School is a bad design. It is designed to use fear and coercion to control teachers and students. It is based on pre-scientific notions of how learning works.
I started thinking about education for my first child when I was 35 and two months pregnant. I didn’t want to send my child to school because I hated school. I was bored silly and gradually lost my inner spark as I learned to play the game.
I decided that, even though my children would naturally experience the questioning and searching that is part of the human experience as they enter adolescence, they could avoid a stressful mid-life crisis if they were able to discover who they were and what they loved to do at a young age. I wanted them to have an education rooted in love and wonder.
A Quest for Not-School and Not-Unschool
I began asking the question, “What options are available for children who want engaging, meaningful learning experiences that are not school?”.
Sixteen years into our self-directed learning journeys, my daughters are still seeking an educational form that both holds them reassuringly and offers freedom to explore. They look to the future and feel societal pressure to prepare for it in someway. They wonder if kids in school are further ahead, like learning is a race. They wonder how they measure up.
They don’t want curriculum. They want real work not make work. They get a bit disoriented when the world is divided into subjects without context or relevance to their lives. Neither had any interest in Khan academy which didn’t present math in a relevant or interesting way.
They don’t enjoy being at home for long stretches of time. They want to be involved in the world around them. And they want a community of loving mentors to hold and guide them.
When they look at this vast world, the limitless possibilities can become overwhelming. Once my daughters know what directions they want to pursue, they will come up with their own goals for learning. In the meantime, they want real learning experiences that are hands-on and fun.
Existing Group Learning: School Form or No Form
Currently, the only opportunities for group learning fall into two camps: the School Form and No Form/Formless.
School form includes public and private schools, Montessori, Waldorf. No Form/Formless includes Sudbury Schools, free schools, and other democratic schools.
Both of my daughters have tried the No Form approach both at home and in a group experience. (I co-founded a Sudbury school in Asheville, NC in 2004 and my youngest daughter tried a no-form school in Austin in 2014.) Even my youngest daughter, who is a highly self-directed learner, found the No Form approach to grow boring over time. She wants more form.
Freedom to Choose (or not)
I perceived the main deficits of my school experience as lack of freedom and choice. Two of my mentors, Joseph Chilton Pearce and Brent Cameron, both described their school experience to me as prison.
Parents automatically assume that the standards that teachers are forced to follow make sense. They don’t realize that the standards are all made up. Somebody decided that all 9th graders need to study biology. The standards aren’t based on anything substantial or valid. Schools turn everyone into a generalist when the world rewards specialization and passion.
In a learning environment that is formless and youth are able to pursue their own interests, you don’t have any of these issues. However, my daughters want more guidance along their paths. I’ve heard over the past decade: “Mom, I would like someone to set up projects for me and then let me do it my way.” “I want courses that are hands-on.” “I want someone other than you to be my teacher.”
Fear and Coercion
To get kids to sit still and pay attention when they aren’t interested in something, teachers and administrators use the weapons of fear and coercion. And teachers and administrators are also controlled by fear in the endless pursuit of improving test scores.
Coercion is often clear (if you don’t do this, you get publicly humiliated and shamed, detention, bad grades, silent lunch, suspension, etc.) or extremely subtle (you will get your teacher’s love and approval if you do what he/she asks).
Under all of this coercion is fear. This is my biggest problem with school: it is a fear-based system. The system is based on psychological abuse — shame, embarrassment, ridicule, and fear to control people.
I’m not saying that the adults in the system are abusive. I’m saying that the system is abusive. Read about the Stanford Prison Experiment. You’ll understand how we adapt our values to the system we are in.
Every single spiritual teacher tells us to live from a place of Love. They say that there is either fear or love, two sides of a coin. Why do we fill our children with fear and condition them to live from a place of fear?
They leave school full of fear: fear of the future, fear of failing, fear of not being good enough, fear of not getting into college, fear of not getting a good job, fear of being stupid because they don’t learn the way school is designed (that’s 95% of us by the way).
