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ALF Summer: Designing a New Education System

by Tomis Parker

I spend a good bit of my time handling backend administrative logistics for the ALC in NYC and ALC Mosaic in Charlotte, NC. Though there’s a sizable amount of mundane tasks involved in this work, it is exciting to be learning so much about managing a nonprofit business. I’m getting to implement people-centered, agile methodologies across two organizations while employing a lot of my strengths like rational thinking, strategic planning, interpersonal dynamics/communication, and a little bit of math.

Administrative work, managing an organization, and routinely cleaning toilet seats that young boys struggle not to piss all over is absolutely necessary work to maintain the forward progress we have generated thus far. This has been my piece in supporting two of the current ALC communities that we already have up and running.

When I’m not doing this work, I’m usually thinking about ALF Summer, or talking to someone who is interested in attending. I’m stoked on ALF Summer because I see how it encompasses so many things that are essential in our efforts to design a new, relevant, and generative education system. Plus it is just a ton of fun!

ALF Summer 14
ALF Summer 14

From the website:

“ALF Summer is a four-week immersive experience that serves as a co-creative training and incubator for the Agile Learning Centers network.

ALC coherence holders and experienced facilitators come together with parents, new facilitators, and startup groups to support the continuous improvement of our work, the ALC model, and the next stage of ALC network growth.”

That’s the most succinct way we could describe it. This blog is an extrapolation of sorts.

ALF Summer accomplishes many, many things for the ALC project and for the individuals who participate — I see it as absolutely necessary in our work to build a new education system based on collaboration.

Last July we piloted the concept with great success. We were able to bring all of the momentum from that first year to birth a living network of ALCs and a connected facilitator community. For three weeks we created our own Agile Learning Center, where we acted as both the teachers and the students — sharing ideas, using and evolving tools, and generating significant results. We even squeezed a peer-review and self-assessment practice in during the final week. This next ALF Summer will be a month long because we saw how valuable another week would be to the process.

A lot of people are reaching out with interest in the ALC model and in attending ALF Summer. Most of them are pointing to the difficulty in making time for a four-week program. I totally understand this, as rearranging your life to be able to spend a month away from home, friends, family, and other responsibilities is no easy feat. Because I’ve heard from so many people who are thirsty for more but can’t make this investment, I’m motivated to start planning an ALC Conference for 2016. But that’s another topic, another project.

ALF Summer is an investment and a significant one at that. No doubt about it and there’s really no other way around it — it has to be. There’s so many theories, pedagogies, curriculums, teaching aids, tools and strategies out there already, but a relevant education system isn’t going to magically emerge from implementing a few new (or more realistically, old) tricks.


So why is a four-week intensive necessary and what does it accomplish?

When I first moved to New York City in 2009 to begin working in a self-directed learning community, I was excited, fascinated, and naive — pretty much everything you would expect. My job title was officially known as “staff member”, and though it wasn’t explicit it was implicitly known that my responsibility was to work with the students.

Well, what does that look like? What does “teaching” or being an adult in a self-directed learning environment actually entail? Did anyone know? Not really.

Over the next few years I was able to meet a lot of other people from around the world working in similar independent schools who were also pretty unclear about what the they were supposed to be doing, or what it looked like to be an effective and powerful adult in this kind of learning environment. This makes total sense since it is extremely rare for the adults doing this work to have experienced growing up in a self-directed learning community; there’s been very little modeling of how this works.

How do you create and maintain a healthy and effective culture of self-direction, passion-driven learning, and personal responsibility for kids? It wasn’t until I participated in Emerging Leader Labs that I fully realized the answer to that question. You have to do it yourself, first.


Relevant training for new facilitators looking to work directly with children in a self-directed learning community.

Those who come to ALF Summer because they want to work with kids in an ALC are getting the only kind of training there is for that. It’s learning by doing. Whatever we want our schools to look like for our students we have to be able to generate for ourselves. “Training” in this context means embodying the cultural distinctions that we hold sacred, engaging directly with tools and practices that support an intentional culture, and experiencing yourself as an autonomous, collaborative, and generative learner.*

*Once you stop consuming curriculum nostrums and pushing them onto children, you have to fill that void with something positive. Who you are — defined mostly by what you do — becomes what you teach. We don’t want kids to just consume content, material, and resources anymore. We want them to act powerfully in awareness of themselves towards a happy, healthy, and engaged life. We want them to be generative for themselves and their community. Being a “teacher” in a self-directed learning community means producing tangible fruit from your work — shareable value.


An opportunity for current facilitators to share the value of their experiences.

ALF Summer is all about sharpening our collaboration skills and learning to share the value of our time, work, and experiences with others. Part of training new facilitators means having active and experienced facilitators share what they’ve learned from doing the work directly.

What’s possible if the people learning how to do this work were actually sharing their insights with the next wave wanting to learn? I have seen so many passionate people in the alternative education world tirelessly reinventing the wheel because there’s no opportunity to learn deeply from others.


Filling the gaps in our skill sets, casting the net wide, and maintaining coherence.

Running a business and managing an organization of interconnected relationships is a whole other part of this game — a part that is often overlooked by those starting a school who are primarily motivated by their passion to work with children. Many of the self-directed learning startups I’ve seen or read about have emerged from subcultures that usually don’t associate with the business world and don’t have much practice with entrepreneurialism.

I’m excited about seeing this shift lately, as this is an intention of the ALC project — to bring together any and all subcultures and lifestyle genres that have shared beliefs regarding the way humans learn, work, and play best. The hippies need to upgrade their tools, and learn about effective organizational management and financial sustainability from the business world. The yuppies need to slow down, and learn about the inherent value of every human and systemic inequality from the social activists. (That’s just one example of this idea contextualized to my personal reference points.)

All across the board we need to do more listening and begin looking for the places in which we have similar goals. Last summer we drafted our “Agile Roots” as a way of building an inclusive and clear foundation for the ALC project — the coherence in which we currently operate within. Because a theory of education cannot exist in isolation, we are looking to play and partner with people from any subculture that is committed to operating from these assumptions:

  • Learning is natural. It’s happening all the time.
  • People learn better when they make their own decisions. Children are people.
  • People learn more from the culture and environment they are immersed in than from the material they are taught.
  • People develop their strengths and sense of purpose through cycles of intention, creation, reflection, and sharing.



A practice in true collaboration

Working together in this collaborative context is not just important to kickstart a project like this, it is absolutely necessary to maintain as a consistent practice. An Agile principle that I hold dear is, “people over process”, meaning you should always make sure your process is serving the people, rather than the other way around. (A pull-based approach, rather than a push-based.) Still, you’re always balancing people dynamics since it is impossible to serve everyone within a single organization of purpose and still maintain social coherence.

In an ALC we are iterating our agreements and cultural practices weekly. In the larger project we need to be iterating our tools, practices, and support structures every year. This is the only way to remain relevant and effective and not get stale or institutionalized.

Last summer many of us began as strangers and left connected and committed to continued growth and mutual support. Of course, that’s not always easy and usually there’s some bumps along the way. But that’s just it — there’s something so powerful about strengthening the connections between people who have set out to accomplish the same things before having ever met each other. It is at this intersection that autonomous collaboration can thrive.

The number of people who want to dedicate their life to redesigning (and living!) a new education system continues to grow, but we have to do something productive with all that action potential. So, what’s possible if we get together for more than a weekend of workshops and blah, blah, blah, and actually start inventing, creating, and doing it together?



This article was originally posted on Tomis Parker’s ALC blog, here.