My TEDx Talk: The Unschooling Mindset

[Originally posted at:]

Here’s a transcript of the talk that I’ll give on Nov 20, 2010 at TEDxYouthPaloAlto. 18 minutes…first TED talk about unschooling…being filmed…no pressure!!

So there I was in college, studying astronomy and physics with big hopes of becoming a high school science teacher, when a friend handed me a book by John Taylor Gatto. Gatto taught in New York City public schools for decades, took kids out of the classroom in lots of innovative ways, won multiple teacher of the year awards, and then quit. I cracked open his book, and the first line I read was:

I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching – that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.

Well, that was a shock. How could I teach high school science if this was true?  It took me just a few days of Googling Gatto’s name to find an even bigger shock: unschooling.  Apparently, there were teens out there who took advice like this seriously and left school on purpose to become “unschoolers”.  And these unschoolers didn’t fail in life—they thrived.

That’s it, I was hooked. I designed a whole major to study the theories behind unschooling full-time, and I haven’t looked back since.

Before we go ahead, let me give you a quick definition. Unschooling is full-time, self-directed learning. Everyone here has experienced self-directed learning: maybe while taking an elective class, or working on a really interesting project, or doing personal reading. It’s when you’re learning for the sake of learning—no matter if it’s structured or unstructured. The Unschooling Mindset says: Why not do this more often?  Why not do this full-time?

I’d like to share the stories of three unschoolers I know who illustrate how full-time self-directed learning can look.

Jenny from Wichita, Kansas

At age 15, Jenny was bored, stressed, and frustrated with school, because it prevented her from following her deepest interests: the study of animals, veterinary medicine, and birds in particular. After she read about unschooling, she left school freshmen year and did something that would make most college-preparatory parents cringe: She spent all her time in online forums for parrot owners. Mind you, Jenny did not own a parrot at this time, but she wanted to know more about them. So she took the questions, researched the answers online, and then posted them on the forum.

When Jenny’s fancy mice got sick, she took them to Wichita’s only exotic animal clinic, hit it off with the lone vet who worked there, and began working as an informal intern.  Jenny shadowed operations, assisted with examinations, took x-rays, and dissected euthanized animals—”it was better than any biology class”, as she put it.

In the time that she was previously spending bored in school, Jenny also volunteered at the county zoo (where she cared for more than 60 species of birds), planted organic gardens, performed violin and taught violin lessons, and went on multiple long-distance bike trips of her own design.

Jonah from central Massachusetts

Jonah went to school through sixth grade, where he was bored, miserable, and constantly getting in trouble. At the beginning of 7th grade, with the help of a homeschooling resource center, Jonah left school and started exploring his interests through the center’s various classes and workshops.

By age 15 Jonah had developed a deep interest in Chemistry and decided to indulge it at the nearby University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  He found a freshmen general chemistry course at U Mass, walked up to the professor on the first day of class, and said “Hi, my name is Jonah, I’m 15, I’m really interested in chemistry, and I’d like to sit in on your class. Would that be okay?”   What do you think the professor’s response was? … He was overjoyed! How many students do you think a freshmen chemistry professor gets who come up and say, “I’m so interested in chemistry that I’d like to take your class, not for a grade, but because it’s fascinating?” Close to zero is my guess. While Jonah didn’t get official credit for the class, he did get a letter of recommendation to get the course waived when he enrolled in future chemistry classes. And the professor and Jonah became good friends.

Today Jonah is shadowing a geology class at U Mass, taking community college classes, and he’s an avid rock climber.

Ben from Seattle

Finally we have Ben, a 17-year-old life-long unschooler. Ben’s parents—one of whom is a former school teacher—decided never to put him in school at all.

Ben’s passion is for building bass guitars and longboard skateboards. A month ago Ben brought one of his newly built longboards into the local boardshop to show them to the shop owners. The owners had previously helped Ben with his questions about board-building materials and techniques, and they were impressed by his accomplishments. A traveling sales rep for a high-performance longboarding company in British Columbia was in the store, and he was also impressed by Ben’s boards.  He asked Ben if building longboards was something he might want to do in the future. Ben smiled and replied: “Yes, but I’m doing it now.”

