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Leadership and Activism, School Stories

Think Outside the Book

“I have never let school interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain

This is a guest post written by Dale J. Stephens, an unschooler and founder of UnCollege — a self-directed learning higher education alternative.I had an opportunity to meet Dale through Twitter and since then had got to know him better through our email and Skype discussions. I invited Dale to share his unschooling experience with the Coop readers as I believe he has a unique experience coming from the world of traditional schooling and moving into unschooling at age 10. In particular, his UnCollege initiative is as much thought-provoking as it is revealing some of the pitfalls of the higher education as it recently became somehow seen as a way to maturity for many young people — failing to deliver on its promise for many! 


Nine years ago I had never heard of unschooling.  Granted, I was ten years old and in fifth grade at the time, but I never would have imagined that a year later Id be directing my own education.

Fifth grade came and went: I learned nothing from daily dittos.  By the end of the year I told my parents that another means of education would be necessary if I were to continue learning.  We were fortunate to connect with a group of unschoolers in Davis, California so that I was not unschooling alone but was surrounded by a vibrant group of independent learners.  Homeschooling quickly morphed into unschooling as I took charge of my education.  I found creative ways to teach myself: instead of learning about business from a textbook, I started a photography business. Structuring my own learning experience through a combination of independent projects, group activities, mentor relationships, and college classes proved to be the ultimate leadership experience.  Not only was I the student, but also the teacher, principal, counselor, and superintendent. When I completed high school I decided that I  should give college a try despite an offer of employment from the startup I was working for at the time.

Complacency is king

At college I found my courses to be easier than I expecteda fact confirmed by Richard Arum in his report Academically Adrift. I first attributed the lack of academic rigor to the fact that I attend a small, private liberal arts institution that is not as competitive as brand-name schools. However, over winter break I was chatting with an unschooled friend who attends Dartmouth and found that we had precisely the same complaints about our experiences with higher education even though we attend incomparable institutions:

  1. Lack of academic rigor
  2. Gap between theory and practice
  3. Acceptance of status quo
  4. Absence of creativity and innovation
  5. Emphasis on grades, not learning
  6. No prospective view on life

After pondering this, I came to the conclusion that our frustrations with higher education stem not from the institutions we attend but rather from our common experience: we had both been unschooled.  We threw around some ideas via email, and my friend suggesting “we should just start our own college a la the movie ’Accepted.’”

I loved the idea, but I couldnt fathom how to make said homeschool college a realityI was thinking within the confines of school.  Then I combined the words unschooling and college and realized that UnCollege wouldnt need a campus, professors, or accreditation for success. UnCollege could be run online, offering a project-based curriculum supported by a community of like-minded peers and mentors.

Does this sound crazy? I thought so too.

Two weeks later Im working on making UnCollege a reality and the response has been incredible.

How does UnCollege work?

UnCollege connects a network of independent learners and mentors to support learning from real-world experience and self-designed projects.

UnCollege is glorified to-do list with a community to support its completion.  Independent learning can be undertaken in solidarity, but without a community educational opportunities are limited.  I think the biggest value of college is community–and community will be the most difficult part of the college experience for UnCollege to replace.   When individuals ask why Im codifying something that thrives on a lack of institution,  I respond that Im not codifying self-learning, Im institutionalizing the community which support independent learners.

On an academic level, UnCollege provides students with a framework for project-based learning.  There are three categories of projects: Introspection, Experience, and Application.  Students complete projects within these categories which range from writing a bucket list to living abroad to creating an internship. Guidance will be given to students, but it is expected that students will make each project their own.   Students will be guided in their learning endeavors when required by the UnCollege staff and will be supported by a robust network of mentors from around the world.

UnCollege does not confer degrees.  Instead, UnCollege culminates with the creation of an experience transcript showing students real-world accomplishments.  In a world where college degrees reign,  being different can help you get your foot in the door.  Lacking a degree is a boon, not a bane, to your success. Ultimately passionate action trumps education.

Why UnCollege?

You should enroll in UnCollege if you love learning for learnings sake, not to pass a test. With 70.1% of high school graduates going to college, a degree is no longer a guarantee of success.  I believe that UnCollege provides superior preparation for life compared to traditional education.  Creativity is declining in the United States, yet there is a recent IBM poll identified creativity as #1 “leadership competency.”  Self-directed learning is academically rigorous and requires innovative thought.  There is a serious gap among college-age students between theory and practice.  Although many have found their passion in the classroom, they have no idea how to pursue said passion in the real world.  UnCollege requires individuals to bridge that gap.  Many youth are content with the status quo, but unschooling itself challenges the norm.  UnCollege forces students to think about life prospectively: education does not exist as a safety net.  You must think about the future.

UnCollege is not for all

UnCollege is not for everyone: to each his own learning style.  There is value in college.  Some people learn best in a classroom and some subjects are best taught in the classroom.  And who am I to decry traditional education?  After all, I’m at college now — though I probably won’t be for much longer.  If nothing else, coming to college has taught me that college is not a requirement for life, not a rite to adulthood. College inspired me to create UnCollege–and that is valuable.  I believe that some skills are best learnt outside the classroom.

