If you’ve been unschooling your children for any length of time, you’ve likely been asked this question. And it’s a good one! During our lifetime a college degree has been practically synonymous with getting a good job and being conventionally successful, so it’s no wonder that family and friends worry that our unconventional path may force our children to forfeit the golden egg.
And certainly we can debate the value of the conventional definition of “success”, but today let’s focus on the learning side of the college coin. In what ways can unschooling teens and young adults continue to learn? When is college a useful destination?
To this point, much of humanity’s body of knowledge has been ensconced in colleges and universities, making it the “go to” place to expand your horizons, but over the last few decades we have been witness to an incredible transition. The explosion of information, the growth of technology, and the resultant blossoming of near real-time communication between people around the globe has created an entirely new backdrop to our lives.
Society is really just beginning to embrace this exponential increase in connectedness, to wrap its head around the implications and contemplate what might be possible. A number of interesting online learning communities have been created over the last few years and they are growing and changing constantly. For example, you can take a construction management degree online now. Something many people would of thought impossible a few years ago.
For example, more and more free learning resources have been made available online, a smattering of which includes: iTunes U, Khan Academy, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, and edX, founded by Harvard and MIT, offering free courses from many universities around the world. These are wonderful resources to have access to! They are a first step in rethinking how we might support learning in this new, highly-connected world and there are definite advantages beyond the free access: the learner is in more control of both the content (they can skip around the course material) and the pace (they can move through the material at the speed that best suits them). Yet still, the focus is on bringing the typical teacher-student, curriculum-driven, learning paradigm into the online space.
Moving a step closer to a bigger-picture view of learning, TED Talks expand beyond academic topics and focus on sharing ideas for discussion and engagement. With their tagline “ideas worth spreading”, they are terrific inspiration, connecting interested learners with those passionate about their topic. With so much information available, the TED curators have created great tools, like play lists and tags, to slice and dice the data and narrow in on those ideas that speak to you.
I do love that this growth of information access seems likely to slowly, but surely, shift control of the learning process from the conventional teacher to the learner, something unschooling parents see as a key ingredient in real learning. And, in tandem, I think it will help people shift their focus and see the learning, not just the college degree. How? With more people participating in these less formal courses and learning communities, they will start showing up regularly in discussions and on resumes. We’ll see more and more people with solid knowledge and skills to use and share, gained without jumping through the typical college degree hoop. Businesses will want to find and hire them, just as colleges and universities are discovering the unique skills of homeschooled students and creating homeschooling admission policies.
Another interesting slice of the online world is focusing on all the many other ways to learn beyond college. There’s Dale Stephen’s UnCollege. From the website: “UnCollege is a social movement designed to help you hack your education. This manifesto will show you how to gain the passion, hustle, and contrarianism requisite for success — all without setting foot inside a classroom.” Granted, his target audience seems to be typical students that are looking for alternatives to the conventional college path. Experienced unschoolers likely already possess the curiosity, confidence, and grit he speaks of, yet they too may find inspiration through the blog and/or Dale’s book, Hacking Your Education, plus various in-person events.
For experienced unschoolers looking for like-minded community there’s Blake Boles’ Zero Tuition College, an “online community of self-directed learners who educate themselves without college.” There you can connect with others, including a mentoring aspect. Blake’s book, Better Than College: How To Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree, has been well-received. He also organizes an in-person gathering, Trailblazer, for self-directed learners aged 18-22+.
Or maybe learning style/unschooling or “not going to college” aren’t interests around which your teens and young adults would like to be in community. Maybe they’re more interested in continuing to gather with others, online or in person, around shared interests and passions, a mainstay of unschooling. That’s great too! People love to share their passions with others, and the internet has made gathering around interests so easy to do. Pick any interest and I’m sure you’ll find others who share it through blogs or mailing lists or forums; through Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook groups or Google+ circles. People are amazing! Not only have I learned so much about unschooling over the years, I’ve also learned incredible amounts about writing, self-publishing, online businesses, food and cooking, video games, movies and TV shows and actors, and books by my favourite authors … so many things. The web is a fantastical tool!
So what might contemplating this “what about college?” question look like in real life? I thought I’d share a snapshot of what it has looked like so far for my now nineteen year-old daughter as an example. Probably starting in earnest around age fifteen, Lissy, who had developed a deep love for photography, began exploring the possibilities for expanding her passion. Alongside her everyday exploration of photography, over the course of the next couple of years she reviewed college curricula for photography programs at institutions near and far, spoke with people in some of those programs and in the industry at large, and researched the beginning journeys of established photographers. This wasn’t a case of “you’re approaching college age so you better figure out what your next step is” but of “I’ve been immersing myself in my passion for a few years now and I want to connect in person with others as passionate as I am and expand my learning.” Note the perspective—the impetus was coming from her.
From this searching and contemplation a path forward that seemed to best mesh with her goals began to emerge and at age eighteen she chose to spend six months living in and exploring New York City to see if it met her wish for community and learning. For her, it was stellar! It fed her soul in so many of the ways she was looking for. From there we spent countless hours over the last couple months of 2012 gathering evidence and letters and all the other minutiae that make up a US artist’s visa application. During that time, in conversation with our more conventional family and friends, we likened the lawyer’s fees to college tuition—that seemed to help them make the connection that this was in support of her real learning in the world. Her application was approved for the full three years and in January 2013 she moved there. In the last year her knowledge and understanding of photography and the business world that surrounds it has grown exponentially!
Yet none of this means that college is forever out of the picture. Maybe her interests will change—one of the keys to finding joy in life is to not to feel locked into anything, to remember that whatever you do, it’s always a choice. Maybe she will encounter a program, or even just a course, that intersects with something she is looking to learn.
I think what’s important for teens, and for parents, is to see college as a tool that can be used to meet a goal; not as a goal in and of itself. College is an option on the learning platter. That’s the tack I usually take when I’m asked, just like earlier this week when an acquaintance stopped me in the grocery store and we chatted for almost a half hour, me answering his homeschooling questions, and the college question arose at one point. (He runs the venue I had used for the last few years of the Toronto Unschooling Conference. Turns out his brother had just had a child so he was looking to pass along some information. It’s fun to catch a glimpse of the ripples.)
I think it’s much less useful, and more expensive, to go to college to “figure out what you want to do in life.” Instead, when you figure out what you’d like to pursue, if there’s interesting and unique knowledge and/or community available at college, that’s when it merits serious consideration.
And if that moment comes, depending on the program, maybe your teen will need to spend some time picking up some prerequisite classes. Maybe online, or in a remedial class or two to pick up some of the skills needed (likely alongside students who did go to school and still didn’t pick them up). Maybe they’ll start at another college with minimal entrance requirements to build a student record and then transfer to the college and program of their choice. None of that means unschooling failed. Unschooling teens haven’t been doing nothing, they were busy learning other things. Other things that matter. Just because they weren’t things that could be used to check off these particular requirement boxes, doesn’t mean it was time wasted. As I mentioned in my last post, with a lifelong view of learning there is no ahead or behind, there is stuff you know and stuff you want to learn. Regardless of age. It’s life.
Have I mentioned lately that unschooling teens and young adults rock? They do! 🙂