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Why are You Sending Your Kids Back to School?

Fall 2020 may be the perfect time to embrace full-time self-directed learning.

This fall, many schools may require part-time or full-time remote schooling, leaving parents in the same tricky situation as they found themselves in the spring.

Balancing the demands of remote schooling with a full-time job is a stretch for some—and downright impossible for others.

Yet even those parents who can do remote schooling may not want to, because they’ve seen how mind-numbing it is for their kids to sit through countless hours of video calls each day.

These parents may also have gotten a rare glimpse into their kid’s classrooms, and they weren’t impressed by what they saw: wasted time, pointless assignments, and low engagement.

When schoolwork only happens at school, it’s easy to forget how uninspiring it can be. It’s also easy to forget how antiquated and inefficient the standard classroom model is. Why do we ask one stressed-out teacher to manage, instruct, and coach twenty or thirty students at the same time, especially when there are so many high-quality learning opportunities available to anyone with an internet connection?

For kids who aren’t looking forward to more remote schooling in the fall—and whose mental health may have genuinely improved with increased distance from the inane stresses of school—this fall may be the perfect time to become a full-time self-directed learner.

Most schools claim to embrace self-directed learning to some extent. But there’s a big difference between a student getting a single “genius hour” per week to work on self-chosen projects—or even the child-centered approaches of Montessori and Waldorf schools—and the authentic, full-time, self-directed learning enabled by homeschooling law.

There are more than two million K-12 homeschoolers in the United States. A significant fraction of these families do not homeschool primarily for religious reasons, nor do they practice school-at-home. They take advantage of the United States’ highly flexible homeschooling laws to empower their children to dive deeply into their interests, take advantage of non-traditional learning resources, and become the managers of their own educations.

While many homeschoolers don’t spend much time in the house—because they’re out at museums, state parks, community meetups, volunteering events, or neighborhood classes, pandemic permitting—the word “home” does alarm many would-be homeschoolers. Single-parent families and those with two working parents cannot easily give up the babysitting function provided by brick-and-mortar schools.

Fortunately there are growing numbers of self-directed learning centers, like Agile Learning Centers, Liberated Learners centers, and micro-schools that give homeschoolers a place to go during the day while honoring their autonomy. There are also places that are technically private schools but offer genuine freedom for self-direction, such as Sudbury schools and other democratic free schools. Virtually all of these organizations charge less than typical private schools, and many offer sliding-scale tuitions. While such places aren’t immune to pandemic-related closures and restrictions, their small sizes may enable them to restart normal operations sooner than large, unwieldy conventional schools.

There’s online self-directed learning, too. The Clonlara school has supported self-directed learners across the world for decades, and newcomers like Galileo and Prisma offer interesting blends of freedom and structured content with occasional in-person meetups. Each takes advantage of homeschooling laws, and charges far less than traditional private schools.

Admittedly, 2020 is a hard year for everyone. Organizations that provide vital in-person support for homeschoolers and other self-directed learners—like Not Back to School Camp, a summer camp for teens where I’ve worked for over 12 seasons—have been forced to go virtual.

No one wants to do everything online. Connecting with peers in-person is crucial for young people. But if conventional schools can’t even offer this in the fall—if students must do the same uninspiring schoolwork without friends by their side—why not take the opportunity to try something new?

Homeschoolers and other self-directed learners fare just as well as their schooled counterparts when it comes to college and career preparation. They may take a little more time to reach these milestones, but they’re equipped with more self-knowledge and confidence when they do. And if it doesn’t work out, one can always return to school.*

For kids who don’t mesh well with conventional school, the self-directed path deserves serious consideration—pandemic or not.


* Opting out of school to homeschool for a year is typically no risk for children in grades K-8, as they can easily re-enter school at the age-appropriate grade. The high school years are more tricky, and it’s worth making a plan with the school district ahead of time to ensure that a teen won’t need to repeat a grade. Opting out of a charter school or vocational school for a year to homeschool may cause a student to permanently lose their slot at that school.

Originally published July 2, 2020. Cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn.

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