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!
“I have never let school interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain
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:
- Lack of academic rigor
- Gap between theory and practice
- Acceptance of status quo
- Absence of creativity and innovation
- Emphasis on grades, not learning
- 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.
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.
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.