ALCs as NextGen Self-Directed Learning (Pt.1)

[ Still a draft, but it’s time to post these first 7 pages (Part 1 of 2) ]

Since the first Agile Learning Center was built from the ashes of a dying Free School, a number of our tools were developed specifically to address common challenges which Free Schools face. We’ve also had similar or even more striking positive results from other Free Schools using ALC tools which has led them to switch over to become an Agile Learning Center.

As I talk about these issues, you might get the impression I think poorly of Free Schools. That’s actually not true. They have established a critical presence in swinging the pendulum of respect for children education far to the other side from where traditional schooling has been. I have always intended ALCs to be an extension of this commitment to child-centered learning. It’s just time for a major upgrade to the tools! I want to pay respect to all the brave visionaries and educators that have come before me under the banner of Summerhill, Free Schools, Democratic Free Schools, Open Classrooms, Unschooling and every form of learning organized around personal mastery and the leadership by the student rather than the teaching organized around the agenda of adults who don’t have to live that child’s life. Everyone who is providing healthy alternatives to the dominant factory schooling model is doing important work.

Finally, a disclaimer - Not every self-directed learning environment has all these issues, but in my personal experience, many do. It largely depends on how effective a culture they’ve established. In any case, prospective parents considering a self-directed learning environment, who do some research, often hear reports of these kinds of problems and fear them. So this is also a proactive response to help allay those fears about ALCs.

Let’s look at some common issues, and the tools we implemented to transcend them.

Building a Healthy Culture

I’m starting with this issue because it is pivotal in its effect on how many of the rest of the issues that a self-directed learning environment has. By my experience, startup/early-stage schools have almost all these issues, but there’s no guarantee that a more mature school has solved them all either. There is some folk wisdom from the longstanding email distribution / discussion lists in the Sudbury Valley community that it can take as much 10 years to build a strong and healthy culture at your school. I believe that is about 10 years too long.

In my background as an entrepreneur and culture-hacker, I’ve experience time and again how having a healthy culture in an organization can enable you to face almost any challenge and make up for gaps in experience, strategy, salaries, or cashflow. I’ve developed many tools and practices to nourish the experience of personal contribution, authentic relationships, straight communication, rapid problem-solving, teamwork, transparency and accountability. It wasn’t too hard to implement a few of these patterns in the school environment to shift the culture.

Here are some the cultural issues we addressed and the simple steps we took. (Additional explication of some points are in additional sections below.)

  1. Blame and Agitation: I added two questions to the beginning of the Justice League write-up where kids would write complaints against other kids (or staff). “Have you spoken to the person directly about this problem?” and “Who did you have help you talk with them before filing this complaint?” This helped shift the culture from needing big meetings to solve problems to empowering individuals to communicate and resolve them directly. The following year we replaced the Justice League with a Culture Committee which is rarely called to convene. It addresses issues from the perspective of how we want to relate to each other, and what cultural precedent we’re setting instead of evoking archetypes of justice, judging, or punishing.
  2. Bureaucracy and Political Domination: We eventually replaced the Democratic Meeting altogether with a Change-Up Meeting, reducing a 3 hour bureaucratic process of rule-making and argumentation with an agile process of trying something out and mastering it together if it’s working. The Community Mastery Board used in this process is by far the single most powerful tool for intentional culture creation that I’ve ever seen. We’ve had numerous other organizations, businesses and even families adopt it for their use.
  3. Passivity in Meetings: We started using Gameshifting in our meetings instead of variations on Robert’s Rules of Order. This made the implicit social dynamics explicit and gave everyone the means to change those dynamics quickly and easily. This tool also seemed to rapidly enhance the Social Intelligence of the kids as they experienced intentionally choosing different dynamics for communication and participation.
  4. Unhealthy Learning Norms: In a place where kids can learn about anything they want there are norms of the teenagers mostly just hanging out, and of the little kids whipping themselves up into a “Play Frenzy” that they may not have developed the capacity to regulate. Creating Kanban boards for each child shifted the culture to revolve around the kids intentions and needs for support.

Tools to support free schools in culture development and operating in a way that is democratic without being bureaucratic.

Clear Outer Boundaries

The previous administration had well-meaning ideals of creating all rules and boundaries with the kids in the Democratic meeting as needs arose. The school ended up having unfortunate incidents, involving marijuana at school, kids bringing weapons, intimidating other children, throwing things from windows to the street below, etc. Part of the issue was clear to me – children (especially teens, and some adults too) like to discover their limits. If there aren’t any clear boundaries, they like to push to the edges to find them. Having no clear boundaries left the school in a perpetual state of reactivity to the kid’s attempts to find them.

