George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

The UnCollege Movement

The world is your classroom

December 16, 2011

I'm not just a college dropout. I chose to leave school in fifth grade to become an unschooler -- the self-directed form of homeschooler. While my peers sat in class during middle and high school, I found mentors, organized collaborative learning groups, took college courses, lived in France, helped build a library and generally directed my own education.

Then I went to college. Looking back, that decision seems ridiculous. Yet I recall at the time defending my decision to learn outside school by pointing to unschoolers that were sought after by Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and other elite schools. Now that line of defense seems unnecessary -- unschooling isn't just a back door into the higher education system. I now know that unschooling is a lifelong commitment to forging one's own path.

Theory vs Practice

At college, I was frustrated by the gap between theory and practice. There were smart people with fabulous ideas, but they were writing research papers, not changing the world. During my first semester, I blamed this on the fact that I'd chosen a small school (Hendrix College) over Harvard. But then I met unschoolers at elite institutions who had exactly the same frustrations as I did. I launched in late January -- and within a week the media blaze began.

The UnCollege Movement empowers young people to forge their own educational paths to change the notion that college is requisite to success. When I left college in March, I thought that UnCollege would apply only to a select group of smart, motivated individuals. I've learned over the last nine months that nearly everyone is smart and motivated -- unfortunately most have been disempowered by the school system.

Austin Sholwater: UnCollege Student

The people that I've met who are forging their own educational paths are inspiring. Austin Sholwater, for example, frustrated by the rising cost of college, left Michigan State University in May 2011, well into his degree program. This summer he worked three jobs in order to reach his goal: move to Paris and learn French. I spoke with him in June and wished him the best of luck on his quest. When I was in Paris in October I arranged to have coffee with Austin.

Austin had been in Paris two short months, but it was clear he was learning exponentially. Not only was he learning core skills such as perseverance and flexibility, he was learning French, studying sociology through extensive observation of French culture, adapting to life in a new country, and figuring out how to live within his budget. Austin plans to stay in France until May to perfect his French and then spend a year in Spain and Germany to repeat the process.

By the end of his UnCollege education, he'll speak five languages (he learned Japanese during an exchange program) and be able to interact in five cultures. In a world that's increasingly multinational, those are invaluable skills. I think what's most important about Austin's education is that he's learning to take responsibility. He's defining success for himself -- not accepting his parents' expectations but forging his own path. He takes nothing for granted -- he is 100 perecent responsible for his success. No one is there to catch him if he falls -- he must earn the money to buy his plane tickets home.

Not Just for White Males

Critics often say that UnCollege only works for white males. It is stories like that of Tiffany Mikkell that prove critics wrong. When she was 21, Tiffany applied to a month-long Javascript class run by Accenture. After initially being rejected, she talked her way into the class by outlining how her real world skills were applicable to computer science. On the first day of class she realized she was the only black person in the class, the only woman, and the only person without a college degree, but that didn't stop her being one of five people Accenture hired. She worked there for five years. And by the way, she did this while she was raising her son as a single mother.

Changing Role of Teachers

In a world where students like Tiffany and Austin are empowered to forge their own educational paths, what is the role of teachers? I don't believe that teachers will disappear, but their core function will change. Teachers will no longer deliver knowledge but rather facilitate the discovery of knowledge. Moving beyond traditional schools and classrooms, one idea might be that teachers get compensated by receiving a small percentage of the future earnings of their students during their first ten years of work. In this way, the incentives of the teachers and students are aligned: the teacher only makes money if the student makes money.

New Compensation Models for Teachers

I think new compensation models for teachers must be developed because colleges aren't sustainable. Education reformers like to point out that America falls behind many developed countries in math, reading, and science at 17th in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) rankings. They sing the praises of Finland (third in OECD rankings) and try to figure out how to replicate their model. Even though our education system needs improvement, the country still seems to be functioning. The economy may have problems, but we still have the largest GDP in the world. And if you look at how America and Finland compare on GDP per capita, the results may surprise you: America is in seventh place with $46,869 and Finland is in 22nd place with $34,918. With such disparity, perhaps we need to ask ourselves: what is the role of school in our society, and how can it become a better catalyst for learning?

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