Saturday, May 5, 2012

What if schools were not school?



What if schools were not school?

I just got home for the weekend. Last week, I was in Stockholm, speaking at SETT. Monday, I fly to Switzerland to speak at the St. Gallen Symposium. And on Saturday, UnCollege Research Apprentice Marlon Paine will be moving to San Francisco to start working fulltime! We've been working on a lot of exciting new programs and material, which includes the just-launched UnCollege Hackademic Camp:
From July 30th to August 3rd we will bring ten of the brightest young minds from around the world together in San Francisco for an intense human accelerator. They will learn from and connect with a network of thought-leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, investors, and successful dropouts. But more importantly, we will work together to create solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems—namely education. This is a chance not only to learn from experts and increase your own knowledge and skills, but also to make an impact—solving issues with those who have the power to make changes. If you think you're a hackademic, we encourage you to join us!  To learn more and apply, click here.

What if schools were not schools? Insight Labs, a Chicago-based think tank, recently posed this question. They brought together experts from around the world to discuss the issues with the public education system in America. Their conclusion? What if schools were fundamentally different entities, focusing not on the output of students—i.e. test scores, as schools are currently measured by—and instead on cultivating citizens: what if schools were "the birthplace of the citizen ideal?"

But let's backtrack. A recent report from the Center for American Progress illuminated many of the current failures of the education system. Federal spending has increased three fold since 1970, while dropout rates and academic performance have changed insignificantly. America, in comparison to other developed countries, ranks only mediocrely when it comes to education, yet it spends more per student than any other country except Luxembourg.

The Center for American Progress suggests several ways to make budgets more effective, but I think the problem is bigger than that. School currently mass-produces students to be competitive, individualistic, and value numbers rather than tangible results. The goal of American schools seems to be to create a population that can compete with other countries and maintain America's economic supremacy. But this often comes at the neglect of the community.

What if the emphasis was instead on making the entire world better as a whole? What if the purpose of schools changed from producing the highest test scores to a place where kids learned to be a member of their community—focusing on cooperation, not competition? In the words of GOOD Magazine's Liz Dwyer, who recently wrote an article about this issue, what if school were a place where students "learn to live a life of selfless service on behalf of the community; it's where (students) find the path of virtue, subordinating inner self-interest as individuals to the interests of the community, the good of the whole." What if schools were, essentially, "the birthplace of the citizen ideal?"

Imagine the impact of students dedicating over twelve years of their lives not to learning information geared towards a test, but learning about, and working on, the challenges the world currently faces—starting at a community level. The results would be a tangible difference in their own community, not a piece of paper with numbers and letter-grades. What if students had the ability to work on projects that interested them, and worked with teachers to integrate the learning of necessary skills into their projects—learning how to apply them in the real world?

This would obviously be a big change: it would take a whole community—educators, businesses, parents, etc.—to work with the school system to solve these problems. But the results would be exponentially greater that the cost: an entire population of students working to better the community. School could be, as stated in Insight Labs School is not School Manifesto, "a dynamic social engine for entire towns and cities that drive every citizen toward a higher, greater good: the public interest." Students discover their interests, how to solve problems, and use this knowledge not just for themselves, but to create a better community. Students work as, and learn to be citizens, not detached individuals.

At this point, the entire college question would be irrelevant: by the time a student graduates from high school, they will have experienced the real world, learned their passions, their skills, and put them into action. The ideals of apprenticeships and entrepreneurship would be engrained into students before college applications were due. Students that want to start businesses could turn that into their lesson plan; students that want to be writers could actually write what they want to. And then, inevitably, these students would learn how to describe and explain what they have learned—a skill so valuable, yet completely neglected by traditional schooling.

This plan is extremely idealistic—turning the entire education system on its head. But that's what we need. We need drastic changes to the current system so that it works with, and not against, the students. Imagine what the entire population of K-12 students could accomplish for their communities, and themselves, if instead of being stuck in a classroom, their time was spent creating value in their communities. The only thing holding us back are the deep roots of the current system—people are terrified to uproot, or even challenge it.

Apprenticeship programs and fellowships are starting to pop up, offering students a valuable alternative to college.  The mainstream is catching on: I'm going to speak with NBC about these opportunities next week.

What if these alternative programs became the education system?

If you enjoyed this newsletter, please forward it to friends and encourage them to join the movement at!

Hack on,