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Can You Have a Viable Education Outside of School?

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Lisa Nielsen works to support public schools in New York City and while she understands school is a viable option for some students, she doesn't believe it is for everyone.

The author of the Innovative Educator blog has written a free, online book called The Teenager's Guide to Opting Out (Not Dropping Out) of Outdated and Traditional School.

Nielsen, who helps educators find innovative ways of engaging learners, works at a fairly progressive, forward-thinking public school system that's experimenting with technology in inventive ways and a push towards personalized learning with the iSchool and Innovation Zone. Still, she believes the traditional school setting may not be "fixable."

"While students are doing better in a more innovative climate, ultimately, we are just using updated tools to meet narrow and outdated measures on which our students, teachers, and school leaders are judged," she writes on her blog. "It is not enough to personalize learning for everyone to go down the same path — to college, without consideration of what comes next."


I asked Lisa to talk about the book, and why she wrote it.

Q. Why did you feel you needed to write this guide?

A. I went to the iNacol Online Learning conference this year and when a keynote speaker asked the audience to share one word to describe high school, as if rehearsed, they responded, “BORING.”  It’s no wonder that in places like those where I have spent my life (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York), the drop out rate is around 50% and if you ask teens, many of them who are in school don’t really like it. The problem is no one talks about and few know about alternatives. Students think that it’s their fault if they don’t enjoy sitting in chairs all day consuming, memorizing, and regurgitating. This is caused in part because of how they are viewed by a society trained to embrace the system. Many of their parents don’t know there are alternatives either and we have a growing epidemic that this environment creates which is so called ADD/ADHD and now kids are being drugged so they can basically sit down and shut up all day until called upon.  It’s ironic that socialization is considered a benefit of school.  It is more of a place to “be socialized” than to “enjoy socializing.”

There are voices out there like Laurette Lynn, founder of Unplugged Mom, who are working diligently to inform parents and families that there is better way, and that school is not synonymous with learning.  After being introduced to this concept myself, I realized it was necessary to further advance this important message.  Laurette says “Education does not need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed!” and from what I’ve experienced, I agree!

I wrote this guide to inform people that there are alternatives and it is time we start fixing (or eliminating) the school, rather than blaming the children.

Q. Do you wish somebody had written something like this for you or someone you know?

A. I did indeed write this guide with the teenage version of myself in mind.  I was a good student by school standards.  I took my tests, got good grades, and I was quick.  I skipped grades and did my studies at warp speed so I could hurry up and out into the real world.  I was so excited to get school done so I could see the treasures that awaited me.  In hindsight I now realize the robotics in all this and wonder whether I actually ‘learned’ anything truly useful that I couldn’t have learned outside of the box.   Unfortunately, at 19 I stood with a stellar GPA and diploma in hand and realized I had been duped.  Like many graduates today, I had no real world experience to show for my work.  I just got a really great training in taking in and spiting out what I was told. However,  much like a bulimic, the intake and regurgitation was ultimately unhealthy for me and I’m realizing is unhealthy for human beings all together.  I found myself with an appetite that was undernourished because it was being fed unsubstantial crap (for lack of a better word)  when it came to what really mattered but once school spit me out, their job was done.  There  I was on my own graduated into a world that looked nothing like those artificial walls I had left.  To paraphrase the founder of UnCollege said in a recent interview “Theoretical information is never as valuable as practical application.”

I eventually realized all those years of being told that I would “understand why this was important” were filled with a false-truth that made my stomach churn.  I was controlled and molded into a perfect little worker who would follow orders.  A human being entered at kindergarten and an obedient, conditioned citizen came out the other-end upon graduation. The bigger problem for me was my blind faith in the system.  I believed that after doing my time, I would earn freedom and be able to escape, (ironic in and of itself).  Like many former college students however,  I soon realized that instead I was destined for a career that had nothing whatsoever to do with my degree.

Q. Who do you think this book is most appropriate for?

A. This book is appropriate for any teen who doesn’t like or doesn’t fit in to school but does have a desire to pursue a life of happiness and satisfaction.  It is for the human being struggling to be heard inside the capsule of institutionalized schooling.  It is for the concerned parent of the teen who is showing signs of emotional disturbance or has been ‘diagnosed’ with a supposed disorder, or is showing signs of performance and testing stress.  It is for the out-of-the-box thinker who is ready to unplug from a manufactured system and reconnect with a more real-life experience.

