From the time I was a very small child, my mother will tell you, I never really bought into paradigms. I was a child who saw, say mixing the ingredients of Nana’s carrot cake in three separate bowls and then pouring into the baking pan as one possibility; equally plausible was simply pouring all of the ingredients into the baking pan and mixing there, saving three bowls from being washed along the way. (An epic fail, for the record.) If you said I couldn’t or shouldn’t, I took that to mean that you simply didn’t know how to, and I had discovered a challenge.
And when I look back on my public schooling, I realize that I have been active in educational reform since I was a high school student. Middle school had been full of pleasure reading and book auctions and Christmas tree forests and science fairs; high school was full of sitting in rows, being lectured, and being told what I should or could do until athletic practice began at 3:15. I was miserable, as most teens are, and I rebelled, as most teens do. And while much of my rebellion was typical teenage nonsense (see also my Angela Chase Red Hair phase), much of it was actually a pretty purposeful attempt to break the educational paradigm in which I found myself. It had been communicated to me – both verbally and through the precedent set by countless prior students – that all students take courses in a certain sequence, that it takes 4 years to graduate, that college comes after high school. Refusing to believe that the path taken by most was the only path, I successfully advocated an alternative education for myself, graduating with 38 hours of college coursework and a 3.74 collegiate GPA from a high school that graduates less than 100 per year, has a 47% free and reduced lunch rate, and offered only AP English and math. What follows are suggestions for young people about how to use the current educational system, broken as it is, to accomplish something similar, an innovating of your own education.
1. Refuse to be enrolled in study halls.
As a high school student, a study hall is a waste of your time. They are holding patterns, necessitated by the Prussian paradigm’s need for all students to be in a brick and mortar schoolhouse, advancing in lock step toward a worthless degree, in 45 minute periods for 6 hours a day for 40 weeks a year. Don’t let your time be wasted because the system doesn’t know what to do other than warehouse teens for a few hours a day. Enroll in something way outside of your purview: if you’re really sciency, take a studio art class or join the chorus; if you’re a literati, enroll in an engineering class. I know you that “you are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today,” but please recognize that there is a whole lot out there that you don’t know, and never again will you be in an environment with free access to so many experts. Furthermore, learning how to talk across disciplines is critical to anything you will do in your future. Challenge yourself to learn something completely new, and challenge your school to recognize that housing students in a supervised study hall is a waste of everyone’s time.
2. Audit a course or two.
Auditing a course is another, less revolutionary way of affecting a similar change. Auditing a course means that you attend the course, you complete the work, but you don’t receive a grade for it. Why in the hell would you want to do that? Well, because you are genuinely interested in the content but don’t need the currency that is a letter or numeric grade. You value the experience of learning something new, maybe you’re even seeking to take a risk without the consequence of lowering your class ranking. How do you audit a class? Well, you simply tell a teacher that you have a study hall when they are teaching X course, and that you want to sit in on it. After a week or two, if you like what you see and find value in completing the work, keep going and just like that you’re auditing the course. One of my juniors has done exactly this and has started auditing my AP English class. The week before break, we had finished Hamlet and I was going to test the class. We decided that she should sit the test, not to earn a grade, but to let her see what she knew and what she didn’t know so that she could more purposefully target any gaps in her skills. Auditing a class will allow you to decommoditize your education and refocus on learning for learning’s sake, if you’re into that.
3. Don’t enroll in AP courses; simply challenge the AP tests.
As a teacher of an AP course, I can confidently tell you that a good portion of our coursework is preparation for the exam. The course is a literary analysis class, for sure, but at the end of the day students enrolled in this course because they wanted to do well on the AP exam and earn college credit in high school. While working with a teacher is certainly helpful to preparing oneself to take an assessment, it is not required. Do what we do: buy the teacher’s edition of the test prep book, use your Google-Fu to determine which skills are tested and what the standard of excellence is, and jump in. Enrolling in an AP course simply puts the onus of appropriate test prep on someone other than you, and it requires you to do a certain amount of work at a certain pace someone else has designed: if you need someone else to make decisions about when to work and what to work on for you, then, and I say this with love, you are not going to be successful in college and don’t need to worry about taking an AP course anyway. While enrolling in AP courses is not my recommendation, challenging AP tests certainly is: depending on which college you want to attend, a $90 investment in an AP test can exempt you from an entire semester’s worth of courses and fees, easily a few hundred dollars.
