Frequently Asked Questions

What do they learn if you don’t teach them?

We do teach them, but they would learn even if we did not. Learning is natural and happening all the time. Babies learn to crawl, walk, and talk without being explicitly taught these things. They look at who and what exists in the world around them, copy and experiment with what they see, practice and learn the skills they need to grow in independence and connectivity to others. In learning communities that value authenticity and collaboration, it is inevitable that we will teach each other. Sometimes this happens through classes and workshops, sometimes through conversations and modeling. But it is always happening.

And through our Cycles of Personal Development students are learning how to direct their own learning process. This, we believe, is a far greater skill that helps them face any situation.

How will my kids learn the basics?

If something is actually basic knowledge that you need in order to live successfully in this world, you cannot help but learn it. The “basics” will be captured in natural learning, which happens through living. We do not need to force or trick them into learning something basic. Basic knowledge and skills are defined by our current world. Whereas once it may have been basic to know how to saddle a horse, today it is basic to know how to open a web browser. The rich world environment in which we operate sets us up to prioritize knowledge and skills reliably and naturally based on our experiences.

Are there certain levels of math or reading that you try to achieve?

Children are naturally curious and capable. In a rich and stimulating environment, we do not have to try to teach them anything: they teach themselves or ask (of each other and facilitators) to be taught. When they need math to play a video game, track sport statistics, bake muffins, budget for a trip, or otherwise navigate the world, they will learn it. When they need to read and write to create stories with their friends, manage their own blogs, use community tools (like kanbans) independently, find out what happens in the next Harry Potter book, decipher notes from friends, research dinosaurs, or otherwise navigate the world, they will learn it. Especially in an environment where facilitators model passionate learning and the community supports–rather than shames–students who learn at different paces, kids stay curious and eager to keep learning.

Do you prioritize certain subjects?

We do not sort knowledge into traditional subject areas, as doing so discourages learners from interdisciplinary thinking and exploring innovative applications they may invent. Learning is not about amassing data; it is about making connections, deepening understanding, solving problems, creating, and sharing. Facilitators support students in exploring the relatedness and convergence of learning domains, both in school and in the world around us. Sorting or prioritizing traditional subjects is rarely useful from this perspective.

How do students prioritize their interests and goals?

In lots of ways. We do not have priority-tracking mechanisms explicitly built into any of the tools we use. That said, students have hacked and adapted the tools, for example building “swim lanes” into their kanbans so they can prioritize their intentions. Sometimes they create new tools. Often they set personal goals that they have realized on their own or through conversations with facilitators. They prioritize activities that move them towards their goals, like most of us do when we want something, and they reflect often on how they are choosing to spend their time.

If I don’t make them take a variety of classes, how will they get exposed to new fields? Isn’t there a chance they’ll miss discovering a passion if they aren’t required to try new things?

Children today are swimming in a flood of information. They get exposed to a greater diversity of ideas, issues, cultures, facts, problems and opportunities in a month than most people got in their lifetimes just 50 years ago. A single Sunday New York Times contains more text than a literate person read in their lifetime 100 years ago.

Kids today carry in their hands devices with instantaneous access to almost the entire documented history of human knowledge. 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 are 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 will not get from some school board doing the filtering for them.

How do they learn to operate in the real world?

By engaging with it…consistently. Our students recognize that the whole world is their classroom. They grocery shop for cooking project ingredients, spend time in local parks, call restaurants to ask about hours and shops to ask about inventory; they organize field trips around their interests, attend conferences and meet-ups, create entrepreneurial opportunities, and participate in community activities. They can do all these things and more on any given school day. In fact, they are encouraged to.

You let kids do whatever they want?

Not exactly. Our communities have very clear expectations and boundaries that the children agree to in order to participate at an ALC. 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 positive cultural norms rather than lists of rules.

Our students have a lot of freedom as they get clear about what they truly want to create for and of themselves. With clear boundaries and agreements, they also have the support they need to feel safe using that freedom to question, experiment, explore, and grow.

Are there boundaries?

Our communities set boundaries to create safe, legal, and respectful environments. Students commit to uphold certain agreements to participate in an ALC; communities meet weekly to review cultural patterns and create new agreements together; parents may put limits on their students’ off-site travel permissions. To the extent that this question asks whether rules and limits on individual freedom exist, the answer is ‘yes.’

But what if we define “boundaries” more broadly than just as “rules?” Then this question becomes an interesting one about priorities and opportunities to practice 21st century skills that students will need to grow into empowered individuals. In environments where students do not get a say in their work loads, levels of physical activity, or collaboration styles, they do not have as many opportunities to practice recognizing, setting, or holding personal boundaries. We recognize that these are vital life skills; as such, ALFs are intentional in both modeling boundary management and supporting students doing the same.

What if my kid just wants to play video games?

What if? 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 will 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.

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 is valuable for the parent to speak with the student, 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 is 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.

Arthur Brock has an excellent blog post for those concerned about kids’ screen use.

