Warning: just for full disclosure, this blog post is essentially a 2,500 word advertisement for an amazing book I finished reading called “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: how to quit school and get a real life and education.” If you have the utmost of faith in my ability to choose books, you can skip all this and go buy it now on Amazon.
Since the spring of 2013, I’ve been on a quest to find and/or create a better way for teens to learn. At that time that I saw Khan Academy rise to fame with their online database of video lessons teaching most topics in a high school curriculum. I was amazed at the power of such a FREE tool, but also found it incredibly boring. Regardless of my cynicism, it was clear that some kids were able to get an education outside of the school system. The groundwork had been laid by Khan, but I thought it needed an upgrade in order to hit a tipping point of students leaving school to self-educate.
I had this “brilliant” idea of building a similar platform to Khan Academy that uses student-made videos rather than videos made by teachers. I theorized that 1) students would relate to videos made by their peers and 2) student-made content could be produced at a lower price than Khan who has to pay a staff of teachers.
I saw two other phenomena that made this seem like a realistic vision. The first, I saw that Daniel Tosh, host of the Comedy Central show Tosh.0, was able to inspire viewers to submit videos to his site for a chance to be featured as the ‘Viewer Video of the Week’. The opportunity for fun and a chance at 15 minutes of fame was clearly enough to motivate many to submit content to his show (for free). The second thing I noticed was that the social news site Reddit proved that a strong community could curate content to separate the good from the bad.
So I spent part of 2014 and all of 2015 building out this platform, promoting student video contests, and creating what has become Open Source High: the online school where students are the teachers.
And it’s really cool, but it’s not really solving the problem I set out to solve. I wanted to create a way for students to learn without school that was so awesome and fun (and effective) that nobody would even consider going to school again. Or that schools would be forced to adopt or risk becoming obsolete. I can safely admit that I had the wrong idea.
It turns out that students have been learning without school for a very long time – since long before Khan Academy came up with their digital blackboard videos. Before the internet even! (Actually, humans have been learning without school since the beginning of time, since school is a recent invention. In fact, the first compulsory education law was passed in Massachusetts in 1852.) From what I’ve been reading and the people I’ve been talking to, it appears that some students have been learning without school since at least as far back as the 1960’s through a method, process, and philosophy called “unschooling.”
In almost all situations, unschooled students are legally homeschooled. But do not confuse unschooling with homeschooling. To generalize things, you can think of homeschooling as replicating school at home with the parent taking over the role of teacher and administrator. Unschooling, on the other hand, is a process that is completely self-directed by the student. The student chooses what to learn, when to learn it, discovers how to learn…. and the parent plays the role of facilitator rather than teacher.
In my efforts to find a way to help students leave school and learn via peer-to-peer learning, I faced many roadblocks. Rather than trying to create a solution to the problem of school, I began looking for people who had already solved this problem. I first looked at homeschooling but didn’t quite find what I was looking for. Then I came across unschooling… and it appeared that I found the silver bullet.
Over the last 6 months I’ve been talking to lots of unschooling parents as well as students. To say that I am impressed would be an understatement.
As a point, I’m not really sure the term “students” is even appropriate. Many unschooling purists would probably frown upon that term since it’s generally accepted that humans are natural life-long learners. The idea of calling someone a “student” could be interpreted as condescending in a way. Putting everyone on a level playing field seems to be a core principle of the unschooling community. As you can probably imagine, I’m a big fan of these folks. One thing I should point out which somewhat influences the direction I’ve taken, is that I’ve focused a lot of my attention on teenagers. I did this because this is the age where I felt students could release themselves from the confines of the prison-like schools they were trapped in successfully and safely. In my conversations, parents have said unschooling is most successful when it is started as early as possible, avoiding school entirely if possible.
Since most of my work has been focused on teenagers, it was recommended to me by almost everyone I spoke to about unschooling that I read the quintessential book on unschooling teens: “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education” Just the title alone had me sold.
There are two things that excited me about this book right off the bat. The first – is that the book is very clearly written with a teenage audience in mind. Many other books I read about education are written to parents, teachers, administrators, or the general public. I have a great appreciation for Grace Llewellyn’s willingness to devote her efforts to reach the people who really needed her book the most: the teens themselves! This is a challenge I’ve faced quite a bit through my work as well – with all the influencers and decision-makers involved in education, where I feel like I have to “convince” or “persuade” or “sell” all these different parties on a better approach. I’ve always devoted my efforts to the students and have constantly wondered if I’m missing the mark. It’s nice to see that Grace put all her attention on the students as well.
The second thing that I noticed right away was the publish date of the book. The first edition was published in 1991 and the second edition (which I read) was published in 1998. This is REALLY important because it means the book was published before the internet became as common as it is today. Why is this important? It’s important because it defies this suggestion that the internet is the enabling factor in students’ being able to leave school and learn outside the system. While the internet is an amazing tool, it is very clear reading this book that unschooling can be done without use of the internet. Coming to this realization was possibly the biggest awakening I’ve had in the last two years!
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use the internet. It means that the internet can make things even better and easier – but that people were successfully unschooling before it so don’t be afraid!
To break down some obvious questions – can unschooled students go to college? Yes. Can unschooled students get jobs? Yes. Can unschooled students read, write, and do math? Yes.