4. Attend college courses on campus now.
If you are ready for college coursework, then take college coursework. Sometimes colleges will want special permission for people without high school diplomas to attend; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they will offer scholarships to high school students; sometimes they don’t. But if you don’t ask, you won’t know. And be guaranteed that both adults and students won’t get what you’re trying to do, either on the high school or the college end of things. Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t worry about what they think: they’re all wrong. They’ll tell you that you’ll regret a myriad of things. Having done this, let me say that you probably won’t regret missing … what? sitting in rows? more study halls? wishing you were in college? wising your time was being valued?
And don’t just take my word for it. Rylie VanOrsdal is a 14-year old student taking college courses at the State College of Florida, and she couldn’t be happier.
5. Enroll in online college courses for credit now.
Much like auditing a class being a less revolutionary way of accomplishing not having your time wasted by an in-school study hall, enrolling in an online college course is a less revolutionary way of completing college-level content – for credit – than is enrolling in courses on campus. I’m always about following the rules only as much as I have to do get things done. To that end, I’d say to jump on a community college’s website and actually try to enroll in a class; see what questions they ask you. If they never ask for your high school graduation information, don’t offer up the fact that you’ve not yet graduated. Online classes are asynchronous, which means that you can complete the coursework whenever you have the time: during a study hall, bus ride, or (as my classroom wiki has shown is common for juniors) at 11:30 at night.
6. Enroll in a MOOC, not for credit.
MOOCs are all the rage among adult learners. MOOCs are the WOW of college courses: free, massively open, online courses that are offered through some of the country’s best colleges including MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. It’s like auditing an online course: you watch all of the videos and can complete the readings and the homework, but you don’t earn a grade. Some MOOCs have a pay-for-a-grade option, wherein you can actually pay a nominal fee to have a transcript generated from that college saying you completed the MOOC. Be wary of the high dropout rate in MOOCs: while enrolling in and completing college-level work certainly “looks good” when applying for college, choosing not to complete something that you’ve started, college course or not, certainly does not.
7. Seek experiential education.
Whatever it is that you think you want to do when you grow up, you simply do not even know what you do not know about that profession. The things I didn’t know teachers had to do until my first year on the job could fill an entire 6 year education alone. Last summer, I thought I wanted to run an organic farm until I spent week after week after week picking beans that never seemed to stop producing. So that you don’t end up too far along a costly path that never was what you wanted it to be, start poking at the edges of your interests now. Find out if your school offers a shadowing, “pathways” or “new visions” program, probably through the business department and/or guidance office, and enroll in it. If the purpose of high school is to prepare one for an eventual career, getting experience in that career is the most critical thing you can do. Then you won’t have to ask if you will ever use X or Y in the “real world” — you’ll know the answer because you will have lived in the “real world” and can better choose experiences that will prepare you to be successful in it. Furthermore, gaining experience in your chosen field will better position you to address the challenges inherent in it so you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Yeah, teaching requires a lot of frequent check ins, but I can do that with a wiki. Yes, teachers need to meet with parents, but if I contact them early and often by e-mail and post assignments on a website, those end-of-year, Come to Jesus meetings are minimal. Yes, farming requires someone to pick the beans, but I can hire other laborers and free my mind and body to do more interesting things.