When I rewrote the bylaws of the school, I made it more explicit who was responsible for certain things. Two big things moved from the purview of the School Meeting to be an accountability of the staff: Safety and Legality. It’s kind of simple really. The parents and the state are holding the staff accountable to provide a safe environment for the kids, so why don’t we just tell the truth about that. And while we’re at it, let’s include the fact that we simply can’t risk the school getting shut down for activities that are illegal.

I know that doesn’t sound like much, but to clarify that the staff can, should, and will intervene on issues of safety and illegality clears up a lot of fuzzy areas. However, the staff is also trained that their comfort with something is not the litmus test for safety. One might be uncomfortable that some kids are climbing the rocks in Central Park, but the kids self-select that activity based on their own abilities, which is quite distinct from a kid starting to play “King of the Mountain” and pushing kids around on the top.

Another change we made at the same time was removing Expulsions from accountabilities of the School Meeting based on how difficult and traumatic it had already been for kids to confront expelling other kids. Suspensions are still in the School Meeting domain, but adults have to make the final call about expelling a child if there have been repeated issues. Similarly, in admissions, to eradicate visiting week extortion (“If you do don’t do what I tell you, I won’t let you come to the school.”) and for legal compliance regarding discrimination against protected classes, an admissions committee (which may include students) makes the final call, although so far has typically followed the recommendation from the students’ discussion.

In many ways, I think in order for Free Schools to shift the traditional power dynamics that adults exert over children, they had to swing the pendulum far in the other direction, to train adults that they don’t automatically hold all the power. However, I believe we’ve been able to find a more palatable middle ground with these boundaries without compromising the experience of self-governance and self-determination of the children. Indeed, it seems to have enhanced their enjoyment of those things.

Healthy Learning Norms

Students are in an amazing environment where they can say something outrageous like “I want to send a satellite into space!” and we will work with them to find the knowledge, expertise and resources to make that happen. Yet, the norm at the school was basically just to hang out and goof around. Among the teenagers, I call it the “sit around and shoot the shit” syndrome as they sit on the couch chatting with each other, and sometimes playing cards, or texting their friends.

Free School defenders point out that they are learning all the time. The kids are learning valuable socialization skills. Who knows which one might become a professional poker player? They also typically point to boredom as a kind of ultimate motivator, saying the kids must have the chance to be bored to really discover for themselves what they’re interested in. However, it seems all too possible that in today’s world of Internet, cell phones, YouTube, and video games kids may never get bored with the unlimited streams of entertainment aimed at them.

The third root of the “Agile Tree” (the ALC Educational model) acknowledges that one’s environment, culture and relationships influence learning more than the “content” of teaching. So, it seems to me like the big lesson kids learn through just hanging out, is that you can coast through life: “There’s no need to challenge yourself or work for anything. Your parents are footing the bill. Just chill out!”

The good news is you don’t actually have to nag kids to do “productive” things. All you have to do is surround them with a culture where accomplishing things is cool - one which makes intentions visible and the spreads sense of accomplishment from getting things done. I did this by posting a Kanban board for each student (staff too). In our morning meeting, we’d share our intentions for the day, write them on sticky notes and put them onto the kanban board. As you do the things on your board, you move the sticky across to the “Done” column (or “Finish Line”).

Kids got excited about all the things they were doing and the boards served as a basic support system for them to maintain their focus. There’s no scolding about not doing things on their boards. They can take sticky notes down that they’re not interested in anymore. Even the teens who initially resented the process got on board as they saw others getting a lot out of the process.

Let’s just acknowledge, we’re using subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) peer pressure to have students declare their intentions, and then follow through on them by making it visible to everyone. But in a sense, this is the very nature of “culture.” It establishes behavioral norms and expectations (peer pressure) about how to act. Instead of the norm being “just hang out,” it became “say what you want, then make it happen.”

Self-Regulation vs. Play Frenzy

“Play Frenzy” is my label for a behavior I’ve witnessed among younger aged children in Free Schools including the Manhattan Free School when I became the director. The younger kids (usually in the 5 to 8 year old range) would rile themselves up into a kind of “play frenzy” where they’d run around the school, loudly, energetically, inventing battle games or dance contests or whatever. These activities are not a problem, they are exactly the kind of play young kids “should” be doing. However, they were disrupting everyone else, making it very difficult for quieter work to happen, and an even greater concern was that they would go home complaining that school was too exhausting, stressful and loud.

It became clear, that they only knew how to ratchet themselves up, but not back down again. Many other schools deal with this by sending loud kids outside, and letting the energy run its course. Then they quiet down when they come back in. Unfortunately, in Manhattan we don’t really have the option of sending a 5 year-old out onto the street. Many approaches had been tried before - there was a “Quiet Wing” but once the kids got themselves riled up they’d tear through the quiet zones, and frankly the noise carried everywhere anyway.

