»Unlearning Schooling« – A Practical Guide to Growing Awareness of Our Socialisation in School and How It Lives on in Us and Our Activisms

14 Minutes
Grassroots Movement Building, Community & Union Organizing, Institutional Revolutions
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This praxis reflection is based on a workshop we ran in June 2023 at ‘WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING’, the ‘Transnational Lab for Popular, Cultural and Social Movement Educators’ organised by European Alternatives’ School of Transnational Organizing in Berlin. In this session, as part of our 3-months field trip visiting activist and educational spaces across Europe, we explored how school socialises us and how the habits we learn in school may continue to live on in us and our social transformation work. We think that reflecting on these questions can be a helpful first step in becoming more intentional and effective as political activists, organisers, and educators. We have included several reflection exercises below, and invite you to try them in your own group!

The ideas and exercises described here have been developed through the work that we do as THE RYSE (Radical Youth Space for Educations, Stroud, UK), with inspiration and support from many people. For the last months we’ve been working with young people to develop a systemic critique of school and begun to experiment with how we could meaningfully disrupt schools and make space to build a better education for everyone.

 ‘Radicalise Education’ (Artwork: Freya Freeman-Taylor)


Why School?

So first, what do we mean by school? We want to acknowledge that the term ‘school’ opens up a complex world of very different definitions, experiences, and visions to different people. When we refer to it here, we’re talking about mass scale compulsory schooling which derives much of its structures, procedures and pedagogies from schools emerging in Europe around the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century beginning in Great Britain (although you can also draw this lineage much further back - read more here and here). This form of schooling was later exported around much of the world as a tool of cultural erasure and colonial control.

Full Movie ‘Schooling the World’ (Director: Carol Black, 2010, 66’)

From our experience running workshops and discussions at The Radical Youth Space for Educations (THE RYSE), we’ve come to see schooling as a powerful frame to help us understand wider dynamics of our societies, and an institution which needs to be challenged in order to transform the personal, communal and structural conditions of our lives.

To be clear, when we’re seeking to understand how school socialises us, we’re not looking to 100% attribute any behaviour or structure to school. School is entangled with the many other institutions and systems of our societies. Someone’s fear of being wrong may well have been shaped by their family culture as much as their experience in school; and there is clear continuity between the way punishment is used in schools and the criminal justice systems around the world.

A RYSE community dinner and discussion in Stroud

Instead, we're asking the question, what can we understand more clearly about this behaviour, ourselves or the world around us when we look at it through the lens of schooling?


Exploring Our Experiences of School

In asking this question, we’ve found it most powerful to start by exploring our personal experiences of school and institutionalized education, especially in collective spaces where we can begin to see both the wide diversity of experience and also the patterns, differences and similarities between us. Here is a spectrum lines exercise which you could do in your group or organisation to begin exploring your experiences of school and start discussions…


Spectrum Lines

  1. Create a spectrum in a physical space by placing pieces of paper with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on opposite walls (or trees!). One person in the group takes on the role of facilitator and reads out statements, one at a time.

    Statements (pick and choose or make up your own!):

    I went to school.

    I was a good student.

    I felt fulfilled at school.

    School prepared me for life.

    School prepared me for the life I want to live.

    School prepared me to meet the needs of my community.
  2. Everyone else moves through the space to stand somewhere between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ which represents to what extent they feel the statement is true for them.

  3. The facilitator invites a few people to briefly explain why they have stood where they are, to get a sense of the diversity of experiences, and different interpretations of the statements.

The purpose of the exercise is to get the group curious and thinking about school, so don’t get too bogged down in the details or long discussions about how to interpret the statements, unless you agree that’s where you want to go!


Habits of Compliance and Defiance

We spend a huge amount of our lives in school – in the UK compulsory schooling lasts for fourteen years; and we are there during a very formative time in our lives. It’s not surprising then, that many of the behaviours we learn in school stay with us well into adulthood. When a behaviour is repeated regularly enough, and without thinking it becomes a habit, and when enough people in a population have this habit, it becomes part of a culture. We think that becoming aware of, and interrogating the habits and cultures which we pick up in school is essential for those of us trying to engage in social transformation work – and this reflection work is required both on a personal and collective/organisational level. Without an awareness of our unconscious behaviours, we replicate the logics, biases and values of the very systems we are trying to change, limiting our potential to build the radically different society we need.

We’ve found it helpful to think about the habits we learn in school through the lenses of compliance and defiance. Habits of compliance make us conform to rules and bow to authority automatically and often without critical engagement. In situations of political, social or ecological injustice, having been socialised into compliance can stop us from resisting and fighting for what’s right. On the other hand, some of us learn habitual defiance as a response to school. This can also be limiting to our change-making, for example by impacting our ability to collaborate. Let’s have a look at some examples of each.

