.
  • Parents/teachers should use rewards and punishments to control children’s learning and behaviour. 

Underlying fears

Underneath the beliefs of the school mindset lurk a whole lot of fears that anchor the whole system in place. These fears are what parents have to face when they step towards unschooling. 

All of these fears are about an imagined future in which “bad things happen”. I believe the main fear that parents have is the loss of safety and security for their children. They fear that if their children don’t learn “enough” of the school curriculum they will end up destitute, unemployed, poor, depressed and powerless. Both children and parents will be judged as “failures” and looked down on or ostracised by their community. I know that sounds dramatic, but what I was hearing from my extended family in the years before my eldest son learned to read and write was “This home education thing is negligence. He’ll end up on the streets.”

When a child is at school their education and hence their future safety and security is largely handed over to school teachers and the school institution. When parents choose to home educate, they believe that they become responsible for their child’s learning and they start to fear failure. 

The fear of “failure” as a home educating parent shows up in many ways. There is often a fear that “I’m not doing enough for my child’s education.” This usually means that you’re scared that your child isn’t learning enough of the school curriculum or that they are “falling behind” their peers. You may fear that your child will never learn to read and write or be able to do basic maths calculations. You may fear that your child will be judged as “stupid” or that they won’t learn what they need to get a job or to enter higher education. 

Then there are the fears that come from stepping away from institutional learning and reclaiming personal and family autonomy. Fear of “the authorities” is very common among home educating families and I suffered with it myself. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get approval to homeschool because my children weren’t doing “school at home” and weren’t following the curriculum in the way that children at school are forced to do. I feared that my children would be forced to go to school against their will or that I would be somehow forced to teach them things they didn’t want to learn. 

Deschooling involves unlearning the school mindset

Deschooling is the process of unlearning all of those “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and facing and questioning all of those fears. It is based on the premise that none of the beliefs of the school mindset are true. While they might be a guide to how children are expected to learn in school, they are not true of learning generally. 

The fears about the future that trouble home educating parents are not true either. They are thoughts of an imagined future that doesn’t exist and that no one can predict. Each fear can be investigated and questioned. For example, is it true that my child is “falling behind” their peers? Does this matter anyway? If they have “fallen behind” does this mean that they aren’t learning or that something bad will happen to them in the future? Or are they learning at a pace and in a way that really suits them? 

I’m not suggesting that anyone should accept that what they believe about education is not true.  I’m simply encouraging you to question your beliefs and fears and investigate their truth for yourself.

You can see why it takes time! There’s a lot of inner work involved. The good news is that it doesn’t have to happen quickly or all at once and there is lots of help available. 

My experience was that the beliefs and fears associated with the school mindset arose in manageable waves over a period of years. An issue would come up, such as “delay” in learning to read or reluctance to “do Maths” and I could question my thinking around that issue and find some peace before the next wave hit. I also learned a great process for questioning my thinking that I’ve shared along with some of the story of my deschooling journey here. The community of home educating parents both online and in my local area have been an amazing support and help with my deschooling journey. It’s so helpful to have someone further along in their journey to say to you “It’s going to be OK. It worked out fine for my children.” 

Why is deschooling important? 

Deschooling is important if you want your children to retain their natural curiosity and love of learning. I don’t think that school dampens a love of learning for all children who attend but it certainly does for some. When you learn because you’re told you “have to” it isn’t love. 

People love learning when it is driven from within themselves. The inner spark and motivation for learning comes from curiosity, inspiration, creativity, play and desire. The school mindset and the fears that lie behind it gets in the way of the love of learning, especially for children who dislike being told what to do. 

Deschooling is important if you value a harmonious, close and respectful relationship with your child or children. That’s because when parents have fears and act on them they try to control their children. Attempts to control your children result in them either complying or resisting. There are plenty of children who are willing to comply with their parents’ plans and teaching approach. These are the so-called “easy children” and those that the school or school-at-home approach to education genuinely suits. 

Then there are the children that resist; they don’t want to follow the program. If you try and tell them what to do and how to learn you are going to end up in stress and conflict. This is the reality that most parents face. Often there is so much struggle over learning that it exhausts everyone, dampens the love of learning and the joy in family life. If you want to enjoy home education with a spirited or strong-willed child then deschooling is a necessity. 

If you’d like to learn more about deschooling and how to do it, (including tips on how to pass registration as an unschooling family)  I’m running a 3 week online course on the subject starting on 19 August. The details and booking link for The Deschooling Course can be found here. Please get in touch if you are interested. 

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