We’ve been part of three different Distributed Learning programs with the various kids over the years. In BC kids who are home-based learners have two broad choices. They can be registered as homeschoolers according to the Ministry of Education’s legal definition of such, under Sections 12 & 13 of the Education Act. This is as simple as registering with the Ministry, by filling out a form at a school, informing them that your child is being educated at home. That’s basically the end of the story. No one has any duty to support you, and you are not overseen or evaluated or granted permission or anything of the sort.

The other option, which 90% of home-based learners in the province avail themselves of, is to enrol with a Distributed Learning program. DL programs are considered schools, and funding on the order of several thousand dollars is provided to those schools to allow them to provide for their students. DL programs vary a lot. Some offer full curriculum-in-a-box support, some provide virtual classrooms, or moodle courses, or one or two days a week of educational enrichment activities, or experiential learning around a particular theme. Even the more highly structured DL programs offer a lot more flexibility and freedom in choosing one’s educational approach than would be available in a school setting. Some DL programs enthusiastically support out-and-out unschoolers.

There is typically some financial support for family-directed purchases of resources or services; in the past this has usually been in the range of $1000-1200 per child per year, but recently the government has reduced the amount to $600. We’ve used our money mostly for sports and music lessons, but have also purchased art supplies, tech tools like digital cameras and graphing calculators, a bit of curriculum and printer cartridges.

Over the years in addition to the financial support for sports and arts activities we’ve benefitted from things like computer loans, art classes, textbook loans, participation in week-long electives, software loans, a sense of community whether real or virtual, and a free downhill ski / snowboard program.

The flip-side of receiving all this support from a DL program is the accountability. When taxpayer money is being allocated on a child’s behalf, there are bound to be strings attached. The purpose of those strings is, I believe, to ensure that DL children are being effectively educated. But in typical bureaucratic fashion that broad aim is translated into a bunch of microscopic objectives organized by grade level and along extremely schoolish lines. To keep DL families accountable they are required to allow a teacher to oversee their home-based education. In fact, the government goes so far as to say that the supervising teacher has the primary responsibility for the child’s education, with the parent being the person to whom the implementation of that learning is “distributed” on a day-to-day basis. This double-think is what comes of using a school-based model on something that’s really not anything of the sort. But, whatever. If it doesn’t affect what Fiona and I do at home on a daily basis, we don’t really care if the government calls someone in an office far away her teacher.

But there’s always a tension for DL families of the more child-led or unschooling persuasion. It’s a tension between the government’s expectation that DL students are receiving educational programs identical to what happens in school under the supervision of qualified paid teachers and what is actually going on: the parents and the children themselves are highly autonomous and DL education may look nothing like school in either format or content. And in between the government’s unrealistic preconceptions and the reality of an unschooling family’s daily life sits the DL teacher.

In various programs the teachers align themselves differently in the no-man’s land between family realities and government policy. They’re charged with generating the school record for their DL charges. Some view themselves as the enforcers of the government’s expectations, evaluating students to ensure that families enact a sufficiently school-like model at home. (And some parents actually want that accountability and the reassurance that they’re doing “school” in a conventional way at home.) On the other hand some DL teachers view themselves as the parents’ allies, translating whatever naturally happens into school-like perspectives and language in order to satisfy the government that appropriate education is occurring. We’ve always tried to make sure we were allied with the latter type.

When our current DL program began it was at my suggestion. Erin had begun going to school, and as a school parent I was invited to a meeting to discuss the long-term viability of the tiny school with its falling enrolment. I suggested that if a DL program were housed within the school, there were probably up to a dozen or so homeschooled students who would welcome the opportunity of being involved, happy to be keeping funding in our community and feeling a greater sense of connection here. The response from the school was immediate and enthusiastic. How can we do this? What do these families want? they asked.

At a couple of meetings I and some other parents explained why we were homeschooling: to avoid coercion in education, to put our kids in charge, to allow them the freedom to follow their passions, to avoid evaluative mentality and the idea that learning is something you do to please others and earn kudos. “Bring it on!” said the school staff. “We want to support this!” They told their own stories about a few of the amazing formerly-unschooled kids who had joined the school as teens, and how refreshing they’d found the energy and enthusiasm those kids had, how many amazing skills and bits of knowledge they had.

I know it sounds weird, that this was the reaction, but our school happened to have a bunch of people who were really keen on outside-the-box approaches to education. They made it clear that the DL program was in no way a strategic move to hook our kids and reel them into bricks-and-mortar school enrolment. “We want to support what you’re doing. This is exactly what an innovative community-minded school in a tiny village should be doing: supporting all kids, no matter how they want to learn.”

And it’s been great. The principal of the DL program was the woman who led those first few meetings. She was strongly in favour of creating individualized learning plans, primarily written by the parent, to ensure that families still had the flexibility they wanted. The teacher ended up being a wonderful, gentle trusting guy whose starting point was “What do you want from me?” He met with us in person towards the end of each term and the subtext at these meetings was “I trust that your child is learning like crazy. If you can share some of that with me, I’ll be able to do the paperwork that enables your lovely unschooling to continue.” Perfect.

Eventually the DL principal moved on to become the big cheese in the school district. She was replaced by a teddy-bear of a guy who seemed cool with anything, so long as everyone was happy. The atmosphere in the program continued to be defined by supportive trusting relationship we had with the DL teacher. But this year not only did the principal move on, but the teacher we’d had since the beginning took a sabbatical. And neither the new principal nor the new teacher had any experience with Distributed Learning.

Without continuity or any understanding of the original philosophical intent of the program, the two new staff have been working, I think, from institutional documents and preconceptions in trying to figure out their roles. I believe they’re both good-hearted people who want to make things work for the DL families. They have steep learning curves to climb, and they’re trying their best to do so quickly. But I think that so far they’re climbing a different hill from the one I’m on.

Term 1 meetings are imminent. We’ve been asked to bring evidence sufficient for evaluation. I am having trouble explaining by email, or even elucidating for myself, what the disconnect is between me (and other DL parents, based on a couple of casual discussions) and them. They’re trying, but I feel like we’re speaking entirely different languages. So far we’ve been communicating mostly by email, and a couple of times on the phone. We’ll have to see how the meeting shakes down next week. I was clear when all this started: I will not be part of a DL program that requires me to change the successful and efficient educational path we’ve chosen to tread. Fiona is a dynamo: she’s so bright, and clearly very capable and knowledgeable. I refuse to fix what ain’t broke.

The landscape of Distributed Learning

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