Agile Learning Centers are an expanding network of intentional learning communities leveraging agile tools to support Self-Directed Education
Beyond Your Dreams
Agile Learning Centers restore the joy of learning with a surprisingly effective educational approach: intentional culture supporting self-directed learning reinforced by agile management tools.
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What does that mean?
Self-Directed: Humans are natural learners. When children get to follow their passions, they engage deeply, learning more quickly and thoroughly – covering years of content in weeks at the time they choose to learn it.
Intentional Culture: At ALCs children feel they are heard, they belong, and they make a difference. As social creatures, we thrive in this kind of vibrant community which builds our confidence, heightens our communication skills, and calls forth our best selves.
Agile Management Tools: We use practical and concrete tools to make these lofty-sounding ideals real and reliable. These tools and practices provide visible feedback, effective self-management, clarity of purpose, and easy integration of new patterns as needs change.
Agility: Make tools and practices flexible, adaptable, easy to change… or change back again. Too much change all at once can be disorienting — try gentle changes over multiple iterations to see what’s working.
Infinite Play: Play infinitely, grow infinitely. Play is one of the most powerful paths to growth. The concept of infinite play reminds us that games aren’t about winning; changing rules and boundaries is part of playing, letting players constantly expand the game of outrageous personal growth to incorporate new players and new frontiers.
Amplifying Agency: Ensure tools support personal choice and freedom as well as responsibility for those choices. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in designing and upgrading the structures which guide them.
Culture Creation: Acknowledge and use the water you’re swimming in. We shape culture; culture shapes us. A powerful, positive culture is the strongest, most pervasive support structure a learning community can have. Develop collective mastery rather than restrictive rule-making. Intentional culture building supports intentionality in other domains as well.
Facilitation: Clarify, simplify, and connect. Don’t introduce unnecessary complexity. Connect kids to the larger social capital of their community, collaborate with them in problem solving, and accompany them in their learning as they grow.
Visible Feedback: Make choices, patterns, and outcomes visible to participants so they can tune their future behavior accordingly. Make the implicit explicit and expand transparency. These practices empower and build trust among community members.
Relationship: Be real. Be accepting. Respect differences. Authentic relationship is the basis of partnership, communication, collaboration, and trust between students and staff. Support self-expression, self-knowledge and self-acceptance, letting the experience of nurturing relationship teach the power of interrelatedness and community.
Support: Provide maximum support with minimal interference. Create helpful structures, practices, and environments without making their decisions for them or managing their processes. Remember that support that takes up too much space becomes counterproductive.
Respect for each other’s time and space: Hold no unnecessary meetings. Keep all meetings tight, productive and participatory. Honor commitments, as well as scheduled start and end times for happenings. Check-in before creating work for someone else. Be thoughtful about taking up shared space.
Full-spectrum Fluency: Embrace multiple intelligences, modes of expression, and learning styles. Nurture multiple literacies. A functional education for today’s world needs to focus on more than just “book-learning.” Social, relational, digital, and a variety of other skill sets are now essential.
Shareable Value: Make value received from learning visible and sharable. Use tracking systems, record measurable progress, generate documentation (blogs, portfolios, images), and teach others.
Safer Space-making: Provide an environment of physical, social, and emotional safety. Set and keep critical boundaries. Foster great freedom within an appropriate frame of safety and legality, so that kids’ energy can be freed up to focus on learning instead of protecting themselves.
Is School Really Working for Your Child?
If your child is losing their love of learning or their spirit is being crushed by meaningless tests, the drudgery of homework, or abusive authority, how long can you pretend all is well? Schools are broken and falling further behind as the world changes more quickly than they can adapt.
Most of the heavy labels kids carry today — like “below average” and “bad at math” — are a direct product of a school system treating children like they are machines to passively absorb programming in a standard manner instead of active, living, creative beings with their own paths to tread. A broken system saddles children with labels to mask its own failure and ineffectiveness, miseducating kids’ relationships to their abilities and potential in ways that can influence them for the rest of their lives.
The problems even spill over from the classroom into home life. Parents are supposed to be enforcers on their behalf, frowning on poor grades and bribing them for good performance. Why should you spend your precious time with them nagging about homework? Or doing it for them?
School shouldn’t be a punishment – childhood isn’t a crime. A school’s job should be to adapt to your child’s learning needs, not to bend your child into the mold of an obedient, unthinking drone.
It’s time to try a place which nourishes children’s hungry minds and heals their energetic spirits.
The ALC Network
Your ALC here
The ALC story is being written right now by people like you who have embraced their agency and are creating learning communities that grow healthy, happy people. Get started.
Want to find your own way of supporting the ALC Network or an ALC near you? Find out how you can help add critical mass towards a paradigm shift in education.
If something is actually basic knowledge that you need in order to live successfully in this world, you can’t help but learn it. The “basics” will be captured in kids’ natural learning, which happens through living. We don’t 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.
Yes and no. Our communities have very clear expectations and boundaries that the children agree to in order to participate at an ALC. They agree to engage with the group process, respect the space, and respect each other.
Adults often want to know, “Just how much freedom do the children have?” The answer is, quite a lot! Our communities set boundaries primarily based on safety, legality, and respect for others. As long as a pursuit is safe, legal, and shows respect for the community, children will generally be supported in that choice.
Because we emphasize good relationships with one another, there is little need to generate “rules.” We create a culture of caring for one another so the children seldom need rules imposed upon them to behave in an acceptable manner. We utilize nonviolent communication and avoid punishments/reward to manipulate behavior. When a difficult issue arises, we make use of conflict resolution tools and enlist the input of others to handle the situation in a way that affirms all parties.
We facilitate people’s ability to get clear about what they truly want to create for and of themselves. We trust.
If that’s the direction that they choose. It may not be.
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’s what they think they’re “supposed” to do. Intentionally entering a learning environment to accomplish a specific purpose is more likely to bring about positive outcomes.
We don’t 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’s a proven advantage for people whose college applications can’t 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.
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’re 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’s 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.
Where Did ALCs Come From?
In fall of 2012, two weeks before school was supposed to open, it was looking like the Manhattan Free School was going to be shutting down instead. Dismayed by the prospect, one parent called another, and they came up with a plan. This wasn’t just a plan to save their school, though. They were on a mission to create something new, to build a community that would bring the Democratic Free School ideals of self-direction and collaborative community into a 21st Century framework.
Soon they had gathered a small group of parents, staff, and volunteers ready to reimagine the school. They ran it through a transition year, informed by their experiences with Free Schooling, Open Classrooms, Unschooling, Democratic Free Schools, and Agile Software Development. Then in fall of 2013, the Manhattan Free School officially re-opened as the Agile Learning Center.
Soon there were two ALCs. Then four. Then seven. Our NYC flagship began looking for nicknames more specific than the ALC, and its staff partnered with those from others to create the ALC Network to provide startup support and facilitator coaching.
In 2014, ALC Mosaic in Charlotte, NC ran our first summer facilitator program. By the end of 2017, we’d inspired 27 such programs, and there were ALC start-ups on every continent except Antarctica. That’s in just 5 years! Will you join us for the next 5?