Do you really let kids do what they want?
Well, yes and no. As a community, we have very clear expectations and boundaries that the children (and parents) agree to in order to be a part of it. These include productively engaging with the group process, respecting the space, and respecting each other. Pursuits must be safe and legal. We clean the messes we make and follow a simple conflict resolution process when those messes are relational. We collaborate to build a positive culture and a healthy environment.
That being said, our learners enjoy a lot of freedom as they get clear about what they truly want to create for and of themselves. Our facilitators give them maximum support with minimal interference.
Do you have teachers?
Not in the traditional sense. We realize that "teaching" is only one out of many ways that children learn, and anyone and even anything can be a teacher -- whether it is a fellow learner, an adult, an recorded video, or experience itself. There are adults in the community and they are called facilitators - from the French word "facile" which means "to ease." The job, then, of the facilitator is to support the learners and make it easy for them to do whatever it is they choose to do, even to teach, if necessary.
How do kids learn without classes?
Learning is natural and happening all the time. Kids were learning long before they were in school. Babies learned to crawl, and walk without taking walking classes. There are many ways kids learn -- they imitate others, they try things with their hands, they observe, they do their own research, they ask questions, they talk and get ideas from other kids and adults.
Of course, we can have classes but only if the students ask for it, as a voluntary contract between "teacher" and student(s) -- and understand that in our setup, anyone can be a teacher, not necessarily an adult.
We believe kids only learn when they are genuinely interested. If they're not interested and you force them to attend class, no real learning happens -- except learning how not to get bored and how to get by with just a passing grade.
But what about the basics? How do they learn to read and do simple math?
Kids do not live in isolation. The world is so rich and vibrant and a child will understand very early on that reading and doing simple math are essential skills. How else will they read the text that comes out on their video games? Or know that the candy store owner gave them the correct change?
If something is actually so basic knowledge that you need in order to live successfully in this world, kids can’t help but learn it. We don’t need to force or trick them into learning something basic.
Besides, what is basic depends on the current environment we live in. One hundred years ago, it was basic to know how to ride a horse. Today it is basic to know how to download an app on your smartphone. And your kids learn to do this (and more) even before they go to school.
If you don't make them take different classes, how will they be exposed to new fields? What if they miss discovering a passion because you don't force them to try new things?
Kids today have access to more information in the palm of their hands than most people had in an entire decade of schooling a mere 50 years ago. They can have the wealth of almost the entire documented history of human knowledge at their fingertips.
Then we tell them to put down their devices; we lock them in classrooms and spoon-feed them bits of information, isolated and out of context. We tell them that they need to memorize things they could look up in an instant. Then we grade them on whether they can regurgitate the current politically correct answers on a test. The assumption behind this question is upside down.
Traditional schooling cuts students off from the flow of information available to them and divides selections of that information into little boxes disconnected from their lives (English, Math, Social Studies, etc.), then presents this information as if students would never have encountered it otherwise. Knowledge is something holistic and integrated, and students are integrating it all the time — whether or not they’re in school.
The real question today should be: In this staggering flood of overexposure, how will my child learn to filter to what is important from the unimportant, to focus on their domains of passion, and to determine “good” information from “bad?” These are the important skills for a modern child - skills they won’t get from some school board doing the filtering for them.
What if the kids just want to play video games all day?
What if they do? They might improve their reading and spelling skills, practice problem solving, or exercise their creativity. They might learn to collaborate with others, develop the ability to track multiple moving objects more accurately, or practice reading maps. Maybe they’ll be inspired to study programming so they can design their own games. Or to attend indie game conferences and write reviews of games in development. Or become interested in a period of history or social justice issue that is explored through a game.
Research has shown that video gaming leads to improved cognition, creativity, sociability, and more.
But where is this question actually coming from? Sometimes, a parent notices that their kid becomes cranky or easily frustrated after spending a large portion of the day playing a video game. In that case, it’s valuable for the parent to speak with their own child, helping them recognize how their choices impact their mood. Sometimes the issue is that a parent feels like their tuition money is wasted unless their child tries one or two offerings each week. Sometimes the parent has anxiety about their own screen-use habits.