Why are your schools age-mixed?

Segregating people into age cohorts, a practice that really only happens at school, limits their exposure to accessible role models and their opportunities to teach skills they have acquired. In an age-mixed environment, older students learn patience and compassion while supporting the younger students. Younger students watch and emulate older students. Everyone gets practice both teaching and learning from people with varying skill levels, learning styles, and attention spans. The results tend to be awe-inspiring.

How do students adjust coming from traditional schooling and returning to it?

Kids, especially older ones, coming from traditional schooling usually have a “detox” period where they test their limits to be sure that they really aren’t going to be forced to do things or graded on their “performance.” When it turns out that there is not much to rebel against, boredom and positive peer pressure usually motivate them to start trying new things and engaging with the community.

Learning is always occurring. As a result, students coming from traditional schooling arrive having learned communication styles, value judgements, and assumptions about power dynamics (and their own capacities) that they then un-learn at ALC. Our students who choose to return to traditional schooling have experience communicating clearly, managing their time, and finding information/resources they need to achieve goals. They take these skills with them–along with the knowledge that they are choosing to go for a reason. As a result, they usually transition smoothly.

How do you assess students without tests?

Our assessment is that each student is a capable and powerful human with value to add to the world. How do we track student growth and progress? By developing authentic relationships in which we support their self-reflection and bear witness to their journeys. Students document their reflections and projects on their blogs, where both form and content illustrate the evolution of their thinking and skills.

Will my child be able to go to college?

If that is the direction a student chooses, yes. Colleges have been accepting students from homeschooling families and non-traditional schools for as long as colleges have existed.

When a self-directed learner decides they want to go to college, they know why they want to go. Many students unquestioningly spend thousands of dollars and several years of their lives going through college because that is what they think they are “supposed” to do. Intentionally entering a learning environment to accomplish a specific purpose is more likely to bring about positive outcomes.

We do not yet have longitudinal data on ALCs, but we do have it on self-directed learning. Most of the kids who want to get into college do. Having alternative forms of record keeping and evaluation has not been an impediment for kids who want to go to college. In fact, there is a proven advantage for people whose college applications cannot be tidily ranked by GPA and academic track: a human has to actually look at their portfolio. ALC students document their learning on sharable platforms, such as blogs and Kanbans. As a result, they typically find it easy to construct a rich portfolio, and some already have created portfolios for their personal websites.

For one parent and former teacher’s perspective on her daughter’s journey from self-directed learning to the college admissions process — check out Karen Hollis sharing her experience in Life Learning Magazine.

What happens if an ALC students wants to go to a college that requires traditional credentials like test scores, transcripts and a GPA?

If a student from a conventional high school wants to go to such a college, they have to sit in classes all day, get their homework done, and then somehow find time to solicit recommendation letters, go on interviews, craft their application, and prepare for the required tests.

If an ALC student declares the intention to attend such a college, they can schedule time during the day for work that moves them towards reaching their goal. As during any other project a student decides to take on, facilitators are available to provide support, resources, and coaching. So ALC students have more time to focus on writing personal essays and studying for SATs, should that be what they decide to do.

ALC Students do not receive transcripts, class rankings, or GPAs; however, they generate plenty of documentation about their learning (Kanbans, Trello boards, Blog posts, etc.) as part of the daily and weekly cycles our communities practice. Generating portfolios and transcripts from this data is not difficult, and some students have already done so successfully. That said, there are exponentially few, if any, schools that do not allow for a human review process and absolutely require grades. State colleges are generally less open to descriptive and non-traditional assessments than private colleges, but the desirability of a promising student with a captivating portfolio should not be underestimated.

How does ALC compare to other models of alternative education?

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 ALC education. 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 are 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.

Unschool: Unschooling always looks different, so it is 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. The social component is foundational to Agile Learning: 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.

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.

How do you support students with special needs?

On the one hand, due to the amount of self-possession ALC students are expected to demonstrate and limits on our resources as non-state-funded schools, we do not currently meet the needs of all types of kids. On the other hand, certain learning differences don’t show up as problematic in our schools.

A student who needs constant supervision or individual attention is probably not a good fit for an ALC. Staff are always open to collaborating with parents, learning tools or communicating with therapists parents find, in the interest of supporting a student. We also know that adults with ADHD, for example, usually learn to choose jobs that are active, changing, and stimulating rather than jobs that require sitting and writing for hours on end. They know their strengths and challenges and then pick corresponding kinds of environments…and thrive. Kids in school are not typically given the chance to make such choices; no matter their energy and attention levels, they are expected to all do the same thing–sit, listen, and write–all day.

At ALCs, students are encouraged to pay attention to their patterns and work styles, and they are supported in making choices accordingly. As a result, they learn to adapt, to maximize chances to play up their strengths, rather than feeling shamed for and fixating on their limitations. The result is that they keep their confidence and grow their capacities, often even undoing patterns of disempowering self-talk and antagonism of writing/math/speaking that they built up in other settings.