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What is deschooling and why is it so useful?


What does Deschooling mean? 

It’s a name for the period of adjustment for the child to disconnect from school, and anything related to the school system. It can be for as long as you feel necessary for your child to move from school always forming their ‘default’. 

Where did it come from?

People think it’s quite a new theory, but Ivan Illich invented the term in the 1970s.

How long do you deschool for?

One of my own children was in school for two years. I’d thought that about three months would be plenty of time but we actually went on to spend about five months deschooling. It really depends on the journey that the child’s had, whether school or life outside of school has caused any traumas. You may find that a child would need more time. There is a rule of thumb that suggests about one month for every year that the child’s been in school.

I spoke to someone the other day who said, actually, you should also consider deschooling yourself as an adult! This is because quite often we take the system and the school rules and everything related to the school within ourselves and put that on our children. So that’s something to consider as well. 

Why do they need this period of time? 

The most useful part of this time is to really get to know your child again. It was really clear for me that my child was really kinesthetic and wanted to do a lot of learning through doing things. I looked at when and where they liked learning. Being able to learn freely without huge time restrictions enables the brain to be more creative and flow without that unnecessary flight or fight feeling. It’s the feeling you get when the teacher poses a question and you’re sat there thinking, “oh, please don’t ask me,” you’re not actually thinking about the question you’re just worrying about whether you’re going to be asked or not. I think small amounts of pressure are good but only when your child can cope with it, and when it’s relevant to your child. All our children are so unique and they actually operate in such diverse ways. So this period of time, really allows you to work out what their strengths and weaknesses are. You will then be able to play to their strengths. You will be able to get them feeling really confident and rebuild that natural thirst for learning.

What do you gain from deschooling?

Personally, I felt  that leaving the system allowed us to leave that feeling of being constantly compared with other people. Children eventually become more focused on personal learning and being self-directed. They want to get better at something rather than feeling I need to get better at that because everybody else on my table has moved up a level. I think competition is relevant in certain aspects of life but there is so much focus on it at such an early age, it does actually hinder lots of children. It’s unnecessary when we’re all different, we don’t all need to be compared all the time. Schools are under a huge amount of pressure to get children to certain levels by certain age stages. And that’s how they’re driven these days. 

What do you do during this period of time?

A lot of people said to me, does that mean that they do no learning at all? I reminded people that actually if you take a step back and you take some time and space to observe your children, you’ll actually see a lot of rich learning going on. Observe them during this period and you’ll definitely feel reassured that there is plenty of learning going on. And if you’re using my Collage app, or want to use the free 30-day trial, you can record all that lovely stuff and reflect on it, as the learning happens all the time. 

When I shared that we were deschooling, for a while people around questioned what I would be doing. Do you just sit at home all day and just watch TV? I used to laugh and say yes probably but we will also be doing  normal things like we playing and interacting with each other. We spent a lot of time walking, playing, exploring the outdoors. As well as that, we played board games, watched films, went to the library, got stuck into cooking, gardening and cleaning the house. We actually spent a lot of time going to the shops where we would naturally compare prices and ingredients, We just did normal day-to-day stuff. What we were actually doing was getting to know one another, working out how each other ticks, what space we needed and how to be around each other 24/7.

The main thing that I felt that we did over this period of time was that we talked, we had lots of discussion about how they were feeling and what things felt like especially now we weren’t at school.  I think it allowed the children a lot of time to feel like they were heard. 

Deschooling gave me the time and space in between playing and interacting with the children to do quite a bit of research about what sort of the methods of learning we might use, how we might set things up, what would work best for the children, both of whom are totally different. I’ve got one who’s kinesthetic, one who’s totally visual. One who hates any kind of pressure, and the other one craves goals and targets or anything that she can lay her hands on like that. One loves getting stuck in first thing in the morning and the other blooms in the evenings. 

 I asked the children what they liked about school. The main answer to this was the trips or anything that they did outdoors. They really did love their friends of whom we stayed in contact with but it felt important for us to get out there and meet some homeschooling families. 

We also explored the things that they didn’t like about school. These seemed to be anything related to sitting at a desk or looking at a board. So we made sure our house did not represent a classroom at all. We gathered lots of resources (see my basic resource list) but there are no posters on display or anything that represents the kind of classroom situation. Our learning happens anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes my daughter likes to read upside down.

I also spent a lot of time listening to more experienced home educators talk about their different styles of learning, the things that they had done and what worked for them. Some were more formal, and some were totally the opposite. You have just got to think about your children and what works for them and try not to compare yourself to anybody else and what they’re doing, because that might be right for their children, but it really might not be right for yours. Have the confidence that homeschooling is about your children, about exploring and doing the best that you can do for them. 

Will they fall behind during deschooling?

I have spoken with many parents over the past few years about deschooling, their main worry was about their children falling behind for that period of time. This is what makes people a bit nervous about taking a few weeks or a few months to take a bit more time over it. Unless your child is emotionally stable, they will not hold on to any kind of information. They’re not going to have that ability to thrive in their learning. So if there’s any kind of trauma, if there’s anything that need unpacking from potential nasty experiences at school, it may take them a lot longer. And it’s much better to take that time out, allow them to sort of re-engage, get that out of their system, and then take ownership of their learning rather than surpressing it and moving forward without full engagement. Allowing a lot of rich talking time, engaging and connecting with each other can only help the progress later on. I fell into that awful trap of not deschooling straight away. I went into doing some formal stuff with my children just because that felt natural from my education experience. It is not about getting through a tick list, it is about personalising their learning. 

I would say that with my knowledge of the curriculum, that my child potentially would’ve been behind his peers after deschooling, not for any particular reason but because we had taken things really slowly. I definitely feel that what he learnt after deschooling was more embedded as he did it through play and practical learning. When he was at school, he was seemingly getting things right, spellings, tables etc. His books looked good, and his teachers seemed to be quite confident about what he was doing. But as the period of deschooling went on, and I started to ask some questions around what he could remember and things just weren’t embedded. It made me realise that it’s far better to take things slower, and to allow them to embed things than it is to rush and skim over things just for those key stage tick boxes. Remembering that schools biggest challenge is to get children to be at a greater depth, and have that deeper learning of what they’ve learnt. That’s really difficult for teachers with a class of 30 children to show that children haven’t just learned something, but they’ve got a deep knowledge of something. That’s really where homeschooling is at its best, because we can take time to do that. It may feel like they are making slower progress but actually they are likely later on to make more progress than school peers because of this. You’ll see things embedded though their play, or they may reference it in their conversations. 

Another reason for taking the time to deschool was to come away from the system, because we actually really disliked that whole stress of the monday build up, the hamster wheel week. Ours was crazy with us both working, kids in school and childcare 8-5, the week was too structured. The weekend felt just as bad as we tried to keep on top of cleaning, shopping and prep for the next week. The repetitive cycle was too much so for us letting go of a rigid structure was important. We felt like that we wanted a calmer approach to life, a more balanced way of living, more space for love and laughter! We also decided that learning happens all the time, every day of the year and so we opted to not follow term times. 

The final thing that this period of time gives you is time to work with your partner and or family, depending on where they are at with homeschooling. Deciding to homeschool wasn’t an easy option for my partner, so the deschooling period gave us lots of time to chat about options and how things could work for all of us. I am a huge advocate of taking this time out before jumping into anything. There is always time, even if you have already started the journey and things aren’t working you can use deschooling to start again.

I’ve listed a few books that might be helpful if people want a deeper insight into deschooling.

Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich

Deschooling Gently, Tammy Takahashi

Free to Learn, Peter Gray