Written by: Coach Lou
As we are all well aware, school is really different this year. Parents, kiddos and teachers have had to adapt to a whole new way of learning and I think it’s safe to say that it’s been really overwhelming for most families! In talking with kiddos at the gym, it sounds like online school works really well for some students and is really challenging for others. The entire structure of our days and weeks has been turned upside down by the current Covid-19 pandemic, and a big question that I have been thinking about is “Where and how do kids learn best?”
To explore this question I interviewed my good friend Mel (they/them) who is a facilitator at Agile Learning Center (ALC) in East Harlem. They are going to tell us about the ways that ALC is challenging the traditional education system and how self-directed education can help prepare students for uncertain futures - which is a phrase they have started using this year and that you can get printed on a rad t-shirt designed by Mel! All sales support ALC-NYC.
Lou: What is Agile Learning Center?
Mel: Agile Learning Center is a school for self-directed learners. Essentially, we are a space where kids get to do what they want all day! Of course, there are some limits on that. We practice self-directed education in community, so we talk a lot about navigating what it is that you want versus what the group needs.
L: What is your role as a facilitator? How is it similar or different from being a teacher or coach?
M: The root of the word facilitator comes from the Latin root facile. The idea of being a facilitator is that you are a person who makes things easier for someone else. Inherent in that is the reality that being a facilitator looks different all the time.
I’m here to hold a safe space and to support children in their learning, whatever it is. So, if a kid comes to me and says “I want to learn Art History,” I’m like “Great! What art? What history?” I can help them by refining the questions that they are asking or I can help them by being a teacher.
Other times as a facilitator I get to switch roles and be the learner while a kid teaches me something. Right now, one of the offerings that I’ve been doing is LMMS training. LMMS is a digital music workstation and a 12-year-old is teaching me how to use it to make dubstep music.
So, is being a facilitator like being a teacher or a coach? Definitely... sometimes. And sometimes it looks more like the role of a school psychologist or a counselor or being a member of a tag game or being a student in a class! It’s a really flexible role, which is great because at Agile Learning Center we are all about responding to the current condition.
L: I have known you for a few years now and have heard a lot about your work as a facilitator, and your days at school sound dramatically different from any version of school I have ever attended or heard kids at the gym talk about. Can you tell us a little about the environment at Agile Learning Center? Both the in-person environment and how you have adapted for Covid times?
M: In non-Covid times we have a space in East Harlem on the second floor of a church building. It has computers, a library, comfy couches, legos, a kitchen, supplies for fort building... and all the materials that one would want in order to explore their environment and to jump into asking questions!
In Covid times, we are not in that space. We have mostly virtual learning right now and we are also running Pods where local groups meet up outside to have masked and socially distanced adventures in New York City. This transition wasn’t super hard for us because we believe that learning is natural and happening all the time - it doesn’t matter if you are in a classroom or on Randall’s Island or looking at wood cuts in a Zoom room!
Every Monday morning we have a meeting called “Set the Week.” During this time we decide what we are going to do this week. We have things called “Offerings” which are like classes, except they are optional. Any child or adult can opt into them! Some offerings are run by facilitators, some are run by students and others are run by volunteers. An offering can be anything from sharing recipes and cooking together on Zoom to a virtual Art History lecture (one of my current offerings) or a spontaneous trip to Greenwood cemetery.
L: That sounds super fun! Actually, I know it is. I was lucky enough to attend your Crochet class on Zoom a couple of weeks ago and I learned how to make a new thing! It was awesome to watch how you interact with the kids and feed off of whatever energy they bring to the lesson. We spent most of that hour sitting silently in a Zoom room and it was honestly really nice. I could see how comfortable the kids are with you and that they trust that you will support them in whatever they need in the moment.
Now for what I know is your favorite question… BUT HOW WILL THEY LEARN MATH?
M: Because learning is natural and happening all the time, I don’t really worry about that.
My mom taught second grade for many years and in her classroom they had to learn what the various coins are and how you add them up to make change. I will always remember in my first year of facilitating I went to the fabric store with a couple of 8-year-olds and they wanted to know if they had enough money to buy the beads they wanted. I said, “I don’t know, do you?” So we crouched down in the back of the fabric store, poured out all their coins between us and we figured it out together! It’s the same lesson that would have happened in my mom’s second grade classroom, but because it had real life stakes for them, my students were able to learn this lesson quickly in the moment rather than over the course of many lessons.
L: For any parents thinking that this sounds great in theory, but questioning if it is the right fit for their kid what advice do you have? Is there a specific type of student who thrives in self-directed education? How would a parent know if Agile Learning Center is a good fit for their student?
