Okay, so School Sucks! was a little negative–it was about school after all. This is the optimistic answer you can use to do something about school by taking charge of your education and gaining some control.
Americans believe a good education is essential to being successful—and it is. I’m going to try to convince you to stop viewing education as one-stop-shopping and begin looking for ways to replace some of your schooling with something more meaningful.
A quick recap of what’s wrong
American compulsory public K-12 schools were created in an industrial age to educate factory workers. Now, they are driven by the money and requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), which requires all schools administer standardized tests to all students. To receive federal funding, each school must make adequate yearly progress (AYP) improving standardized test scores.
So, the most important goal of schools becomes improving standardized test scores
We have an old education system designed to train factory workers, focused on conformity and standardized tests. We shouldn’t be surprised it’s uninteresting and irrelevant to 21st-century digital natives working toward creative, knowledge-based futures.
We need an education revolution
A revolution based on principles that drive human flourishing
1. Diversity: Humans are naturally different and diverse. This uniqueness should be built upon—not diminished.
2. Curiosity: Light the spark and students will learn without further assistance. Great teachers light sparks!
3. Creativity: Our lives are inherently creative. We are diverse, dynamic, and able to continuously re-create ourselves. By designing ourselves, evaluating our success, and repeating, we are able to rapidly become who we want.
Sir Ken How to Escape Education’s Death Valley
Finland’s excellent education system focuses on individualizing learning. It engages students’ curiosity, individuality & creativity. You can design a system like this for yourself right now.
Design your own education system
If you hate school, then imagine the possibility of replacing it with programs that inspire and engage you so that learning becomes rewarding and meaningful.
If you think school is okay, then consider augmenting it with an alternative program that excites you.
“Control Your Own Destiny or Someone Else Will” — Jack Welch
There are two main factors in designing a customized education (state laws vary, so I’ll describe how things work in Utah).
1. Control: Who controls the process, curriculum and your time?
2. What and how are you learning?
We’ll talk about the entities that control first—they drive the what and how you are learning.
- Primary Control: State
- Attendance: Through courts, law forces students to attend school a minimum number of days.
- Curriculum: Determined by the state and implemented through local school boards. Curricula are tied to standardized testing, which drives schools’ success or failure. Individual learning pace, style and preferences are largely ignored. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Change takes decades.
Private and Charter Schools
- Primary Control: State + Board of Directors
- Attendance: The school determines how many days students attend, but must also comply with state minimum requirements. Schools can be flexible for special events, unusual learning opportunities, or competitive athletics.
- Curriculum is optimized for the school, but rarely tailored to individual students without special needs. The needs of the many still outweigh the needs of the few, but accommodations can be made on a case by case basis. Change takes at least a year.
Online Schools—Publicly funded (free to users)
- Primary Control: State
- Attendance: a variety of mechanisms are used to ensure students are regularly doing school work. Programs typically follow the same school calendar as physical school counterparts.
- Curriculum: typically mirrors state-mandated curriculum in physical schools. Most programs are one-size-fits-all.
- Primary Control: State + School Board of Directors
- Attendance: varies widely, some schools have attendance requirements, some resemble publicly-funded online schools. Some programs are decoupled from the traditional school calendar so students with unusual time commitments (e.g. winter sports athletes) can “do school” whenever it fits into their schedule.
- Curriculum: varies widely, some are accredited and can offer high school diplomas. Others fall under home schooling and do not. Most programs are one-size-fits-all.
Independent Education (Homeschooling)
- Primary Control: Parents, Students and Advisors they engage
- Attendance is not required—focus is shifted to learning. Parents may educate students however they deem best, which allows for student autonomy (choice). Autonomy enables students to be intrinsically (self) motivated rather than coerced or bribed into learning. Learning is completely decoupled from the traditional school calendar so that it can occur when it makes most sense.
- Curriculum: Parents and students may choose any source of education, and tailor it to students’ learning pace, style and preferences. This allows students to use learning tools they enjoy. They have a stake in the process and are invested in the outcome throughout rather than working toward a distant graduation and the end to the discomfort of being coerced. Change happens continuously to keep learning tools maximally effective.
- All 50 states allow for independent education. In the past, this type of education has been associated with strong religious beliefs and insulating children from secular influences. The present is much different.
There are many choices between traditional schools and independent education
You don’t have to chose one or the other, there is a continuum along which your ideal scenario might lie.
What’s the Catch?
Until 9th grade, there isn’t one. You may be independently educated through the 8th grade, register and attend high school, then proceed to graduation like traditionally educated students. From 9th grade through 12th, you will have to decide if you want a traditional diploma enough to sacrifice some independence.
If you are independently educated during high school, you may not be able to receive a state-issued diploma. This isn’t a big deal, but seems ominous to many parents. Many top colleges are eager to admit independently educated students who are already self-learners. Students and parents should understand the two primary paths through high school:
1. Traditional schooling with a high school diploma
2: Independent Education without a diploma.
