Freeskool takes a new approach

Delivering education without the price tag

Julie Ann Blackpen (left), Gabriella Agueci and Serina Zapf of A Freeskool Collective believe that education shouldn't come with a price tag.

Julie Ann Blackpen (left), Gabriella Agueci and Serina Zapf of A Freeskool Collective believe that education shouldn't come with a price tag.

Delivering education without the price tag

In Grade 1 art, my teacher asked me and my classmates to draw a tree. Dutifully, I picked out only the best crayons: fuchsia for the trunk, a nice blue for the squiggly leaves and even a background filled with bright yellow scratches of sun. I was so proud to show off my masterpiece that at first I didn’t understand when she told me, “That’s not what a tree looks like, Danielle.” Then, she held up a picture of Garfield the Cat, told us what colours to use and handed each of us a stencil.

It’s little wonder that experts are now critiquing the effects that traditional education has on creativity. Ken Robinson’s TED Talk asking for a radical rethink of school systems has received over 15 million views since its posting in 2009, and Psychology Today spent an issue examining the squashing effect in 2011. Then, last year, the Adobe Foundation released a benchmark study that found 59 per cent of respondents worldwide said their educational systems are stifling creativity.

Yet this year marks a milestone study of another kind — the one-year anniversary of A Freeskool, a collective group run primarily out of Camas Books & Infoshop whose goal is to offer a creative solution to traditional education. And, as you may have guessed from its name, it’s free.

Pressurized learning

“From childhood, we’re told there is a right way and a wrong way to do things,” says A Freeskool Collective member Gabriella Agueci. “Schools are very much like an industrial factory, creating good, obedient workers. You learn that staying quiet is staying safe and people grow into these terrible jobs they just have to ‘get through,’ because that’s what they’re used to doing. But you need creativity, imagination, identity, or you don’t thrive.”

A year ago, co-founder Serina Zapf was in a discussion about the curiousity of education. There were many topics she hoped to learn more about, but in the traditional forms of university, trade schools or even lectures, she found an uncomfortable hierarchy in the way “students” were made to sit quietly in rows and simply absorb. She wanted learning and collaboration — not regurgitation. Turns out, she was not alone.

Since its inception, Freeskool has hosted nearly 100 classes on topics as diverse as making blueberry soda, the history of colonialism in Victoria, an introduction to dog whispering, how to make your own micro-brew bio diesel, activating media, rebel phys-ed, Anarchism 101, Spanish classes, radical feminist art and growing food on a budget. Often, facilitators are trained professionals or professors, or sometimes people just interested in a subject. And while class sizes can range from only a handful to a packed house, one thing sets Freeskool apart from all other learning options: grants allow the education to be kept free for everyone interested, and learning is done in an all-inclusive manner.

“Freeskool operates off a totally different system; we hold the principle of mutual aid,” says Zapf. “We come to learn because we can learn what we need to learn — what nourishes me, as opposed to what, monetarily, I can gain from this. And we use horizontal learning spaces, meaning no one is the authority and everyone is invited to contribute.”

Upside down chalkboard

The idea of free learning is not a new philosophy, just a rare one. Cities like New York, San Francisco and most recently Vancouver have developed their own take on “Trade School,” where instructors and students swap things like knitting lessons for homemade cookies, or work on a car for poetry classes. The non-traditional learning community runs all its programs on barter, but still sidesteps the idea of money. Trade School Vancouver has become so popular since its inception in 2011, that the group has a months-long waiting list for new class proposals.

In Victoria, however, grants — namely from Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group — provide resources to facilitators who need to purchase materials, or have printing or other costs. Grants can also be accessed by participants who need bus passes or childcare subsidies to attend the classes.

Yet the idea of hierarchy is still so ingrained in our education format that Freeskool offers facilitator training and workshops prior to having people participate so that all can acclimatize to the new structure — think circles as opposed to rows, discussions instead of lectures. But that’s as complicated as it gets. Anyone with an idea worth sharing is invited to submit a class proposal by the 15th of every month. Classes are reviewed by the collective, and are chosen based on interest, scheduling and need. Monthly schedules are then posted at Camas Books and online at All are welcome, with no RSVP required.

“We’re taught to fear scarcity, but what we’ve found in this project is that we can all help each other have everything we need,” says Zapf. “We’re socialized in very oppressive ways … but [Freeskool] allows everyone to be on the same level, and we’ve seen participants range from high school or university students to dropouts, to parents and elders, to people ranging in cultures and abilities, and some people who just pass by the window who are curious.”

The concept doesn’t come without its unique challenges — timing can often be an issue when many excited participants want their turn to speak, and continually creating a safe, or “safer,” space is an ever-evolving Freeskool goal. Still, collective members and participants have found a sacred space in the new learning system. As the group embarks into year two, more classes and more “brain hurricane” sessions are planned to keep the program sharp.

“Freeskool really disrupts normative cycles,” says collective member Julie Ann Blackpen. “This is not something that is commonly practiced, so people may see it as radical, but it excites me the same way cheating at a card game excites me — I feel like I got around the traditional system. I learned something, and I got to do it my way.” M

To learn more or to find out more about facilitating a class, visit