You might need to find experiential education experiences completely outside of your school. Nicholas Perez actually advocates for dropping out of school, having done so at age 17 himself, in part because the system didn’t meet his needs or address his interests. While the thesis of Perez’s article certainly is that you don’t need a high school diploma to be a successful adult, and I agree, he is also talking about how the Prussian paradigm doesn’t allow him to follow his passions when he says,
I felt confident and comfortable outside of that environment, and skipping school gave me a significant amount of extra time to focus on positive things that were important to me. I composed music prolifically. I learned about 3d modeling, the inner workings of synthesizers, databases, Internet security, reverse-engineering, and at this point I had coded in about a dozen different programming languages.
I’m just suggesting that you don’t cut off your nose to spite your face and drop out of school altogether, which, while it makes a stringent point about the efficacy and appropriateness of a compulsory, public education also makes your life more difficult than it needs to be. In short, I propose, this is not the hill you want to die on. Find ways to get that piece of paper while also pursuing your passions. By working outside of the system, you are calling attention to the fact that those system is broken and simultaneously having your needs as a student met.
8. Whenever you are presented with an or, hear an and.
In general, when adults offer what appear to be choices regarding your education, refuse to accept the idea that you can’t have it all. I was told I could study art or music in high school, and I foolishly believed it, choosing to focus on music instead of art for my electives, even though I was a member of the photography club and went on to study film and communications in college. I also remember accepting the idea that one could either pursue vocational education or college, and then being baffled to find out that Cornell University had an affordable agricultural program that was fed by our vo-tech ag program and community college programs. I remember the school-issued graduation announcement form asking me if I was going into college, or the workforce, or the military: it’s possible to do any number of those things, and/or to travel, to start a family, to start a business, to write a book, and/or to develop a computer program. Stop believing that you have to choose between several awesome options: you deserve to do them all.
9. Start believing that college is not the end, but rather a means to an end.
College is one option among many for how to spend your time – and your money – immediately after high school. Please be purposeful in your choices. If you do not know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your very long life, or how any specific degree program at any specific college is a means to this end, then simply do not go. I’m not saying don’t ever go, just don’t go until you have a reason to go. Like the city a college is in? Great: go live there. Want to live outside of your parents’ house? Awesome: get an apartment with some friends. Want to party Animal House style? Go work a blue collar job: those people party at least as hard as any frat.
Just as the Prussian paradigm behind the American educational system doesn’t have room for people who complete college coursework while still in high school, it also doesn’t have room for people who don’t act like lemmings and join their peers in running off to a 4-year college immediately after graduation. Europe does, and they even have a word for it: gap year. Europeans recognize that high school graduates are ill-prepared at 17 or 18 for the decisions they are being asked to make with the life experience they have accumulated, and many students go on gap year to explore an interest while also often engaging in humanitarian efforts. Living abroad, learning a trade or two, and exploring what special problem-solving skills you offer a community seems like a valuable investment in both time and money before choosing to specialize in one career at one university. You won’t hear this advice from your parents, who are terrified you will end up a 30-year old manchild in their basement if you don’t do something; from admissions counselors, whose jobs are on the line if they don’t recruit the right number of students; or from your school officials, whose success is determined under RTTT — to be fair, in part — by the number of students attending and graduating from a 4-year college. But this is the truth: college is just one of many options, and you can attend whenever you feel like you’re ready.
10. Realize, as John Dewey said, Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.
Stop viewing your education as something that happens to you, rather than something you do each and every day, all day long, until the day you die. Education does not happen in school, only under the guidance of certified teachers. Education doesn’t culminate with a degree or entry into a career. It doesn’t happen between 8am and 5pm, Mondays through Fridays. Education is the ongoing process of trading ignorance for knowledge, of learning how to ask better and better questions, of being curious about things worthy of being curious about, of learning what you don’t know and refocusing your efforts on pursuing that answer. Start thinking of your entire life as a means to this end of giving your future self the life he or she deserves, and quit settling for mediocrity from yourself, from your peers, from your teachers, and from society. Work hard because there is value in finding out what your limits are, and be a reflective practitioner of whatever your current and/or desired craft is.