Q. How is "opting out" different from home schooling?

A. Homeschooling is a broad term that is often misunderstood.  Laurette Lynn who wrote the intro for the guide, suggests terms like ‘independent learning’ or ‘home educating’ paint a more accurate picture of the concept.  A home educator herself, “It’s not about schooling” she says “It’s about learning.” And that is what opting out is about.  The interesting thing is that most teens don’t want or need someone to “school” them.  While they probably have the desire to learn, it looks very different from being “schooled.” Their interests guide them and they are well equipped with the know-how to learn what they need to learn in order to accomplish their goals.  What’s more, the rich technological resources available today make it that much easier for teens to experience whatever they want to learn.

When we look at the idea of opting out, from the perspective of this book, we’re looking into the idea of teens taking ownership for their learning.and living.  This means learning with choice rather than coercion.  In the guide we share many alternatives.  These include online learning, alternative learning centers/environments that follow a democracy education approach like Summerhill and Sudbury, pursuing an educational path with open education resources (OER), taking college classes that the student is actually interested in, and/or pursuing apprenticeship/ internship opportunities.  What is most important at the start of this journey is that the teen has a well designed plan for their future and we feature an example of one teen who did just that in the guide.

Q. How do you respond to parents who fear that, without the formal structure a school provides, their kids could miss out on the opportunity of going to college?

I explain in detail how You Don’t Have to Go to School or Take the SAT/ACT to Get Into A Good College and then I give them an example of a friend who did that
Getting into College Without Going to School and then I give them a whole bunch more examples.

Q. Do you have a sense of what percentage of students who opt out are admitted to the college of their choice?

A. First I want to caution you about falling into the assumption that college is the goal for everyone.  There are many of us who believe the college bubble will soon burst.  Some of us know of Dale Stephen’s work with the “Uncollege” movement where people can begin to move away from “college” credentials and toward “personal mastery” credentials.  The other caution I want to put out there is the idea of students and college.  I’d prefer to think of people who are pursuing the passion of their choice.  If college is necessary for that, then they can pursue the college that will help them get to where they want to go.  Frequently 18 is not the best age for this.  To answer your question though, I have not heard of any one who has taken ownership of their learning who has not been able to pursue a college career that has been one which helps them pursue their passions.  As I wrote in Getting into College Without Going to School, there are many colleges that prefer autodidacts.

Q. It seems like opting out, the way you describe it in the book, is actually not any less work than going to school.

I think most people would rather spend a dozen hours doing something they love than a single hour doing something they do not care for.  People enjoy working toward doing what they love and what will make their lives better.  If asked, my guess is most people would choose doing what they love over enduring a prescribed curriculum...however, I guess there are people who like to be told what to do and when.  For them school might be a good choice.  It’s not about avoiding work or effort.  On the contrary, it’s about channelling our effort into something that drives us and embracing the freedom to choose what that is ourselves rather than being forced.   People may have this concern because we view teens as lazy, but we fail to realize that this forced system of compulsory schooling has inadvertently created a mass-rejection - and that has manifested in rebellion and what we perceive as youth malaise.   It is human nature to reject being forced.  If we stop forcing kids to perform on demand, the natural human desire to learn will thrive and blossom.

Q. You describe how a student creating a learning program can get school credit, take college entrance exams, and the logistics of fitting an informal education into a formalized/standardized world.

A. First let’s dispel another misconception. Why on earth do we want to prepare people for a formalized, standardized world? Why do we continue to reward conformity rather than encourage individuality?  Why do we continue to perpetuate the notion that school prepares kids for the a systematized existence rather than the actual ‘real world’?  Those who take ownership of their learning are often anything but those who fit into such worlds. People who hate the formalization and standardization of school are often those who go on to pursue careers much more interesting than those featured in “The Office.”  They don’t follow the standard, they set the standard.  They are our Lady Gaga’s, Richard Branson’s,  Walt Disney’s, Lucile Ball’s, Albert Einstein’s, Florence Nightengale’s, Mark Twain’s, and William Shakespeare's of the world.  Of course, there are many other successful lesser known people who achieved great happiness and success without school as well.  The point is, you can achieve great levels of success by following your passion rather than following the norm.


The views expressed here are Nielsen’s alone and do not represent the opinions or endorsement of the NYC DOE or any other entity.

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