The K-12 district schools I went to while growing up in a Boston suburb look nearly the same today as they did when I attended them in the 1980s and ’90s, when they also looked quite similar to how they did when my father attended those same schools in the 1950s and ’60s. Sure, there are some new technologies and updated curriculum—and more testing—but for the most part, traditional schools haven’t changed much over the past few generations.
The world around those schools has, of course, changed beyond measure. The disconnect between the outdated structure of standard schooling and the economic and cultural realities of the innovation era is growing harder to ignore.
At a time when top jobs didn’t even exist a decade ago, and many jobs of the next decade haven’t yet been invented, most young people today continue to learn in conventional classrooms that train them to be passive bystanders, rather than active, agile pathmakers in a complex, constantly changing culture.
This conditioning starts early. The exuberance and inquisitiveness that young children naturally display is quickly constrained within a system of coercive schooling that favors obedience and compliance over originality and curiosity. With the growth of universal preschool programs, more children today are beginning this standard schooling path when they are just barely out of diapers. They learn to color in the lines, to wait to speak, and to ask permission to use the bathroom. They learn that their interests and ideas are irrelevant, that their energy and enthusiasm are liabilities. They learn to need to be taught.
Indeed, as Ivan Illich wrote in his classic book, Deschooling Society: “School makes alienation preparatory to life, thus depriving education of reality and work of creativity. School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.”
This may have been more tolerable at the dawn of the industrial era, when compulsory schooling statutes were first passed and when conventional schooling created a pipeline to factory jobs that required obedience and compliance. Even then, parents like Nancy Edison recognized that standard schooling could crush a child’s creativity. She pulled her son Thomas out of school after only a few short weeks when his teacher called him “addled.” From then on, Thomas Edison mostly directed his own education as a homeschooler, following his own interests and passions.
Later in life, while working in his massive laboratory in New Jersey, one of Edison’s chemists concluded: “Had Edison been formally schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things.” [i]
Today, we need more young people to grow up with the audacity to create the impossible things that will brighten our lives, enhance human flourishing, and improve our planet. We need more young people to nurture the qualities and characteristics that separate human intelligence from artificial intelligence. These human qualities—including curiosity, critical thinking, ingenuity, and an entrepreneurial spirit—are the same qualities that are so often eroded in our dominant system of traditional schooling.
To successfully coexist, compete, and cooperate with ever-smarter machines, humans need the chance to cultivate the cherished qualities that make us distinctly human. The type of rote, by-the-book, standardized behaviors that conventional schools inculcate are exactly what AI and other technologies are increasingly automating. To thrive in the economy of tomorrow, children need to learn how to both harness and rise above the robotic.
There are some who believe that conventional schools, both public and private, can successfully change to meet the economic and social realities of the 21st century, but I am doubtful. The continued stagnation, and in some instances increased standardization, of conventional schooling demonstrates why any meaningful educational change will come from outside the prevailing model, not in it.
I already see signs of these changes in my work spotlighting the stories of the entrepreneurial parents and teachers who are creating innovative learning models beyond the conventional classroom, including many that emphasize self-directed learning. These everyday entrepreneurs recognize the growing gap between how most schools teach and what humans need to excel in the innovation era, and are doing something about it.
Take the story of James Lomax, for example. He and his wife enrolled their daughter in a top private preschool at the age of two, thinking they would set her up for a successful path to college and career. “What we found was that the preschool was very, very, very focused on academics, on being kindergarten ready,” Lomax told me in a recent podcast episode. “So we got progress reports home saying she can only count to 100, but she should be counting to 150 at this point. And her Spanish comprehension is not where we want it to be. And around this time, it’s starting to click with me that maybe these aren’t the important things.”
Lomax had other questions for the preschool staff, such as what was happening on the playground? Was his daughter making friends? Was she learning to solve conflicts? “And I just kept getting this blank stare,” Lomax said in response to his inquiries. He felt there had to be a better way.
Simultaneously, Lomax saw in his work as an engineer that many of the young engineering new hires coming straight from college lacked important competencies. “A lot of these engineers went to very top universities with perfect grades. We get them on the job, and it’s very clear, very soon that the only thing they really learned how to do in their education was to take tests. So they can’t critically think, they can’t solve a problem without the exact path given to them to solve the problem. They don’t have basic life skills,” said Lomax.
“I started to think this is not the path I want for my daughter, because the skills we need are different skills than what’s being taught in school,” he added.
Lomax founded Life Skills Academy, an Acton Academy affiliate in Las Vegas, Nevada. Acton Academy is a leading network of learner-driven microschools that was founded in 2009 in Austin, Texas and now has approximately 300 affiliate microschools across the US and around the world. Acton Academy puts learners in charge of their own education and “hero’s journey,” in collaboration with their mixed-age peers and adult guides.
Acton Academy is one of the fastest-growing educational networks to challenge the schooling status quo by empowering learners, but there are others as well. Liberated Learners is a network of self-directed learning centers for tween and teen homeschoolers that was modeled after one of the first microschools, North Star, that launched in 1996 to provide maximum freedom and autonomy to young people. Agile Learning Centers also use a self-directed learning model that emphasizes youth agency. Similarly, Sudbury schools, inspired by the original Sudbury Valley School that was founded in 1968 and continues to flourish today, use no adult-imposed curriculum, and no grades or evaluations, while allowing young people to fully direct their own lives and learning.
Research on Sudbury Valley alumni has found that even though their education is entirely self-directed, graduates go on to lead fulfilling lives, pursue higher education without difficulty if they chose, and work in a wide variety of careers. Research on grown unschoolers, or homeschoolers who learn in a self-directed way with no forced curriculum, reveals similar findings, including a high percentage of entrepreneurial individuals who were working in fields connected to interests that emerged in childhood and adolescence.
Independent microschools that aren’t affiliated with a national network, such as Bloom Academy in Las Vegas, Wild Roots in Dallas, Wildflower Community School in Kansas, and Moonrise in Georgia, all incorporate unschooling principles that allow young people to direct their education, with support and without coercion.
We may have left the industrial era long ago, but our culture’s dominant educational model continues to be defined by top-down, teacher-directed, curriculum-driven, coercive schooling. As we now get further into the innovation era, there is a deepening mismatch between how most children learn in school and what they will actually need to know and do to live meaningful, purposeful lives in a rapidly-changing, technology-molded world.
Fortunately, schools and learning models that nurture curiosity and creativity and enable young people to direct their own paths, in pursuit of their own goals, do exist—and more are continually being invented. These schools and models are also growing increasingly accessible to all learners, as education choice policies that enable funding to follow students become more widespread.
As A.S. Neill wrote in Summerhill, his 1960 book about the self-directed school that he founded in England in 1921 (and that recently celebrated its centennial): “The function of the child is to live his own life—not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.”
In a world full of robots, humans wanted.
[i] Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992), 412.
Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, education policy fellow at State Policy Network, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly email newsletter here.
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