11 ways for leaders to ‘unschool’ school

Taking a student-centered approach increases learning (and buy-in)
By: | Issue: February, 2020
January 2, 2020
(gettyimages.com: South_agency)(gettyimages.com: South_agency)

Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development.

The term “unschooling” was originally associated with the home-school movement. Now that personalized learning is becoming a pedagogy, unschooling is taking on an expanded meaning. It’s about advocating a student-centered approach. It’s time to redefine what we know as school to boost engagement and improve learning. Here are 11 ways to take action.

  1. Ask students about everything. Staff should survey students several times per year about their learning experiences, and work to improve those experiences. Students should also provide feedback on rules, processes, hiring, schedules, facilities, course needs and finances. Students have great ideas, and we rarely consult them. If you want to have responsible students who are prepared for the future, include them. 
  2. Limit rules and restrictions. Schools tend to have dozens, or even hundreds, of rules. Like a good résumé, get your list down to one page. Focus on the essentials, and make sure they are based on legal obligations and common sense and/or safety. 
  3. Improve staff accessibility. All school personnel should be accessible. Allow, or even encourage, students to communicate in any way that works. Using social media applications will open the lines of communication, which will build relationships and lead to trust.


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  4. “Smart-start” your school. Many students anticipate the beginning of each school year. This excitement usually dissipates as they are inundated with long talks about rules, expectations, syllabuses and more. What if that first week and beyond opened up opportunities and possibilities? What if schools focused more on what students can do versus what they cannot do? (For more, visit DAmag.me/smartstart.)
  5. Expand the campus walls. Our school gates need to be literally and figuratively transparent. In addition to their teachers and peers, students should see a variety of people on campus—including career professionals, mentors and community leaders. Also, students should spend time off campus. They need work-, place- and community-based experiences not only to define their learning, but also to provide necessary context and networks. 
  6. Help students become leaders and facilitators. All students need to pursue their interests and career goals. They need opportunities to research, collaborate, pitch, problem-solve and more—all in an effort to create a digital portfolio of work and accompanying badges, certificates and skill mastery.
  7. Eliminate bells. Haven’t we taught students how to tell time? If you need a reminder, use music or something fun. But to me, bells don’t make people on time; importance, buy-in, involvement and engagement do. 
  8. Flip the school food paradigm and more. Our school food services need to be more like food trucks. Our classrooms need to be more like contemporary workspaces. Our administrative offices need to be more like concierge centers. It’s about making our schools more inviting. When we want to be somewhere, we perform better. 
  9. Go big and go pro with gear. Yes, we have budget limitations. Whether it’s through grant writing, corporate or community donations, or something else, we need to find a way to provide cutting-edge equipment that inspires innovation and boosts creativity.
  10. Go beyond the “big game” or school dance. What if our schools offered student art exhibitions and project showcases, student film festivals, unplugged acoustic nights, and culinary competitions? If our schools are to be the hubs of our student communities, make them reflect those communities.
  11. Mix it up. We know our students depend on certain levels of structure. But consider reversing the daily schedule on occasion; having lame duck days that allow students to take over the school’s social media accounts; or having teachers swap classes. You get the idea.

If our schools are to be the hubs of our student communities, make them reflect those communities.

Let’s “unschool” school.


Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes about transformational leadership and PD.