The rep enjoyed the forthrightness of Ben’s response, and he invited Ben to visit the company’s factory store and talk with their main board builder. He said there are only a handful of good board builders and designers, and they’re always looking for new talent.

When he’s not building, Ben takes Fire Service Technology classes, does long-distance runs, and hangs out with a very cool group of North Seattle teen unschoolers.

Jenny, Jonah and Ben are examples of what teens who don’t go to traditional school can accomplish with the unschooling mindset.  But unschooling is often misunderstood.  Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

  1. Yes, it’s legal.
    Legally, unschooling falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, which is legal in every state (and many countries abroad). While certain states are less friendly to homeschooling, it doesn’t take long to become a homeschooler no matter where you are.
  2. No, it’s not the same thing as homeschooling.
    Traditional school-at-home homeschooling and unschooling are very different creatures. Highly traditional homeschoolers aren’t really practicing self-directed learning. Unschooling starts with the student’s interests, questions, and curiosities, and then finds the resources that answer them. If this sounds to you like a recipe for narrow-mindedness, I’ll tell you that unschoolers I know are incredibly “rounded” and “exposed” to the world. I largely thank the internet for that.
  3. Yes, they’re socialized.
    This was my introduction to the world of teenage unschoolers: Not Back to School Camp. NBTSC is just one of the many places where teenage unschoolers (and their families) find each other. There are conferences, social networking sites, email groups, and local meet-ups galore.  Spend a little bit of time in these groups and you’ll quickly learn that unschoolers are socialized, and more importantly, they’re positively socialized. They’re respectful, thoughtful, inclusive of diversity, and unlike high school, there’s no endless power struggle between adults & teens. As a mentor and teacher to teen unschoolers, I can actually talk to them as young adults. That’s huge.
  4. No, they’re not all geniuses or superhumans.
    Ask all those motivated and passionate unschoolers what they were like before they left school, and you’ll learn that they were bored, unmotivated, and interest-less in school. Their deep passions and intrinsic motivation only flourished when they got their freedom. You don’t have to be a high IQ genius or superhuman to unschool–but you do need the courage to follow your dreams.
  5. Yes, unschoolers find jobs without a high school diploma.
    Ben with his longboards is good example of how this can happen. Through internships, mentorships, independent study, paid work, and lots of personal practice, unschoolers have the opportunity to gain the real-life experience that matters most to good employers. For jobs with strict high school diploma requirements, taking the GED is always an option. And if you’re wondering, “Can unschoolers make serious money?”, just ask multi-millionaire drop-out Whoopi Goldberg, billionaire Richard Branson, or Liz Claiborne, Keith Richards, Frank Lloyd Wright… the list goes on.
  6. Yes, they get into college.
    A common path for unschoolers who are interested in college is to start taking community college classes around age 15. That way, they get an early taste of college-level work and decide if a 4-year program is right for them. Those who do go to 4-year college have gotten into everything from state colleges to private colleges to the Ivy Leagues. But how?

Let’s consider two fictional teens—Elmo and Alma—who are competing for one last space in a competitive university engineering major. While these two individuals aren’t real, they’re modeled after real teens. Elmo is our model high schooler, who has done all the college prep that he was supposed to, and Alma is our model unschooler, who left school freshman year to pursue her budding engineering interest.

Let’s look at Elmo’s and Alma’s college preparatory credentials for their high school years.

In terms of classes, Elmo took a normal 4-year course load while Alma did 2 semesters of community college (stretched over a few years and heavy in the math and sciences). They both got good GPAs—Elmo in high school classes, Alma in community college classes—and took similar standardized tests which the university required.