Are unschooled students more successful than schooled students? That’s a much harder question to answer because success is defined in many different ways. Some base it on what college you go to, what your income is, what your house looks like, what car you drive, how many friends you have, how happy you are, etc, etc. If you are seeking such statistics, I refer you to a few articles written by Boston College psychology professor Dr. Peter Gray about adults who had been unschooled when they were younger:
- A Survey of Grown Unschoolers I: Overview of Findings
- Survey of Grown Unschoolers II: Going on to College
- Survey of Grown Unschoolers III: Pursuing Careers
- What Do Grown Unschoolers Think of Unschooling? IV in Series
The most eye-opening thing I saw was that unschooled students become entrepreneurs…. Very frequently. In their study, 53% of the respondents were entrepreneurs. Of those who were lifelong unschoolers, the number rose to 63%. What percent do you think is normal? According to The Business Journals, 13% is the expected number (source). Even an unschooler can do that math – that suggests unschoolers are about 5 times more likely to be self-employed than their traditional counterparts.
A lot of this made sense for me because I feel my “unschooling” began the moment I decided to becoming an entrepreneur during my senior year of college. I started seeking out my own information and knowledge and was soaking up information at a rate incomparable to any time I spent in school. I’ve been searching for a way to replicate this for kids and it looks like this puzzle has already been solved long ago.
Yes – of course there is much more to life than being an entrepreneur. But the main thing I am pointing out here is that these students turn out very much self-driven. Is this a by-product of their unschooling? Is it genetic? Is it how their family raised them? It’s tough to say for sure… but after seeing Dr. Gray’s keynote address at the AEROx Conference last month on the evolution of self-directed learning, it appears that since the times when humans were hunter gatherers, we’ve always been self-directed learners – ALL of us. It’s only through the process of schooling that this has been stripped from us. Yes, without sounding like an anarchist or a cynic, it’s pretty simple that school has stripped children of their innate, natural desire to learn as “learning” has become synonymous with “work”. Wanting to learn is… normal… organic… it’s the DEFAULT setting in the human mind. The switch has to be flipped toward “compliant, order-taker” through force.
I’m starting to get feisty… I will get back on topic.
I should also share some of my first-hand experiences meeting unschoolers at an unschooling conference I attended last month in Staten Island called the Life Without Instructions Conference. I had an amazing experience which probably deserves its own blog post too (in fact I started writing a book immediately after the event!). What I want to point out are a few real take-homes:
- Contrary to many expectations, the students’ social skills were above average. Not just average, but above average. This is likely from interacting with adults and students of many different ages rather than spending every waking hour of their life surrounded only by people the same age as them. The idea of age-mixing is a very important aspect of the unschooled world with many benefits.
- There were some incredibly brilliant students. But I don’t want to glamorize them and say that ‘everyone who is unschooled is brilliant.’ It doesn’t quite work like that. Kids are still normal kids. Unschooling doesn’t magically make everyone a genius. That’s not the point really. But in case anyone is skeptical, I am happy to report kids were plenty smart. More importantly, they seemed to be very thoughtful, creative, curious, and worldly. I would use the word ‘mature’ if it didn’t have a negative connotation suggesting “un-fun.”
- The parents were far happier with the relationship with their teen than the average parent. As one parent said, “Everyone told me when my kid was a teen that he’d start to rebel… but it hasn’t happened – he has nothing to rebel against.” This doesn’t mean unschoolers do whatever they want – parents still have rules. But the stress of the imposed-mandates from the schools are removed through unschooling which it turns out are the source of most conflict between teens and parents.
- It is not expensive. I met single mothers who were successfully unschooling, some of whom even travel the world. It may take adjustments to your lifestyle, but that’s the point! They are adjustments in the right direction.
I’ve come this far without revealing too much about the Teenage Liberation Handbook itself. I purposely don’t want to give away the mysteries contained within the Handbook. That is for you to do when you go buy it and read it. This article is more to share all the experiences I was having as I was reading the book. There was so much synchronistic energy bouncing between my real-life and reading that it was, I dare say, mystical experience.
One of the challenging experiences I got reading the book was this… I had to accept that a lot of the work I’ve been trying to do has already been done. And that’s ok. I thought my job was to find a way to empower kids to take their education into their own hands and escape the system. It turns out… people have already been doing it. It also turns out that this book is the step-by-step guide on how to do it yourself. Meaning – if you’re a teen and reading my blog this far has excited you, go read this damn book.
The book describes everything from how to initiate a conversation with your parents about leaving school, to how to navigate the legal issues of unschooling, to how to cover each and every subject that you would normally have learned in high school. What you’ll end up learning by the end, is that you don’t really need to try and cover every single subject learned in high school. There is far more to life and your education than the curriculum prescribed by the federal government.
Does this mean I’m going to stop trying to revolutionize education? No… it’s just that my job is different now. This book shows you how to do everything without me. You don’t really need me. I think my job has shifted toward getting the message out to students about this information. And I think the best way to do that really is still through peer-to-peer learning. I can only reach so many kids, the real power comes in allowing them to connect with each other.
So maybe the ultimate outcome of all my efforts will shift from creating a “Khan Academy where all the videos are made by students” toward building (as one unschooler described it) “a digital city where unschoolers can meet and talk about their passions and share new ideas.” Our first users already started logging in at PeerUnschooling.Net. If you’re already an unschooler, you should head over there. If you are not an unschooler and you’re interested in taking the plunge and (as Grace says) “quit school and get a real life and education” then you need to go get your paws on the The Teenage Liberation Handbook. Now quit fucking around on the internet reading silly blogs and get started!