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The UnCollege Movement

Dale Stephens

Founder of the Uncollege Movement
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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.

Dale Stephens speaking at TEDxPlazaCilebes

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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Terry Heick's picture
Terry Heick
founder/director at teachthought. humanist. technologist. futurist. macro thinker extraordinaire.

Nice job challenging "popular" thinking. Looking closely at what we would be reasonable to expect from college, versus simply accepting it as a cultural construct, is a good first step.

I wrote a short post about it here:

The real boon will materialize when parents and families are asking these questions, not educators.

Thanks for sharing!

Annette Loubriel's picture
Annette Loubriel

Fantastic article. I knew this was comming. I have been homeschooling my children (4th and 6th grade) for three years now. This has proven to be an outstanding learning experience, not only for my kids but for me. I am a B.S. in Chemistry- no education credits. Nonetheless I am an avid reader and an autodidact on the subjects of psychology, teaching models, curriculums,and education matters around the world especially in the subjects of Math and Science. I would like to contribute with my local education department when I finish my kid's education. I see that in order to do this I will have to make some unconventional calls because all public job posts require a "degree in education". So I was figuring out that there must be a lot of people like me who happen to learn by themselves and who establish their own standards based on knowledge, and that in the future companies, governments, etc. must wake up and require that people prove that they know what they will be working with instead of just presenting a diploma from an institution.

aEdwards's picture

That was a great speech, it was very interesting and exciting to watch it! Thank you very much for this post and the video, that was so great to get to know all this! The video was so great I recorder it with free screen recorder

Bonnie Nelson's picture
Bonnie Nelson
Mom of 3 in New Jersey; 1 in college, 1 in high school, 1 in elementary

Sorry, Dale, but generalizing based on your own personal life experience isn't very convincing. That's going to be true for anything, from education to politics, or anything else.

I'm glad that "homeschooling" worked for you and for so many others. Anecdotes abound. So do the obvious tradeoffs and limitations. Homeschooling wouldn't work for everyone; believe it or not, some parents have to work and make money during the day. Some parents don't have the ability or the skills or the focus or the patience to be both parent and teacher, full-time.

Schooling at home goes on in our house every day---and in almost every other home. It supports, augments and extends what is learned in our child's school. And it involves all of life, from the formal lessons, books, discussions, to the personal experiences dealing with friendships, love, and general curiosity about life and existence.

So, bully for you. But I'm not sure what we're supposed to take from your post. I continue to think that the school my children attend is a vital feature of our community. It ties our families together and reinforces the idea that we're not out there all alone. We love and support each other by pooling our resources and working with the teachers in our school to provide the best opportunities and experiences for our kids; not just to prepare them for "their future careers" and "ability to maximize their earnings as adults", but to make their experience DURING childhood, AS children, as good as it can be.

FYI...did homeschooling and "UnCollege" include statistics and data analysis? I wonder given what you wrote here: "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."

Interesting. However, did you also take the time to look at how GDP per capita was DISTRIBUTED in Finland, as opposed to the United States? (For instance, Guatemala and Iceland have roughly equivalent GDP per capita, but a 15 minute visit to either country will make it clear that the distribution of that wealth is vastly different in those two nations.)

In the USA, GDP per capita is vastly unequal, with the top 1% of the country having almost 40% of the national wealth. In Finland, the gap between the very richest and the very poorest is relatively small compared to the United States. Every citizen in Finland is provided with excellent health care, 8 weeks vacation, universal daycare, a retirement with dignity, excellent schools at little or no cost---including college, job security, solid infrastructure, low crime rate, and a very healthy business climate. The same, sadly, can't be said for the United States.

The GDP per capita is significantly less in Finland, but everyone gets a good piece of it, as opposed to the US, where a small number of people hog as much as they can get, leaving a vast number of people with little or nothing---in education or anything else.

Ask a wealthy person if they want their kid going to a school with 40 kids in a class, taught by teachers right out of college, with nothing but a "Boot Camp" for preparation. And in this school, their kids will spend most of their time focused on preparing for tests that will determine how much money their school receives and the future of their child and her teachers. And if they say "NO", ask them why they'd advocate exactly that for people who have less money?

Sabrina Albrecht's picture

GDP aside...,public school systems across the nation are failing students and their families, yet these families, for the most part, continue to place trust in the system. I venture to suggest it is because they are bound to the failing system, because they may be afraid of that which is different and pursuing the knowledge to further understand the fact that they have choice is not something they learned in school. Throwing money at education is moot. America, like other countries, has just have to discover it.

The greater masses of American society live in fear of free thought, ideas and words that go against the mainstream. These are the Americans who make statements like, "We have to work." "We don't have the luxury of homeschooling our children." "We homeschool every night with our child when he brings his homework from school." These are the Americans who believe their statements are fact. Unfortunately, these are the Americans who have been indoctrinated by institutionalized thought, repeating what they are told. And they are good at it. And they are passionate. But they are close minded.

Noam Chomsky, a renowned linguist and philosopher, also known for his criticisms for contemporary capitalism (I know my research), suggests the age old argument regarding 'what constitutes the best learning environment' as a "quest for inquiry." Dale, you have started your quest and you are spreading your discoveries to others. I know you recognize the fact that you may be shunned by the faction of those who believe in the indoctrination process indicative of American public school systems...and my favorite idea to suggest to these folks is, "Perhaps if you spent more time with your own children, you would discover the importance of prioritizing the idea that your child's mind is worth more than a day spent at work." Obviously something your parents did for you to some degree.

I am an advocate of homeschooling, because I spent over a decade in classrooms for indoctrination as a student, a teacher, and an administrator. It wasn't until my own son was born that I realized a child is the most precious gift God gives man and nothing will forsake the attention and love he deserves. That attention and love comes with coveting a world of inquiry and play, for him to experience, ponder, and make judgements for on his own. No classroom or mainstream school of thought can give him these opportunities. No classroom or mainstream school of thought can come close to giving my child the individualized attention he deserves to grow his brain, his thoughts, his judgments. Thank goodness for America that she allows us to each have a voice.

Sabrina Albrecht
Mom, Educator at Home

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