What is deschooling and how long does it take?

If you’ve been looking into alternative education paths, you’ve likely run across the term “deschooling.” I’m not sure who officially coined this term, but I’d guess that the 1971 book Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich has much to do with this term’s popular use among unschoolers, homeschoolers and other alternate schools today.

What the deschooling means:

For practical kid-minded means, deschooling stands for a period of time, the adjustment period if you will, that comes after a child is removed from a current educational system. The deschooling period is a time when a child, or an entire family can re-group, get rid of school-minded thoughts and if necessary, recover from harm the school inflicted.

By getting rid of school-minded thoughts, I don’t mean getting rid of learning. Deschooling is more about finding out that there are other approaches to life and learning that don’t involve structured schooling.

What deschooling is like

My son’s always been an unschooler or free schooler, so I don’t have any experience with deschooling my own child. I do however have plenty of experience deschooling myself. I had terrible school experiences, and yet, I really did still buy into a lot of the hype. For example…

  • “If you don’t go to school, you’ll be nothing.”
  • “Good grades = good kids. Bad grades = bad kids.”
  • “Your worth is measured by your school degrees.”
  • “School drop-outs are some of the worst people in society.”
  • “School prepares you for life.”
  • “If you can’t sit still and be quiet in school, it’s all your fault. Something must be wrong with you.”

Although I hated school, I was told, and almost religiously did believe all of the above. By my mom, by my teachers, by friends and by society. If you’ve been in school your whole life, you may think the only way to learn is via school and that without it you may as crawl under a rock, because that’s about all you’re good for.

Deschooling is about dropping all those preconceived educational notions implanted in your head by school and society.

I quit school at 17 and for years after, I did figure that I was a loser – just as the schools told me. Then, at age 23 or so, I picked up a copy of Utne that contained a special section on alternative education. I read two articles How I Got My DIY Degree by William Wimsatt and Lifelong Learning, A Degree is Just One Facet by Charles D. Hayes. Both pieces discussed learning on your own terms, with or without school.

This was my first introduction to unschooling, or really any alternative schooling, and it changed everything I thought about the education system. For me, these articles were the first of many steps in my own deschooling process. The articles meant so much to me that I still have both of them today, carefully filed in my desk. It took much more research and other unschoolers to really pound it into my head that school is often unecessary and arbitrary but eventually I caught on.

Now I’d say that I’m a  full fledged deschooled human, which to me means someone who doesn’t place all their worth on school and someone who believes fully that learning can happen in all sorts of places and via countless activities, not simply in school. I’m sure others have their own definitions though.

Is it easier for kids to deschool?

All humans are different. However, my guess is that probably kids deschool easier than adults. The less school you’ve had, the easier it is to deschool. I know one 13 year old who recently quit her traditional public school. She was stressed, hated school and yet told me before she quit, “If I wasn’t forced by teachers I’d never learn.” She also related that school is what makes you a good person and she appeared to have a ton of guilt about quitting.

After three months of no school, this kid still has some school-minded issues she’s working on, but overall she’s said that she feels less stressed and much healthier, plus not “freaked out” all the time.

How long does deschooling take? 

Most deschooling experts note that the process of unschooling should be calculated like so – for each year your child is in school, allow them a month to deschool. So if your child was in a harmful school for three years, it could take three months to deschool. I doubt it’s this clear cut for every kid and every family. Parents in particular, in my experience, who take their kids out of school often take way longer to deschool than their kids.

It’s very hard to live in a society that places so much worth on traditional education and yet find a way to go about learning in an alternative way. So, deschooling may take longer than you first estimate.

Should kids be at home while they deschool?

If your child is transferring from public or another traditional school to a free school there’s always going to be a period of adjustment. In unschooling forums I used to frequent, many parents felt that allowing a kid plenty of free time at home is totally necessary vs. enrolling them in another alternative school right away. I used to agree, however, something Jack, our Village Free School Executive Director said made me consider not waiting to transfer.

Jack noted that when a kid has been in public school or some other traditional school setting, instead of deschooling at home, one of the best things a kid can do is be with other kids at a free school. Deschooling from public school is possible at a free school, and may be a better choice. At a free school, a kid who fully believes in traditional schooling, and who may feel guilty about leaving their school, gets to see how other kids in a free school act and learn about their beliefs. They’re not at home stewing over their choice of leaving school, but instead they’re immersed in a more productive, happier school situation with kids who, for the most part, love their school.

If you’re considering a free school the choice is up to you – deschool at home or at the free school. Most kids do need some time to decompress after spending time in traditional school. However, free school students may set an excellent example for a kid in need of deschooling.

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