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ALC Membership: Sharing the vision, spreading the model, and supporting startups

When I decided to join @artbrock’s Emerging Leader Labs to develop the culture, vision, and brand of the ALC project, I brought with me a strong motivation to address the various challenges I experienced working in the alternative education world. I’ve written about this before so I won’t go into too much detail – but in order explain the new ALC Membership model, laying some of this context is important.

There are many gaps that the ALC model and vision aims to address, but I want to focus on the following, as they are the ones most directly related to ALC Membership.

  • Most alternative schools choose an identity by clinging to a static, dogmatic, and top-down model.
  • Whether adopting a preexisting model (Waldorf, Montessori, Sudbury(?), etc.) or “making up as we go along” there is a growing number of change-makers generating disparate investments, leaving them disconnected and generally isolated from one another.
  • An incredible amount of wisdom, experience, and practical tools have been acquired through alternative school ventures but very little of it has been used to connect and inform future projects or amplify the voices in this movement towards a new education paradigm.

Don’t Get Montessori’d

To be truly agile means to always be evolving and iterating your tools, practices, and support structures – informed by collective wisdom and most-recent experiences, always with the aim to best serve the people in your group (community, team, family, etc).

Within a school or an organized learning environment this represents the fundamental distinction between a progressive school and self-directed learning community. Progressive schools go as far as they can to use new ideas and concepts to inform the curriculum and teaching practices, but they still hold on to the notion that curriculum (whether content or processes) should be created, curated, and controlled by the teachers. Explicit consent from students (let alone direct collaboration) is almost always missing, which means the actual educational experience and medium is not one of self-creation or self-direction.

From a larger scale, or meta-level (if you will), being agile means the educational model is itself a living thing – it emerges from the direct engagement, experiences, and inventiveness of the facilitators, students, and parents. To be an effective facilitator in an ALC you don’t get trained by learning a bunch of theories of development and static practices to go and apply to your school. Instead, you enter into a cultural experience and a practice of creation and collaboration with others (fellow facilitators, parents, and especially students) – you learn how to cultivate a culture that fosters self-empowerment and collective intelligence. There’s never a single right way to do this, and so this work is inherently creative and cannot be done by a dedication to any one person’s theories or books, whether from 1900 or 2015.

Creative Coherence: Autonomy and Alignment

The number of people choosing to homeschool in the US and around the world continues to increase significantly each year and so does the number of passionate and motivated individuals taking the leap to create a school or co-op for their local community. How many more would do so if there were tools, resources, and experienced people to support them? How many more than that would take the leap if the collective actions of everyone in this movement could be leveraged to help legitimize their choice to do so?

Dissatisfaction with traditional schooling comes in many flavors, but even when you drill down into the world of real learner-led, trust-based approaches you find terms and concepts like unschooling, self-directed learning, democratic education, free school, and many more. From those broad strokes people try to create a brand to distinguish their project and make it appealing enough for people to enroll their children (Insert: “The Green School”, ‘Organic Learning Community”, “ Open Road” and other random names I just made up that are probably actually names of real schools). They also clammer to find a practical approach to developing a healthy culture so that their learning community actually functions as intended. Most of them really struggle with that.

Part of the reason the ALC model has been so well received by this demographic of educators and social change-makers has been the tools we’ve adapted and invented to support healthy culture creation and effective organizational management. As we are beginning to see a quantum leap in growth on the horizon, it’s becoming clear that there is something infectiously attractive about offering folks an opportunity for their efforts toward starting a school or co-op to be directly contributing to a bigger movement. It’s critical that we continue to scale autonomy and alignment equally through this next stage.

ALC Membership

So far, our network has grown out of the work of a handful of facilitators who either co-founded the ALC model or were directly involved in our initial Agile Learning Facilitator (ALF) trainings. More recently, a lot of groups have reached out to us and have begun using our tools and practices in their own learning communities/startup projects – a trend that should only increase now that we’ve shared the first version of our StarterKit. Because the ALC project is rooted in collaboration and the model is evolved by its practitioners, we have to find a way to balance our desire to spread the model wide and far with our need to keep a tight-knit and highly-functioning collaborative facilitator community.

To do so, we’ve structured the new membership model so that our current core team can continue to work on our ALCs, while a few of us provide coaching and support for a whole new layer of engagement. This approach sets us up to support new startup projects that are wanting to begin collaborating with us, access useful resources, and through the process discern if the ALC brand, vision, and network is right for them longterm.

Folks using our tools, ALC Startups, and “Official” ALCs

Through this membership process we are further clarifying the various circles of engagement that exist within the ALC organism – we’re creating some terms that carry these distinctions in their definitions. The terminology and the membranes they represent will certainly change a bit over time, both in our effort to clarify them and in our need to adapt to the continuous growth we expect. For now, we are looking at three different circles of engagement with ALC from the organization/group level as it relates to the new ALC Membership model.

The outer layer is comprised of “folks using our tools”. These may be schools, co-ops, camps, social non-profits, etc. that have their own brand established and a mission or pedagogical approach that may not be fully aligned with ALC, but comes pretty close. These folks have found our practical tools to be useful and have begun implementing some of them in their communities or organizations. The engagement with this layer probably stops there – they’re not on an intentional path to directly collaborate with us, but have established some relationship to ALC and find it useful to have the association made explicit. ALC Members that have self-selected this distinction get added to our map and can still access the same additional resources as other ALC Members.