Looking ahead

Currently obtaining a college degree is the accepted path to adulthood, but I challenge the notion that a degree is requisite for success.  With UnCollege, motivation replaces certification.  Until UnCollege independent learning was only viable for those who are internally motivated.  UnCollege provides those who require external motivation a way to pursue self-directed experiential learning.

I hope you will join the UnCollege movement and become part of the education evolution.


About kima

Organizer: Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)


19 thoughts on “Think Outside the Book

  1. I think uncollege is a fantastic idea. I just finished my Masters degree. I enjoyed the process, but I did have many, many requirements to complete and there were times when I felt like I was just jumping through hoops.

    I’m currently exploring ideas about what research I want to do by immersing myself in educational writing. I guess I’ve started my unPHD. 🙂

    Posted by dwees | February 11, 2011, 3:02 pm
  2. Yes, I like this idea a lot. The proverbial “but” comes when people ask you about the diploma or credential. I think this fear will eventually subside (when, I don’t know) as employees start to see that self-learners are passionate, motivated, able to learn on their own (super important today), managerial, etc. Like you say, a diploma or credential is not that distinguishing anymore–even when it’s from a “good” school. Hoop-jumpers are not what we need today.

    Posted by Bill Farren | February 11, 2011, 3:58 pm
    • I do hope that eventually the paradigm will shift so that one won’t need a degree to open doors. I do believe that you can do anything if you’re passionate.

      Posted by Dale | February 14, 2011, 12:11 am
      • I can attest that diplomas are less and less requested for job interviews … at least in the computer industry and in particular if you already have working experience.

        I moved to Vancouver almost 5 years after previously working for various companies in my homeland, Macedonia and two stints in Austria and Germany. To get my first permanent job in Vancouver, it took me probably about a dozen in-person interviews with as many phone interviews and numerous email exchanges with recruiters, HR people and hiring managers from many different companies. Not one of them asked for a diploma, regardless of the fact I was a fresh immigrant!

        Now, I know it’s not as clear cut, as I would list my BSc and MSc in my resume, so people may simply have trusted that the academic level in my Uni in Skopje was as high as say those at UBC, but my gut feeling is that upon presenting previous work experience and knowledge during the interview, the value of the academic level diminishes rapidly.

        I see similar trends with co-op/intern students working for 6 months or more for a company while still studying. The job offers they get rarely depends on them achieving a certain academic level. What is interesting to figure out is if attending Uni for those students was the reason why they could prove themselves on the job, or it merely acted as a facilitating system that can connect students with job opportunities at the co-op level?


        Posted by kima | February 14, 2011, 1:39 am
  3. How will this be different from the already existing (peer-to-peer university)?

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | February 11, 2011, 6:11 pm
    • P2P offers specific academic courses online; UnCollege bridges the gap between theory and practice. I hope that UnCollege students will take advantage of the excellent educational opportunities offered by P2p U.

      Posted by Dale | February 14, 2011, 12:12 am
  4. bravo Kima..
    here’s one of my students talking about college here.

    Posted by monika hardy | February 12, 2011, 10:15 am
    • Thanks Monika for sharing the video! I finally had a chance to listen to it and I can’t agree more with the student’s sentiment. There are just so many ways to learn today that paying $15k per year for college simply sounds unreasonable. The question is, why do we not trust 18 years old to use those $15k wisely and invest them in better learning than college? I guess part of the answer lies in the sentiment I hear time and time and again that kids learn almost no useful skill during K-12, so we feel someone needs to still teach them in an institution like college, following a predefined program, even though at 18 they should’ve been long treated as mature and able to drive their own learning and life.

      Posted by kima | February 14, 2011, 2:41 pm
  5. This might save my daughter, now 25 years old and needing to move out of her self-imposed cocoon. When she was in Montessori as a child, she thrived with an insatiable curiosity to learn. Their mandate was – when the child is ready, give them the resources to learn. She transferred to public school in Grade one, and from Grade 5 on, the school system had lost her. I will research this as a viable option for her as an answer to the many young adults who have fallen by the wayside, and simply need their spark – their desire to learn re-ignited.

    Posted by Laurie | February 13, 2011, 8:14 pm
  6. This is fascinating. I like how you saw a problem and through a series of online conversations you have begun to envision a solution. I would love to serve as a mentor. Where does one go to get more involved or stay abreast of new developments with Uncollege?

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | February 13, 2011, 9:58 pm
  7. Hey Dale,

    Have you looked at Goddard College. A few of the cooperative members are students or recent graduates from Goddard College and have had a good experience with low residency self directed learning…. while being able to get a teacher license and a masters in education…..


    Posted by david Loitz | February 15, 2011, 6:18 pm
    • Goddard is a wonderful example of a low-residency degree program. If you need or want a degree, Goddard is a great way to go. Ultimately I hope to change the prevailing view that a degree is requisite for success. I realize I’m challenging an assumption that underlies all conventional wisdom about career success. With UnCollege I hope to allow individuals to succeed outside the system — without a degree.

      Posted by Dale | February 16, 2011, 11:11 am


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