M: I personally believe that all children benefit from self-directed education. I think that learning is natural and happening all the time, there is no personality type or particular neurodivergence that makes you more or less receptive to self-directed learning.
In general, self-directed is a great way to learn because it’s how humans have been learning forever. Historically, children have been raised in mixed aged groups where they have access to supportive adults who have skills and information that they are willing to pass down. They practice being in community and observing the world around them. That’s all that self-directed education is. Beyond that, questions like “What if my kid wants to go to college?” or “How will they get a job?” often come from our own experiences with school and our concerns as adults. But as far as the kids are concerned, they’re doing ok.
The compulsory education system in the U.S. is a product of the 19th-century and is designed to prepare folks to work in factories. You’re meant to practice sitting for a really long time. You’re meant to practice breaking down information into smaller parts. You’re meant to practice responding to bells and moving your body on a set schedule. While manufacturing and factory jobs do still exist in the U.S., those are not necessarily the skills that kids need to be prepared for the 21st-century workforce.
When you ask who does self-directed education work for, the implication is that some kids could learn things and be interested, but the worry is that my kid will just sit at home all day and play video games. The thing is though, kids who sit at home all day and play video games are kids who might be interested in storytelling or animation or game mechanics. Maybe they are game designers themselves! The idea that certain kids will be drawn to “good subjects” and certain kids will just play around all day kind of misses the point. Playing around is how kids learn, and not just human kids, it’s how all young mammals learn. At Agile Learning Center we believe that self-directed education is for all kids.
L: Do you have any advice for parents or educators who may not be ready or able to send their kids to an ALC but want to help their young ones expand their methods of learning and exploration?
M: I think that the most important things in moving towards self-directed education are your intent, intention, and attention. What you pay attention to matters. If your intention is to notice where you are learning then you will notice it. If learning is natural and happening all the time, and if we have the intention to notice where learning is happening, then we can learn anywhere. When you go to the grocery store and your kid asks “What’s this?” there is a choice that you can make. You can say “That’s not what we’re looking for right now,” or the self-directed learning approach is to say “Oh, I don’t know what that is, let’s look it up together!” or “Here is the information I have about that,” or “Did you know that cabbages and broccoli are closely related?” I like to sprinkle information through all of my conversations because I like knowing stuff! To bring self-directed learning into your life you just notice where your curiosity takes you. You notice what questions you are asking and your notice where you get your answers from.
Are you googling things? Is that working for you? Are there books that you keep returning to? Is there a YouTube channel that you’ve found to be super informative? Is an experimental approach like building projects from scratch and seeing where they go working better?
The shift to self-directed education is simply realizing that learning is happening all the time and noticing what learning is happening right now.
L: Last question! I love your “Children are People” motto at ALC. Can you elaborate on what that means to you as a facilitator/educator? How can adults make sure they are treating children as people?
M: I think that there is a tendency in education to view children as partially formed adults. That they are vessels that need to be filled up with knowledge and fully baked in order to become people. When I say that “Children are People” what I mean is that children are fully formed people with their own thoughts and feelings that are as big and as valid as any adult’s. Just because they have fewer experiences or less content knowledge than I do does not mean that their feelings or experiences or thoughts are less important than mine. When I interact with children I always try to keep that in mind. It’s really important to me that children feel respected and that their voices and thoughts and feelings feel respected.
In interacting with children as people I like to draw on my background in improv where the goal is always to say “Yes, and.”
If a kid asks “Is that paper?” and I say “No, actually it’s vellum,” and they respond “What’s vellum?” I can explain that it’s a material made from the skin of an animal. If the kid says “Ew, that’s gross! Why would you ever make anything out of animal skin” I can go “YES, it is super gross. AND do you know what else is made of animal skin?” From there we can start talking about how leather is made or the history of vellum. Their throw away comment of “Ew, that’s gross” can become the entry point to exploring the environmental impacts of animal production or the historical use of it in art or the effects of the leather industry on ecosystems and hunting animals. Any of those moments are an invitation into a deeper exploration in learning.
It’s like “Yes, what you are saying is interesting AND did you know this other thing? Or did you think of this other question?” Then they can “Yes, and me back!” And then we can jump into deeper and weirder learning together.
ALC-NYC Homepage: https://nycagile.org/
ALC-NYC Covid Resources Page: https://nycagile.org/covid-19-resources/
ALC Network Frequently Asked Questions: https://agilelearningcenters.org/frequently-asked-questions/
Tipping Points - A publication by the Alliance for Self-Directed Education: https://www.self-directed.org/tipping-points/
Free to Learn - Dr. Peter Grey