Traditional Schooling with a Twist (Independent Education Light)
Students well know the traditional path through high school: show up for ninth grade, do what your told for four years, and graduate. What is less known are ways you can customize your traditional high school experience by earning high school credits from alternate sources.
- Online courses approved for credit. In our area, three online schools offer courses high schools accept for credit toward graduation. Students can take these courses any time to satisfy high school credit requirements, and create free time during the traditional school day for other activities (or for no activity at all).
- Private tutoring. A private tutoring company offers guided study in high school courses for credit transfer. It can be expensive, but offers the most flexibility.
- Community College courses. Many community colleges offer courses high school students can take to get a head start on a college education while simultaneously earning high school credits. This is especially useful for higher level courses or courses not offered at the local high school.
- All of the above options require students’ parents to authorize “parent release” for any time they are not in the school building.
Independent Education (Homeschooling) isn’t what you think
When people think of homeschooling, many envision a socially isolated kid at the kitchen table with an overworked mom teaching him algebra. While this scenario is possible, and not necessarily bad, it doesn’t encompass the enormity of what is available. Independent education is primarily about who is responsible for educating a student. It isn’t really about being at home, or schooling, or a particular curriculum. It’s about optimal, self-motivated learning—so I’ll try to avoid the misleading term “homeschooling” when possible.
With independent education, parents and students may choose any available source to create an optimum education, including using the portions of public schools they find attractive. Yes, you can choose independent education, and still attend the AP Chemistry class at the local high school (it’s called dual-enrollment). You are considered homeschooled, and agree to abide by school regulations while attending classes you have chosen. For learning outside the classroom, the internet delivers best-in-class instruction to anyone with a device and a connection.
Since independent education allows you to choose any source of learning, I’ll skip the impossible task of trying to create a comprehensive list of options. But, I will describe a path that has worked in our family for transitioning to independent education.
Step-1: A Growth Mindset
In public schools, you have been told exactly what to do and how to do it: walking silently in straight lines, sitting still for long periods, avoiding cell phones use, asking permission to use the restroom. You have worked in an environment of tight control. Independent education requires you to learn to work in an environment of self-motivation and self-control.
More importantly, students coming out of typical public schools will need to rethink how they learn. In the past, you have been told whether you are advanced or remedial, gifted or regular. You have been classified according to academic talents and prospects for success by your ability to play the game of school in the time allotted. Now you can determine your academic talents and prospects for success by choosing what you invest your time in and how much effort you invest. In short, you may now determine how smart you become!
We decided to start independently educating our 10-yr old son Zac (not his real name) when he made it clear he despised school, wasn’t interested in learning there, and said he desperately wanted to be “homeschooled”. The wake up call came from his school when the principal discovered Zac had decided to leave the school property to hang out in the nearby convenience store rather than attend class. When the principal told him how much trouble he was in, Zac informed the principal he would rather be in trouble in his office than struggling to sit still in his classroom. Spending more time competitively snowboarding was also on his list of reasons for a change.
We decided to create our Independent Education program with three distinct goals.
- Intrinsic motivation: find ways to make topics interesting so he can learn for the joy of learning rather than being coerced.
- Learn efficiently by using tools and techniques tailored to his learning pace, style and preferences (4-5x faster than classroom).
- Autonomy: give Zac as much control over the process as possible.
When getting started, we needed change Zac’s perception of learning from a model of receiving information and completing assignments to a model of him discovering. So we decided to take a little break from math, writing and other academic subjects to explore MindsetWorks Brainobogy to understand how our brains work, and how we can better control them for our own benefit. A key takeaway is that we control how smart we are by how hard we work through tough problems.
Decoupling learning from daycare changes your perspective. It allows us to resume learning for our own benefit, out of curiosity, with clear goals. It also allows us to pursue passions that don’t mesh with a five-day, 35-hour school week.
Independent learning is much faster than learning in a one-size-fits-all classroom. I estimate at least five times faster even when ignoring improved retention, which would make independent learning more efficient. This efficiency allows us to dive deeper into interesting topics and pursue non-academic passions.
To increase learning efficiency, Zac took the Kolbe-Y Index test to discover when he is at his best. He was enthralled that the results not only described his personality and style to at T, but also told him how he would be very successful by emphasizing his natural talents. He has enjoyed the audio summary many times!
From Kolbe’s website:
As young people become aware of the talents that drive them to do things in their own unique way, they gain power to create their own solutions to the challenges they meet at home, at school, and in life. The Y Index also gives tips that kids can use to jump start success in school, improve communication, solve problems, kindle leadership skills, and reduce stress.
Individualized Learning Plan
To ensure we’re making progress toward what’s important to us, we use an individualized learning plan. Here is our current plan.
— Create goals together (and track them)
— Select methods (curriculum, web sites, games)
— Take into account learn-smarter points
— Create a portfolio of projects instead of a report-card
— Review lessons learned at the end of each week
— Create learning agenda 1 week prior (plan about 2 hours/day)
Tools that Fit
Armed with the idea that learning should be rewarding, and an understanding of how his own brain likes to work, we started looking for tools that worked well for Zac. Here is our initial repertoire of tools.