This divide between behaviours of ‘compliance’ and ‘defiance’ is of course very simplistic. No one fits perfectly into a black-and-white model – in reality we almost always exist in the grey zone and our habits are different depending on the context. But still we find it a helpful tool for understanding how unthinking behaviours, habits and cultures at either end of the spectrum do not serve us, nor our communities and movements. We need to unlearn unhelpful habits in order to reclaim our ability to be intentional and effective change-makers.

We got the concept of habits of compliance and defiance from Charles Eisenstein’s ‘Deschooling ourselves’ workshop at the AERO conference, which you can watch here: 

‘Deschooling Ourselves’ Workshop by Charles Eisenstein


Becoming Aware of How School Lives on in Us

Almost all habits of school are relational habits, meaning they impact how we relate to other people and also the natural world. Unlearning these habits is something that we also need to do in relationships and together with others. Here are some exercises which could start you off in this process, especially to develop your awareness of how your schooling may still affect you. These are all things you can do by yourself but even more powerful would be to do them in a group and then reflect and discuss them together afterwards!


1. Creative Drawing 

This creative drawing exercise is designed to get you engaging with your experiences and emotions in a non-rational and visual way. You’ll need some paper and some coloured pencils/ crayons/ paints. 

Think of school, do any memories come to mind? Any smells, sights, sounds, textures? Do you feel any sensations in your body? Any emotions?  

On a piece of paper start to draw the feeling of school, paying attention to shape, colour, texture, lines, size…You can focus on one feeling, or try to get down lots of different aspects, just try not to censor or analyse too much. If it feels blue and spikey or red and round, even if you don’t know why, put it on the paper and see where it leads! Keep drawing for at least 10 minutes, but if you want to go for longer you can.

Now, look at your drawing, how do you feel when you look at it? Does anything jump out at you – why? Did this process remind you of anything or bring any new insight?

To reflect in a group, everyone holds up their drawings so everyone else can see them. Go round in a circle and everyone takes it in turn to say something that they find interesting about the drawing of someone else in the circle and why. It can be as simple as ‘I noticed the big yellow square in this one, it feels bright but also a bit harsh and dominating.’

If you feel like you’re not an ‘artist’ and putting colours and lines on paper makes you feel nervous, try it anyway! It might be easier to narrow your toolkit at first, maybe start with only a black pen and drawing lines, or colour in the whole page with blocks of the different colours that you associate with the feeling of school.

Example Drawings: ‘How Does School Feel’: from a Deschooling Workshop Given in Denmark in 2021 


2. Shuttle Writing

Shuttle writing is a simple method, which is intended to quieten the self-critical voice in our heads which asks ‘Is this right? Is this good?’ and instead allows lots of ideas to flow intuitively.

Set a timer for 5 minutes. Take a pen and paper and write continuously without allowing your pen to leave the page finishing the sentence ‘My habit of school is…’ when you’ve written one habit, do it again, and again and again. It might look like:

Some of the things you write will feel more true than others, and that’s okay! Just harvest from this exercise whichever thoughts seem ripest for exploration, and leave the rest.


3. Free Journaling

If any of the ideas which you generated in the shuttle writing exercise resonated, take one and run with it! Do some free writing exploring the question ‘How does this habit of school show up in the work I do today, and is it limiting me/ my cause in any way? Does this relate to the habits of compliance or defiance?’


Closing Remarks

The ideas and exercises we have outlined here are just one of many starting points in a long process of unlearning schooling. We think that questioning and raising our awareness of our existing habits is an essential first stage in this journey. We also need to use this understanding to make tangible changes. Once we can clearly say ‘This is not helping me and my group to be healthy or effective’, then we need to begin experimenting with intentionally changing our ways of relating and being in the world to prefigure the new cultures, societies, politics and economics which we need in our work now! This has the potential to be a far reaching and deep process and there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all approach, but hopefully this has given you some ideas to start that process.

THE RYSE Summer Camp 2022

About the contributor

Edda Reichenbach & Martha Stringer
Activists & Educators

We both started our activist journeys while we were still at school, organising as part of Extinction Rebellion Youth and School Strike for Climate. Through sharing experience amongst youth organisers, we realised how the lack of space for learning and problem solving collectively was massively holding back our movements for social and ecological justice. In response to this need, together with four others, in 2021, we set up THE RYSE (The Radical Youth Space for Educations) in Stroud, England.