Deschooling, A work in Progress

Deschooling, A work in Progress,

Bridget Muhrer

I loved school. I was that super cool kid who refused to skip classes with her friends, unless it was PE, or the last day of term. I enjoyed studying, I enjoyed writing essays, I enjoyed highlighting lines in books that might come in handy for a debate about the text. Without putting too fine a point on it, I was a school nerd. 

My co-parent, on the other hand, was the opposite. Growing up as a cheeky kid in Singapore where they practice corporal punishment meant he has school trauma that’s pretty severe by Australian standards. He also had concerns about the content and quality of the curriculum. As soon as we found out we were pregnant (surprise!), he was adamant: we were not sending our kids to school. 

This meant that I had a good six years to slowly chip away at my own home educating biases (‘But what about socialisation?’), and start deschooling a brain that loved academics. And I thought I did a pretty good job … until I started actually home educating. 

I really feel for all the families who–for whatever reason–are jumping (or feel pushed) into home educating right now, because you’re deschooling on the job, without any preparation time. You’re also coming into the home education community during a time when there is a lot of misinformation flying around and a lot of new programmes people are trying to sell to families who aren’t feeling confident or competent. So let me make it clear: deprogramming is something you should start on as soon as possible, ideally before buying anything! 

‘Deschooling’ is where you deprogram your understanding of what school and learning are: 

What should learning look like? 

Most learning in a school takes place behind a desk, by listening and reading and taking notes. When you start home educating, you might feel, ‘What are they even learning?’ When you adjust the lens, you see learning takes place in many places: in nature, through a board game, cooking in the kitchen, watching TV, at the library or theme park or museum, or just at the supermarket. 

How long should learning occupy each day? School learning happens at very regimented times. Home education can have both no set times, or be happening all the time, depending on how you look at it. School has a lot of pauses: assembly, recess, moving between classrooms, waiting around for a teacher to finish helping another kid. Home education is condensed, so you can fit a day of primary school into about two hours and you can spread those two hours out over the day as you please. School also includes socialising, in class and during lunch, so trying to replicate the 9 am-3 pm with just your kids inside the home is possibly a disservice to your family. 

Which level of work should your child be studying? In school, kids are constantly being graded and measured against each other, to see who is the smartest and who is ‘falling behind’. In home education, it’s okay to go with your child’s strengths and interests, and give them time to develop those areas that don’t yet float their boat. As a comparison, babies usually start walking between eight and 18 months (almost the same span of time as a whole school year). That doesn’t mean the earlier babies are prodigies or the later babies are dunces that need intervention to help them catch up. Leave the baby alone, and chances are (s)he’ll start walking when (s)he’s ready. 

Which feelings about learning should be acceptable for our kids (and us parents)? For most kids, school is associated with negative feelings: ‘Maths is boring’, ‘I hate spelling’, ‘I don’t want to do my homework’, or the worst of all, ‘I’m not good at it’. This is heartbreaking: kids naturally want to learn everything about everything (the incessant ‘why’ questions are testament to that), but for most kids, school ruins learning and makes it an unpleasant chore. Kids develop feelings of frustration and maybe anger, and these are not conducive to learning. For most of us, the stuff we remember learning in school was the stuff we enjoyed. As for the stuff we hated, have we retained much of it? I haven’t. 

Sometimes parents say things like, ‘They didn’t act like this around their teachers! They did it without complaining!’ But make no mistake, if you ever asked your kid, ‘How was school? What did you do?’ and got a reply like, ‘I don’t know, it was boring, we did nothing’, then those unhappy feelings your child communicates to you about their learning now were there at school. They just didn’t feel comfortable opening up about them in class. They bottled them up instead and just felt miserable and bored at school. You have a chance now to change how they view learning! 

For me, deschooling is definitely continuing in Year 1, and I imagine I’ll continue to dig up new chains I need to break through as my child progresses through primary and into secondary age. Things that have helped with my deschooling so far follow: 

Meet some veterans in the physical world. There is a wealth of knowledge in this community, and people can start helping you find your comfort zone without you even asking anything up front. Hang around parents of older kids who have been home educating for years, meet their kids, observe them for the fascinating organisms they are, and be reassured that they’re lovely and intelligent people who maybe you enjoy spending time with! My first regular home education meets left a lasting impression and it shaped my home education journey for the better. Get out there and mingle, the sooner the better! 

Take a mindful approach to your demons. Like most of us, I get the, ‘What did we even do that’s educational today/this week/ month?’ I also get highly stressed when my son decides he wants to write his letters ‘funky’ instead of legibly, or he flat out refuses to do something I think we need to do. Practice recognising these feelings as they start, before you let them escape through your voice or expression. Recognise them as more deschooling work to be done. Let your child play with what they’re learning, even if it’s ‘against the rules’ that were schooled into you during your childhood. And forgive yourself when you don’t pull yourself up in time. You’re learning too! 

Press pause before buying anything, whether it’s an online tutor or a printable curriculum or whatever else. Check to see: are there any reviews? Is it a brand new product by a school teacher? Most school teachers have no experience with home education. Is there something fun you really want to do on the same day as the class? Fun learning beats online learning every time for us. Is it going to max your budget and leave you no room for excursions? My personal favourite bit about home educating. And the most important question—what does your child think of it? Are they engaged and interested when trialling it, or bored? Don’t spend money on anything your child hates. 

Involve your child in their learning direction. As alluded to above, your family has the amazing opportunity to build learning around your child’s interests! Ask for their input at the start of the year and term, and regularly throughout. Meet the KLAs through their interests (learn about the dinosaur life cycle, discover which continent specific dinosaurs lived on, bake dinosaur cookies, write a play about a family of dinosaurs, find musical instruments that best match how your kid imagines different dinosaurs sound). 

Embrace the slow lane. Some days feel like not much is happening, but our little sponges find learning everywhere if we let them. The other day, my child asked me what CO2 was because he’d heard it mentioned on Robot Wars, and that led us to talking about trees and photosynthesis. I was most concerned about teaching maths because I could never think up lessons in my head; now I find it the most effortless subject to learn about, because there is incidental maths all around us (board games, picture book images, green grocer scales). If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that kids don’t need uninterrupted school lessons to thrive. A few extra months to find your groove is okay. It’s okay to relax and take your time figuring out what home education options feel right for your babes. Don’t knee jerk yourself into replicating school in the home; lean into the discomfort and see where it takes you. 

Deschooling is something that needs to be done by anyone who has attended school. So any child who has been pulled out of school (they need to understand home education isn’t permanent holidays) and any adult who went to school themselves (they need to understand learning can feel like the holidays). And not just if you’ve attended school— I’ve known kids who have been home educated from the start who’d benefit from some deschooling! 

Mainstream education concepts are part of our society, and it takes work to return to a more natural approach to learning. It is a long journey, it’s not necessarily linear, and it will blow your mind wide open to the possibilities this amazing thing called home education can do for your family. 

Good luck! 

Otherways 172 (May 2022)

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