Yelling at kids to stop only models yelling (being loud). Not yelling didn’t seem to have any effect either. With the help of a friend, we built a custom noise detector in the lobby which flashed a long strip of brightly colored LED lights. If you triggered the lights, you’d be warned. If you did it again, you’d be sent to the “Loud Room” for 10 minutes (which had a door that could be closed to help contain the noise). We wanted to make it clear that loud and energetic self-expression is great, just not when it’s echoing through the whole school.

The situation rapidly changed. The noise detector had a counter of how many times the alarm was triggered, which I reset each day. On the first day it was triggered 687 times. In fairness, on that day, there was a high novelty factor where kids would shout in the lobby just to see the lights. The next day was down to 369. Then 157. Then 65. By Friday, the count was down to 37 times (which isn’t bad given occasional loud comings and goings in the lobby). It stayed down around that level after that with the lights serving as visible feedback to the younger kids to help them ratchet their energy back down and not only up.

We’ve taken the noise detector down since having established a more stable culture of kids setting and following their intentions. It may be a relic of our recent past - but a tool that was extremely valuable in remaking our culture.

The Proliferation of Inefficient Meetings and Rules

At MFS, Wednesday mornings were reserved for Democratic meeting. It was mandatory for all to attend. However, the meeting often wasn’t deemed complete by lunch and would reconvene in the afternoon. There was also a practice of calling Emergency Meetings every time someone thought there was a drama that they wanted to bring to everyone’s attention. All the other mornings had Morning Meeting which seemed to largely consist of the Director or Staff making announcements and talking about what things are scheduled or might be scheduled. The meetings tended to start a little late after getting everybody rounded up and run a little long as participation was by raising your hand to be added to the stack which led to a lot of jumping back and forth in topics and people continuing a conversation that was already pretty much resolved because they were finally called on in the stack and it was now their turn to say their piece even if it didn’t add or change anything.

In addition to that, shortly after starting attending the school, my 8 year old son was elected to be Chair of the Justice League which had a backlog of student complaints and met every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday morning typically taking up most of his morning (as well as occupying the students and staff sitting on that committee or called to appear before it by virtue of being party to the complaint). He really began suffering from meeting overload and refused to be on any other committees. Years later, I can still knock him unconscious (lull him to sleep) by just starting to talk about a Justice League case.

It is also worth noting that this pattern was consistent among the adults. The monthly board meetings tended to go for 4 hours or more (6pm - 10pm), frequently ending by attrition (people leaving to go home), only having accomplished a few agenda items amidst lengthy controversy and discussion. When there were clear outcomes, they were typically more tasks for staff members to do or mandates that nobody was going to follow through on. So rather than the board assisting with the administration of the school, they tended to only multiply the workload.

It is at this point, that I have to insert my editorial perspective as an entrepreneur who is highly conscious of time wasted in meetings (because you’re paying employees to be sitting there), that such an education is not preparing children to participate in society, but training bureaucrats for endless unproductive meetings which beget more unproductive meetings and fail to develop critical skills of cutting through BS, being accountable, and producing results.

Sorry, but my rant doesn’t end yet, because I haven’t yet mentioned the 43 pages of rules that the school had developed in their 4 year history. Some of these rules mentioned individuals by name who no longer attended the school. At one of the first School Meetings I proposed replacing the whole rulebook with 1½ pages of rules that I boiled it down to, and also that we begin to include practices and structures as ways to change things at the school not only rules. Today, most ALCs use 5 student agreements (each one sentence long) that the student signs as their contract attending the school.

[to finish this section:] How did we make meetings fast, efficient, and productive? GameShifting and Kanban. How do we make just five agreements work?

Inefficient meeting processes taking too much time and teaching to be bureaucrats - Change-up / CMB // Proliferation of rules // 43 pages down to 1 page… introduction of structures/tools/practices instead of rules. Disappearance of Certifications (may return)

[Coming soon. Part II - The sequel contains some of this:]

  • Documentation of Learning Process // observable markers of progress
  • Integrating Adult Influence - Offerings & Opportunities
  • Parent concerns / visibility / inclusion / influence
  • Support for Intentions and Goals - Kanban
  • Clarity about Priorities - Coaches
  • Scaffolding for social intelligence - Gameshifting / Varying capacities
  • Integration of tech in a high-tech era - Blogging
  • Assembly as School Board // backstop // non-bureaucratic // working groups
  • Founder Syndrome - I translated my commitments to a clear model and structures, then turned the school over immediately to new leadership

Why our tools and practices work

  • Visual, Kinesthetic and Auditory
  • Integrated learning in context
  • Self-motivated from own interest in reaching a goal
  • Emotional Intelligence… Social Intelligence… Organizational (Culture-Hacking) Intelligence…
  • Clear / Visible Feedback about progress or status
  • Humane, Authentic, Inclusive, Respected