Facilitators recognize that it’s important to help parents identify and voice their specific objections to their kids. The parents and students can then make agreements around screen use, which facilitators will not enforce but are glad to support both parties in keeping.
What makes ALC different from other non-traditional systems?
Let's explore some of those other systems right here.
Montessori: Montessori schools and ALCs both practice age-mixing and supporting students in self-directing their learning. Montessori age-mixing involves grouping students who would typically be in three different “grades” into a cohort; ALC age-mixing is much broader, usually separating only very young students, sometimes only for meetings. Montessori students self-direct through a prescribed menu of subjects and concepts that changes based on the age range of the students; ALC students self-direct based on their interests, passions, and the opportunities they see in the world around them.
Reggio: The basic assumptions informing Reggio education are highly complementary to those informing the ALC model. Reggio was created based on the belief that humans are born with many forms of expression–languages–available to them. Most forms of schooling only develop literacy in three of these languages: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Reggio seeks to provide acknowledgement of and opportunities to develop as many of these languages as possible through themed “explorations,” The Reggio model recognizes the environment as a powerful teacher; thus, Reggio schools are carefully designed with goals of sparking inspiration, encouraging curiosity, and facilitating interpersonal activities. ALC philosophy shares a view of the child as powerful, competent, and full of potential. We also share the recognition of the environment as a teacher and the emphasis on the importance of social relationships. We’re different in our emphasis on intentional culture creation, our documentation practices, and our structures for supporting student self-direction.
Steiner/Waldorf: One similarity between ALCs and Steiner/Waldorf schools is that both approach education holistically. Though in many ways Steiner/Waldorf schools advocate a single developmental trajectory for all children, it is also true that Steiner/Waldorf schools and families honor children’s individual timetables for learning. Particularly with literacy, you will find stories of Waldorf students who learn to read in the traditional sense at a wide variety of ages from 5 to 12 years old. ALCs see “development” as even more complex and expect students to have different learning journeys, and our staff aspire to support students in creating their own adventures.
Democratic Free School: ALCs are similar to Democratic Free Schools in that our students contribute to decision making at the school, direct their own learning, and participate in meetings. Many of the differences between ALC and Free Schools developed in response to challenges Free Schools commonly face. For example, in some Free Schools decision making is consensus-based and adults strive to influence students’ learning journeys as minimally as possible. ALC decision-making more closely resembles the Quaker “sense of the meeting” than consensus, and our staff comfortably make suggestions the way they would to friends they were trying to support. The former change leads to faster, more action-focused meetings; the latter gives students opportunities to practice the valuable life skill of navigating attempts to influence them. The main differences between ALCs and Free schools are that our students focus on creating culture rather than running the school, use structures to support intention-setting and reflection on their learning journeys, and explicitly aim to keep 90%+ of each day meeting free so students can focus on their learning.
Homeschool: Homeschooling looks different from case to case, but it typically involves traditional subject areas and limited opportunities for social interaction. Students can set the pace of their studies, but their topics are still usually informed by state or parental standards. ALCs see students as self-directed learners in a world where all learning is interdisciplinary. Our students decide the pace and the content of their days. They also learn from, inspire, negotiate, and collaborate with each other on a daily basis, enriching each other’s learning and challenging each other to constantly improve their social skills. Since so much learning happens in interactions with others, the emphasis on creating opportunities for high quality interactions at ALCs is one of the main factors differentiating us from homeschooling environments.
Indie Homeschool/Unschool: Unschooling always looks different, so it’s difficult to compare a “typical” unschooling experience to an ALC experience. Both Unschooling and Agile Learning relationships with learning come from trusting that the individual—adult or child—knows best how to design their education and should be supported in doing so. The difference is that unschoolers focus on their individual paths, while ALC students engage in active culture creation in a consistent community. The social component is foundational to ALCs: students learn from, inspire, negotiate, and collaborate with each other on a daily basis, enriching each other’s learning and challenging each other to constantly improve their social skills.