— Zac has a slight reading disability that looks a little like dyslexia. So our goal is to keep reading enjoyable
— Learning Ally: audiobooks with follow-along text keep reading fun and on-pace while helping improve reading skills. Great for kids having difficulty with reading speed.
— Scholastic Classics abridged: Frankenstein
— Comic Books
— Writing to persuade: parents to buy him a dirt bike
— Telling about a book: Jimmy Spoon
— Edgenuity: Story telling game (next)
— Hard math/science project: Determine quantity of water in the Park City super pipe
— Presentation to class describing how he found the quantity of water in a super pipe
— Touch typing: Typist. Because hunting and pecking is not efficient at all.
Learning in his natural, most efficient way with tools that amplify his abilities, and according to a plan he helped design has converted a learning headwind into a tailwind for Zac. He looks forward to his sessions, retains what he learns, and enjoys telling his friends about his special deal.
But What About…?
There are many mythical barriers to successful independent education. Perhaps we’ll have time to tackle them thoroughly in another article, but I’ll quickly address my most serious concerns when we began.
- Getting into a good college
- What if we miss something?
Getting into a good (or great) college
Not all career choices demand college, but most of us want it to ensure it remains an option. Choosing to educate independently does not hinder a student’s ability to go to a college that fits their academic abilities. There are even attributes of independent education that help with admissions and success during college: intrinsic motivation, deep understanding and knowledge in areas of intense interest, and the ability to pursue extraordinary extracurricular activities.
A few examples show how some very selective colleges appeal to homeschoolers:
“Follow the passions you have and develop them. We are looking for non-academic criteria – maturity, social facility, and non-academic talents, which is the same range as for traditional students. It is not harder or easier for homeschoolers to get in. It is difficult for anyone to get in.” Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Director of Admissions for Harvard College
MIT: The MIT Admissions Office has very specific recommendations for homeschooled students.
“Looking very closely at homeschoolers is one way to get more of those special minds, the admission office has discovered”. As Reider explains it: “Homeschooled students may have a potential advantage over others in this, since they have consciously chosen and pursued an independent course of study.” In a Class by Themselves. Stanford’s home school admissions guidelines.
US News & World Report
“Students coming from a home school graduated college at a higher rate than their peers—66.7 percent compared to 57.5 percent—and earned higher grade point averages along the way, according to a study that compared students at one doctoral university from 2004-2009.” Home-Schooled Teens Ripe for College
Homeschooled Students are Better Socialized
Independently educated students have been living in the real world for as long as they have been independently educated. They have been interacting with people of all ages, persuading older adults to help them achieve goals, interacting with their local community and modeling their social skills after a broad spectrum of people rather than primarily from a group of equally unsocialized peers.
Independently educated students may choose to join peers in a wide variety athletic leagues and other extracurricular programs. By choosing to join these groups, the relationships become authentic rather than forced.
“In traditional schools students learn to stay in a class to which they’ve been assigned and are grouped according to age and academic level, and generally with students from the same geographic area and socio-economic background… Traditional schools are not conducive to socialization and in fact, students are actually punished if they try to socialize in the classroom.” What About Socialization, homeschool.com.
Traditional schools teach students to be quiet, passive and compliant—traits that do not prepare them for real-world success.
What if We Miss Something
Independently educated students may wonder if they can possibly learn everything their traditional counterparts cover in school. The answer is no, they will not cover exactly the same material. And that’s good! They will learn what is meaningful to them, probably a little deeper, and remember it longer.
Traditional schools don’t cover “everything” either. If you read the admissions criteria for highly selective universities, you will certainly not find the phrase: “has covered everything”. Universities are looking for students with: spark, passion, driven to pursue independent research, and explore difficult concepts from a very early age, willing to challenge themselves, taking initiatives, showing an entrepreneurial spirit, taking full advantage of opportunities.
Students who chose to independently educate themselves have an advantage by embodying theses qualities from an earlier age than most.
I would rather learn a lot about something important to me than temporarily memorize the crap my school says I should learn. — 8th grader hoping to homeschool
What should you do?
That depends on many things. Someday, we may all have learning systems that engage us according to our learning styles, pace and interests. For now, most of us will have to find a way to work within the current school system, or choose independent education.
Zac goes to a traditional class in the morning, then goes snowboarding, trampolining, or some other sport before we begin our version of independent education in the afternoon. Another son (14) is taking online courses over the summer to allow half days of traditional high school next fall. Both of them are finding ways to pull education for themselves rather than waiting passively for it to be forced upon them.
If you wake up every morning looking forward to your classroom experience and the daily routine, you may be on the right track for you. Consider adding small independent education components to see how you like them. You may even find programs you like that take the place of some classroom time.
If you dread the daily grind, lack of autonomy and standardized curriculum, then why not experiment with your education? You may discover independent education lights your spark for life-long learning. Take small steps at first. Take the initiative. Challenge yourself. Take full advantage of your opportunities!
Begin designing your life now!
Please share what works and doesn’t work for you in the Facebook comments to this article.