Consensual Education

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Consensual education (CE) is a model of choice. It’s not unschooling, although many unschoolers may also be consensual educators. When you believe in CE you believe that children can choose how they want to learn, and you won’t pass judgement no matter what they decide. I have a scenario I’m envisioning. It involves a child who’s around the age they might normally go to school. We’ll follow this child as an illustration of what CE might look like, but I certainly recognize that it will look different within each family. I hope this will help you picture how it could be implemented, but not serve to discourage you from trying your own way.

As the parent of this child you might start by taking a tour with them. You could visit a bunch of different schools in your area, talking to the child all the time about what it would be like going to school in each institution. Then, you might talk about how you could do something similar at home. Time sitting and being taught (probably by a parent), but with more freedom about the way to approach it. You might talk about different subjects and how you could teach some formally and some less formally if that was what the child wanted. Then you could talk about how you could keep doing what you were doing then: playing outside, reading together, watching movies, going to museums. You would let the child choose, after discussing it with the child and answering all their questions.

The next step for this child would be checking in. For a little while, you might do that every day. Just a simple, “Is this working for you right now?” Different age children need different questions, but even with a preschool age kid you should be able to ask most basically, “Is this better than what we did before?” in whatever words make the most sense (the parents knows their child better than I). As you ease into the routine, you should have to ask less frequently. But you should keep doing so, particularly if you notice a change in your child’s excitement and spirit.

As the years went by, you would help transfer that checking in to the child. Ask them less direct questions (How are you? How’s everything going?) to help your child understand for themselves what would be right. Ask them directly whether they’re ready to keep reassessing for themselves or whether they still need support. And the whole time, make it clear that you’re willing to do what you can to make something work. To me, that’s the key with this whole process. CE isn’t about sacrificing yourself, your income, or your wellbeing. It’s about being willing to try your best to do what the child thinks is best.

CE goes all through your life. When our child is a teenager, some things become easier. You can continue to support them in what they do while allowing them to take charge. If they decide school isn’t right for them, they can be home by alone, figuring out what works for them. Depending on where you live, they can walk, bike or take the bus to get around. Of course, this path continues to extend through college, by which time we expect this child has internalized the careful examination and objective view. They’ll be able to decide whether college is the right option for them and if so, which one. You’ll have taught them to be a independent, critical thinker who turns to you for advice and support, but knows how to make the right decision for themselves.

I have a dream that someday CE could be practiced everywhere, including inside schools. In a school setting, students would learn to question assumptions and design the curriculum to work for them. They would be driven by their desire to learn more or to complete a specific project, and not by test and grades. There would be all kinds of options for the classes they could take.

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