At an Agile Learning Center outside Atlanta, under a tent, eleven kids are  clustered around a white board for Morning Meeting. Perched on stools or sprawled on couches, first-to-fifth graders call out suggestions to a facilitator, who is building the learning schedule for this week. She copies the suggestions onto sticky notes, and adds them to an already crowded calendar.

Some are scheduled courses – ten-year-old Charlie has an Outschool class every day at noon. The math tutor comes Wednesdays, after chess lessons. In between are a variety of “offerings” by parents and facilitators – like the one Shae’s mom teaches in the school garden. There’s yoga, computer-aided design, home repair (today’s project: fix the cabinet doors in the kitchen), animal care, languages, music lessons. Computers and tablets offer access to thousands of online courses, too. Each Friday there’s a trip to a nearby forest preserve, park, or pool.

Kids can choose any of these activities, or none. Only if they’ve subscribed to a “high commitment” offering will a facilitator prompt them to attend. About half of the activities are outdoors, and kids can take a break, eat, or change activities whenever they like.

How does a model built on so much freedom still produce high-quality outcomes? By treating kids like whole human beings, and the whole world as a classroom.

The Agile Model Unites Self-Directed Education With Intentional Community

Self-directed education (sometimes called “unschooling”) starts with the assumption that children are self-motivated, curious, natural learners. Kids don’t need to be forced to learn. The role of adults is to connect kids with resources – which may be library books or documentaries, but are just as likely to be hands-on activities, games, or community mentors. Facilitators don’t “teach.” They provide scope and fuel for kids’ independent passions.

Agile Learning unites an intentional culture of student-directed learning with concrete management tools. All participants use tangible tools (the white board and notes, meetings, a robust Slack channel) to track their own learning, provide visible feedback, and manage community obligations.

Agile’s name, and some of its deliberate practices, come from agile software management. Developed for IT professionals managing large teams, the agile model is collaborative and self-organizing, focusing on problem solving and continual adaptive improvements.

Dozens of Agile Learning Centers are now operating around the world, training new facilitators, supporting one another, and sharing best practices.

Today in Atlanta, the Afternoon Meeting (which is mandatory) gathers the learners to reflect on what went well during their day, and what needs to change. Some students are tracking their activities in journals and notebooks. As soon as the meeting is complete, they’ll adjourn to do daily chores, which help keep the school running despite a small staff.

“Someone keeps leaving their lunchbox open under the tree,” one student shares in the afternoon meeting. “Then I can’t collect it with ‘personal items,’ because it’s covered in ants. Can we resolve to seal up all our food and put it away?”

Ten thumbs-up rise into the air, including one from a bashful-looking little boy. “Sorry, guys. I’ll do better.” The resolution carries.

Bimonthly “change-up” meetings, which include the whole school and parents, collect feedback from the wider community. A continually running “student interest” board invites parents to support new offerings and nominate trusted friends who can teach workshops on their areas of speciality.

These practices of intentional culture-building encourage kids to take responsibility for themselves, and for their own education. They learn to reach out for support, instead of direction. The school works together to call forward each child’s best self.

But the “best” is never complete. The school and its processes, like the students, are continually evolving and improving.

Some Kids Need to “Deschool” Before They Can “Unschool”

Many Agile Learning Centers offer resources to help students – and families – disconnect from the institutional model of schooling. A period of adjustment is expected for those who join an ALC after being in a traditional classroom, which one ALC youngster calls, “sit in your desk school.”

Freed from micromanagement and injunctions to “sit down and do as you’re told,” some kids require more extensive ‘deschooling.’ Some new students, not yet believing that this freedom can last, devote themselves to screens and skateboards for the first two weeks.

ALCs embrace this exploration, and students realize quickly on their own that the rich community around them has much more to offer. No kid, no matter how devoted a gamer, will choose to stare at a screen when ten of his friends are having a scavenger hunt outside the window. ALCs are places of endless opportunity: places that say to kids, “Great idea! How can I support you, to help make that work?”

Taking part in an ALC community requires self-discipline, emotional intelligence, team-building, organization, and dedication – and kids who enter the community learn all of these skills. ALCs create their own collaborative universe, in which the tasks, as well as the successes, are largely student-generated. Adults are focused on providing quality tools, and staying out of the way.

Agile Educates for the Future – Not the Past

Most of us schooled in the 20th century remember being told, “You must learn long division! You won’t always have a calculator with you!” by well-intentioned teachers who couldn’t possibly have envisioned how much the world would change.

In our rapidly transforming world, any task that can be automated or outsourced is likely to be. The truly successful leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, and artists of the future will need exactly the “soft skills” that traditional schools neglect, and ALCs depend on.

Each year millions of teenagers graduate from thirteen years of “sit down and do as you’re told,” completely at a loss for how to organize their own day, much less the rest of their lives. They’re called on to suddenly display motivation, information savvy, knowledge-gathering, community-building, self-determination, a sense of purpose… all of which had been artificially removed from their control a decade ago. We demand agency, after utterly destroying it.

What if, instead of controlling all those things for kids and then expecting them to master agency and initiative after graduation, we controlled less, and empowered more? By practicing these skills from an early age in a supportive community, young people grow up far more comfortable with their own capabilities, and already prepared with the tools they’ll need for adult success.

Agile Encourages Growth with Lifetime Skills – Not Classroom Claustrophobia

In the kitchen of the Atlanta ALC, a six-year-old in a smock dress is stooping to look eye-level at a measuring cup. “Good. One over two. One half,” she says, tipping it into the bowl.

“I can’t do it all by myself yet,” she says wistfully, asking an adult nearby to turn on the oven and set the temperature. “But I can do more and more of it.”

She cracks an egg on the counter, and when it leaks (“Ooops. That’s okay!”) quickly reaches for a towel.

“In my old school, we had a play kitchen,” she says, dragging her stool over so she can wash her hands. “But here we have a real kitchen. I can do it for real.”

Agile Learning Centers are a response to the innate drive inside kids to learn and adapt to the real world. The best learning doesn’t happen in the sterile, decontextualized capsules of classrooms. At ALCs, students engage with a wide range of adults, build their own teams and communities, follow their own interests, create their own curricula, clean up their own messes.

Institutional schooling seals kids off from the real world, and gives them simulations: textbooks, tests, gold stars. Agile Learning immerses kids in self-direction – with all its challenging skills – and equips them with the tools of adult self-management.

Kids are hungry for learning. They’re desperate to “do it for real.” And they can, if adults will let them.

Laura Williams

Laura Williams

Laura Williams is a communication strategist, writer, educator, and mom to a self-directed learner based in Atlanta, GA. She is a passionate advocate for critical thinking, individual liberties, and the Oxford Comma.

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