Elmo was told that extracurriculars are an important part of the college application, so he signed up for a local soup kitchen service gig and put in his hours. Alma, on the other hand, in quirky unschooler fashion, decided to spend her time building a functional trebuchet—a medieval war machine. (I actually met a teen unschooler who built a trebuchet earlier this year!) To help her do this, Alma enrolled in a young engineers summer seminar (offered on college campuses across the US) and created a 6-month internship in a machine-tool shop. Finally, in her “junior” year, Alma decided to spend a few months volunteering in Costa Rica, brushing up on her Spanish and learning to surf in the meanwhile.

When they apply to college, Elmo will send in a normal high school transcript while Alma will send in her community college records and a homemade transcript—which looks more like a résumé—documenting her extensive self-directed learning activities. For the letters of recommendation, Elmo will get letters from his physics teacher, math teacher, and guidance counselor, each of whom is writing letters for 30 other students at the same time. Alma will get hers from people who know her a bit better: her summer seminar director, favorite community college professor, and internship supervisor. In their personal essays, Elmo will recount his favorite physics lecture, his vague interesting engineering, and his soup kitchen experience, while Alma will discuss her decision to leave high school to better focus on engineering, challenges in building a functional trebuchet, and her thoughts on technology in developing countries like Costa Rica.

If you were a college admissions officer, who would you choose: Elmo or Alma?

Alma wins by a landslide. But how? She didn’t graduate from high school, after all.

To get into college, whether you’re a high schooler or homeschooler or whoever, you need to prove five things that you have or are capable of:

  1. Intellectual passion (love of learning)
  2. Leadership (taking initiative)
  3. Logical reasoning (recognizing cause and effect)
  4. Capacity for structured learning (ability to function in a classroom)
  5. Background knowledge (preparation for your program)

Elmo and Alma each proved these in different ways, but Alma did it better. And instead of spending four years in a classroom following someone else’s orders, Alma did this while largely following her passions. Jenny from Wichita got into Wichita State University’s pre-vet biology program by doing her internships, volunteering, and self-directed studies, taking one standardized test (the ACT), and packaging it all in homemade portfolio. That’s the magic of unschooling.

But let’s take the unschooling mindset one step farther and ask: Is enrolling in college really necessary today to gain a liberal arts education? Everyone knows that college tuition prices are strapping parents and students with huge amounts of debt. If you can’t get college cheaply, what’s another option? What if, like doing college prep as unschooler, you replaced the biggest parts of college with self-directed learning?

We go to college for many good reasons, including to:

  • Build competency and employability
  • Gain exposure (become “rounded”)
  • Live independently
  • Meet smart people (social networking)
  • Have fun
  • Signal (future employers)

What if, instead of relying on classes to build your competency, you created a high-level internship or mentorship for yourself with a retired professor, or volunteered for an academic research project, or started your own business?  Could you build high-level skills that way?

What if, to gain exposure to the world’s biggest ideas, you took advantage of the huge number of free online university webcasts from top professors, watched TED talks, and interviewed professionals from many fields—all for free?

What if, to live independently, you used craigslist to find off-campus housing in a college town, and you lived the college life that way, going to parties and having late-night discussions and such?  That would just be the normal cost of living.

What if, to meet other smart people your age, you hung out with your off-campus housemates, met with student interest groups, and joined some of the many community and extracurricular programs that are found in college towns?

If you did all that and totally self-designed your college experience, saving huge amounts of money in the process, what kind of “signal” would you send to future employers, or business partners, or venture capitalists?  Would that signal be more powerful than a college degree?  I suspect that it might.

This is the unschooling mindset: the belief that persistently following your passions, looking for hidden opportunities, and being comfortable as an outsider are the truly important things in life—much more so than a piece of paper from an institution.

The best part is, no matter who you are, whether you’re a high schooler, homeschooler, college student, or working adult, you can start thinking like an unschooler today. Simply ask yourself: What are my deepest passions, interests, and long-term goals—and how can I pursue them full-time?

Thank you.

[This talk is ~2350 words. Adults comfortably listen to 150 words per minute, which gives me a 150 x 18 = 2700 word limit.]

Top photo: The LXD at TED2010, Session 6, “Invention,” Thursday, February 11, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson


💬 Want to leave a comment?

Please get in touch directly--I'd love to hear from you.