The next layer is is similar to the one before it, except these organizations are considered ALC Startups because they either want to explore if the ALC model is for them, or they’re already clear that it is and want to start forging a path towards higher levels of engagement. ALC Startups will get a lot of support and attention from a small working group of network holders who have a variety of skills and expertise through online coaching sessions. We also provide ALC Startups with access to ALC.network – our online buddypress platform that hosts individual blogs, schools websites, and connects users through a twitter-like activity stream. Our aim is provide as much support as we can to new startup projects while introducing them to our network in these basic ways – we share our online tools and collective experience with daily facilitation and organizational enterprising.

The goal is to be able to invite a whole new group of ALC Startups into the next layer of engagement after working together in this capacity over the course of the year. We still have some decisions to make about the membranes for “official” ALCs, but it will certainly be built around participation in ALF trainings and group peer-review processes that we’ve already begun implementing. At this point we are preparing ourselves for several ALF Summer programs in multiple locations for 2016.

Last year we started to get a little taste of inter-ALC student trips and exchanges. Another huge part of our vision in having a global network of ALCs is the ability for students, facilitators, and families to travel around the world and spend time in other ALC communities. A relevant education in today’s world has to involve direct exposure to many different cultures and we are stoked to have begun this process with just a handful of ALCs last year.

Learn about ALC Membership here.

Curious? Download our StarterKit for free.


  1. Tariq says:

    Just love this post. It makes so much sense and really resonates with my personal experience. I think the idea of being “agile”, to be constantly creating, recreating and evolving is very important particularly as we work towards developing educational frameworks that are relevant to the 21st century. The way we think about what we do, the practises we evolve and the cultures we cultivate must be dynamic, constantly shaped by our experiences/reflections and driven by the needs and expectations of the community. The idea of a static, rigid, inflexible and linear learning environment no longer squares with the reality nor does the idea that teachers or administrators have the sole right to determine or shape the learning environment. I think what you say is absolutely spot on when you say:

    “From a larger scale, or meta-level (if you will), being agile means the educational model is itself a living thing – it emerges from the direct engagement, experiences, and inventiveness of the facilitators, students, and parents. To be an effective facilitator in an ALC you don’t get trained by learning a bunch of theories of development and static practices to go and apply to your school. Instead, you enter into a cultural experience and a practice of creation and collaboration with others (fellow facilitators, parents, and especially students) – you learn how to cultivate a culture that fosters self-empowerment and collective intelligence.”

    This is just music to my ears! From my experience of implementing problem-based learning courses here in Oman, the idea of entering into a “cultural experience and a practise of creation and collaboration with others” really resonates.

    I’m not sure how familiar you are with PBL but in a nutshell it’s an instructional approach which focuses on learners working in small groups to solve complex problems. The “teacher” doesn’t teach but rather facilitates the process of problem solving through scaffolded support. It’s like a kind of guided self-directed learning ( if that makes sense!). The approach works on developing people, process and product skills. So learners think about the usefulness of 21st century skills like collaboration, communication, negotiation, leadership, conflict resolution (people), time management, project management, planning (process) and presentations, posters, reports, blogging, social networking (product).

    When we first implemented PBL, a lot of teachers moving from “conventional” teacher-centred courses were finding it very difficult to adapt to PBL. We quickly realized that we had to actually build a culture around the course. For example, as facilitators overseeing a process of extended enquiry , we had to adopt the practises, skills, ways of working, vocabulary that we exposed students our studente to. This meant that there was a bridge between teachers and learners, the power relations were less important and there were values that we shared. This all helped to create a more inclusive experience, learners felt more empowered and teachers more invested. This really made me appreciate the benefits of cultivating a culture around a learning experience. To me it helps to create shared meanings, create shared contexts and better resolve any conflicts. Learners have clearer expectations and are better able to communicate those expectations through shared values and tools.

    I also really like the idea of different levels of engagement for ALC startups. I think, for someone like myself, it’s important to have options and be able to develop a sense of what I can reasonably expect to achieve while going through facilitation and coaching. As I’m speaking to people and slowly building relations, I’m developing more confidence in myself as well as the ALC network and structure. I think this is really important stage. Once I get a general sense of what’s happening, the philosophy, the challenges and the possibilities, it would be easier to think about the level of engagement that would suit my particular context.

    Thanks for sharing this piece. A really fascinating insight and really informative!

    • Tomis says:

      You’re welcome, Tariq! Thanks for reading; I’m glad it was informative for you.

      I am familiar with project-based learning, but I’ve never spent any time implementing it in any official way. I agree that its concepts are a step in the right direction, as it can support self-organization, self-direction and more open-ended “learning”. As a tool in a large arsenal of possible tools, I like it. As another methodology that is used to get adult-created and adult-directed curriculum to be more effective, then it falls short. In this case, it is simply another progressive education approach, but not a fundamental shift in the approach to education.

      Our concept of learning and education are so incredibly narrow in our modern world; almost exclusively, discussions about learning and education are centered around young people learning content. In more complete approach to education and human development, we would recognize that there are a vast array of psycho-social needs that young people have that emerge and evolve over time. If the focus is simply on delivering content to them in a shiny and fun way, we are often overlooking the emotional intelligence and psychological health of the students.

      And so, for me, “agile”, is ultimately about beginning with the students as whole people first and allowing all learning activity to emerge from there.

  2. Tariq says:

    I absolutely agree and it’s the reason I’m so interested in the work that you are doing at the ALC. The whole idea of creating cultures and learning frameworks that emerge from a more holistic view of the learner is right at the cutting edge of where we should be as “educators” and I feel that the approaches, tools and practises you are developing at the ALC really promote this idea. Very exciting stuff!

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  3. artbrock says:

    Hey @tomis, Somehow I missed this post when you wrote it. It’s really great, and we should steal some of it’s content as a guide for new ALCs understanding/navigating the network membranes.

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