What if we instead focused our education on love? Learn to love yourself unconditionally. Learn what your gifts and talents are and how to share them with the world? Learn to love your learning differences. Learn to focus on your strengths and know that, in the real world, you can partner with people who excel where you struggle.
Would we continue to make children who struggle with school math feel stupid if we acknowledged that even Thomas Edison hated and avoided math?
I can always hire a mathematician. [But] they cannot hire me. — Thomas Edison
Most free school and democratic school pioneers are justified in their mistrust of the school form. In the school form, there is both an explicit agenda (high standardized test scores) and a hidden agenda (by setting a curriculum the administration and teachers are saying that they know what is worth learning, and the primary goal of schooling is to train kids to be compliant and follow the rules).
Given that the world is changing at a phenomenal pace, I don’t think anyone knows what information will be relevant, yet we still fill our kids with facts that could be found on the internet in a few seconds. Even though we know that learning is an embodied experience, we teach only to the intellect, ignoring innate wisdom and intelligence.
So, here is the third way that I am proposing:
A New Educational Model
This new educational model has emerged through my conversations with youth and young adults. They desire flexibility, choice, no coercion, no hidden agendas, pursuit of personal excellence, mentors to design projects and challenges, connection with the greater community, help figuring out the next steps, apprenticeships, and support in building their own ventures.
Youth want to be able to choose from some well-designed paths with permission to get off the path and forge their own. They want a form to follow but not a standard curriculum. They don’t want to always make up their own problems or come up with their own projects. And when they do, they want space and time to pursue them. They want structure but not too much.
I dream about creating an ALC based on the spiritual practices of unconditional Self love. Self-directed learning is a tough sell to parents who have been conditioned to be fearful. So we need to increase the signal of this new third way.
Increasing the Signal of the New Education Model
Our society continues to perpetuate a myth that, if you do well in school, you will get into a good college that leads to a well-paying job and you will be set for life. A college degree continues to be the strongest signal of employability.
The promise of a bright future continues to trap parents and teens into a one-size-fits all education experience: school. Even families who have chosen less conventional approach to education become increasingly nervous as learners enter 7th and 8th grade, wondering if this approach is sufficient preparation for high school, college, and life. They often switch course and enroll in high school.
While it is unclear if increased access to federal student loans has led to steep tuition increases, the return on investment (ROI) of a college degree has decreased in many cases. The average student loan burden of students graduating in 2014 is $34,000. Approximately 45% of college graduates with liberal arts degrees are working in jobs that don’t require a degree. Many college graduates take jobs to pay off their student debt that have nothing to do with their interests, gifts or aspirations.
We need to create change from outside of the system. In 2013 I tried to start two charter schools in California. I won $500,000 in competitive Federal start-up grants but couldn’t get the charter schools authorized by the local school board or county educational office. The superintendent behind closed doors told me, “Caprice, I see how you can teach the love of learning in your proposed schools but I don’t know how you’re going to cover all the standards.”
Here was the nail that sealed the coffin on the two charter schools that I was developing for the SelfDesign Learning Foundation:
“On the one hand, you have SelfDesign which allows children to follow their interests and passion. On the other hand, you have the California Department of Education that requires all children to learn the same things at the same time. I don’t think there is a match here.. Inherently the idea that you are going to allow students to select their curriculum based on what they are passionate about, it’s inherently contradictory to you have to learn these things and you have to learn them in this order.” — Roger Rice, Assistant Superintendent, Ventura County Office of Education, February 25, 2012, Ventura County Board of Education public hearing on the appeal for SelfDesign YES and LCCC charter schools.
Any new educational model is going to need a strong signal of viability. It is going to need to connect with a new path that doesn’t necessarily involve the college-job path. For learners choosing college, they will do so in this new form because it fits into a larger plan for their career.
One way to increase the signal of this new educational model is to partner with entrepreneurs who have succeeded in spite of their schooling. Another way is to partner with socially conscious companies to create apprenticeships and internships.
Can you think of another way to increase the signal so that we can offer a self-directed learning center in all communities? I would love to hear from you!