Alexander Khost has a number of roles and is the founder of several exciting projects. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the online magazine, Tipping Points, a book publisher on the topic of Self-Directed Education, a co-founder of a ‘junk playground’ and a free school, and most recently he started Flying Squads, which started in a library in Brooklyn in 2018.
Flying Squads is a project that looks to integrate youth autonomy with mutual aid in a public setting (as in, we convene out in public / intentionally do not have a school or space). There are now eight Flying Squads in the US and a couple possibly opening internationally in the near future. The pandemic had a lot to do with our expansion since we work outdoors with kids (but we were doing so pre-Covid as well).
My self-given title is “Instigator,” which I think those involved would say fits me well. I meet with a group of young people and help organize what we do for the day based on intention setting and reflection. Flying Squads are non-hierarchical, and so, my role is not all that different from the role of the young people there, that is, being present in our community. Our particular Flying Squad is a part of a broader unschooling center called Brooklyn Apple Academy.
We are a loose collective, not an organization or a school, and so, each local community might answer this differently. Broadly explained, we all fall under the umbrella of Self-Directed Education. More specifically (and I think most of the other groups would agree) the community I am a part of practices the methodology of anarchist education. That means we organize in a non-hierarchical manner that looks to support individual rights but within the broader context of a community and a society. We focus on youth rights and stand for liberation of all marginalized peoples. The distinction is that many (if not most) self-directed methodologies focus more simply on autonomy, liberation of the individual without the community focus.
Our values are listed on our website. The values of Self-Directed Education more broadly are defined on the Alliance for Self-Directed Education’s website. In short, we respect young people’s rights and empowerment.
As I am sure you can imagine, this means there is no typical day in such an environment. For purposes of helping one to understand how it might work, I’ll give an example anyhow: on a day of Flying Squad, we all meet at an agreed upon location and time. For my Squad, we keep a journal (that pre-pandemic we hid in the stacks of a library disguised as a library book). And so, we would start with a journal entry each and then state our intentions for the day. Generally then we have an informal vote on what feels like a path of activities we might try to embark on that day. Some days there is simple consensus, some days we bicker and get nowhere for quite a while. Always we somehow seem to get past this point and on with our day (with persuasion, bribery, promises of doing what you want tomorrow if we do what I want today, and so on).
I remember one freezing cold day when no one would agree and we all just decided to set out anyhow. We got a block before I stopped the group and asked how we knew where we were going. Someone suggested, “At each intersection we’ll take turns and a person will just point which way we go.” I feared we’d walk the same block five times and die from the cold and boredom. About two intersections in someone excitedly pointed to a working soapbox derby car on top of a garbage heap. We spent the rest of that day riding it down hills seeing how many children we could pile on at once before it tipped.
And yes, it is “just” play. We play and play and play. And then we sit down and talk and sometimes we learn from one another. Sometimes we go somewhere new. Sometimes we learn how to negotiate, how to speak up for ourselves, how to admit our fears to our trusting group. We learn, but we learn when we’re not noticing that we’re learning.
As you can imagine, it can be challenging to sell such a methodology to parents (but never to kids!). I had started a school like this and struggled to pay the rent and the staff. I witnessed such schools open and close around me. I was running a summer camp that roughly fits such a description as self-directed in nature and was perplexed that all of the conventional school parents were sending their kids to my camp… and then signing them up for more. These were the same parents that gave me strange looks on the playground during the school year as I described my children’s education. And then it hit me: this wasn’t education, this was just play. It was a summer camp where kids were (sometimes) allowed to participate in such activities as this.
That led me to open a junk playground (sometimes called an “adventure” playground) where many children would have the opportunity to have self-directed time. Because most parents will not sign their kids up for such a school. But many parents will bring their kids to such a playground once in a while. But over time the playground also was not working for me; I did not like the idea of a fenced in area of “liberation” and on the playground there was no time to develop a relationship with the young people. And without a relationship, there could not be the trust that is so important for this methodology to work.
From that I came up with the idea of Flying Squads, small groups of liberated young people defining their own boundaries in relationship with one another (and me).
Conventional schooling uses a fear based methodology to control and manipulate children, shaping them into “productive” citizens. This is true whether one is using the threats of an authoritarian approach to education (“listen to me or I will beat you with a paddle until you do what I say”) or the permissive bribery of a progressive approach to education (“listen to me and I will give you gold stars and a good job later in life”).
Youth rights based models of education use a trust based methodology where children make their own choices within a supportive environment that leaves open the possibility of whatever that child might choose to become.
Beyond that, a “class” setting might look quite the same: a self-directed child learning calculus looks quite the same as a conventionally schooled child learning calculus; the difference lies in the motivation that got them to sit down in that seat.
There are so many misconceptions ha ha ha…
First off, William Golding was an ass and Lord of the Flies is about a bunch of conventional school kids who never were allowed to make a decision of their own until they were on a fictional deserted island. Of course they were going to screw it up.
[A more recent book by Rutger Bregman, Humankind, tells the story of a real-life Lord of the Flies incident whereby some boys were shipwrecked alone on an island for 15 months:
“The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.”
You can read an article about this here.]
Permissiveness is not the opposite of authoritarianism; they both work in fear.
Self-directed does not mean “unstructured.” In fact, it takes significantly more structure to create an equitable space where everyone has a say and only one “structure” to run a conventional fear based environment: “Do as I say.” And so, when people say, “This could not work for my child; my child needs structure,” what they really mean is, “My kid can’t think for themself; they need someone to tell them what to do.”
Children were self-directed in their child rearing and education for tens of thousands of years. Conventional compulsory schooling has been around about one hundred and fifty years, give or take fifty years. So, you tell me which one is the “experiment.” And the “experiment” is not working too well (e.g. suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-19 year olds according to the Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/adolescent-health.htm).
I’ll leave it at that for now.
I am not at all interested in progressive education or equipping students for anything; I do not equip. I let the young people equip themselves. I just push back against the society that oppresses young people to make enough room so that those young people have the space and time to go equip themselves however they see fit. And that is the fundamental difference between a progressive education and one of liberation.
The state schools prepare young people to be obedient servants to the oppressive system of capitalism. A state school system by definition must be this for it must serve the state it maintains. All methodologies of education are political. A care provider has the option to opt out of convention and into a methodology that promotes independence and sincere care for others.
Providing free lunches and heat in the winter to the marginalized who are often not provided such “comforts” at home.
The only change worthwhile to the state system would be turning the “open” sign to “closed.” And to be clear, I am not against public education; I am against public schooling. Education should be free and equally accessible to all. But a free system that oppresses youth and perpetuates a white colonial settler notion of the world is one that must not persist.
Give the children around you as much space as you can to explore, to make their own choices. Let them choose what is for dinner tonight, how to walk home from school. Forget about homework and go for a walk and listen to their thoughts instead.
The leading cause for depression and anxiety is the feeling that one does not have control over their own life. Children generally have no control over their own lives. And if you haven’t heard, depression and anxiety in children are shattering records. Let your children have some control over their own life for their own mental health. And for yours. Trust in them.