Last month, The Times’s Sunday Review published an Op-Ed article by Michael Ellsberg called “Will Dropouts Save America?” In it, he argued that our school system tends to stifle rather than promote creativity and that students do not learn essential skills and habits of mind needed to start businesses. He said that when it comes to job creation, he puts his faith in college dropouts who become entrepreneurs.
Meet one of those dropout entrepreneurs: Dale J. Stephens. After just a few months of college – in which he enrolled after spending his middle and high school years “unschooling” – Mr. Stephens, 19, left school. Based on his conviction that college is not necessary for success and fulfillment, he founded an organization called UnCollege, which promotes ways that young people can “hack their education” by finding individualized paths to self-directed learning. A Thiel fellowship recipient, he is currently writing a book for Penguin called “Hacking Your Education” and traveling extensively on speaking engagements.
In the guest post below, Mr. Stephens explains his belief that any student at any level, even those in traditional education environments, can take charge of their learning. Please share your questions and comments in the comment box below.
By DALE J. STEPHENS
I am an elementary school dropout. At the end of fifth grade I told my parents I was bored in school. They could have told me to stick it out, that doing so would “build character.” Instead, although my mom was a public school teacher and my dad an engineer – both products of the public school system – they allowed to leave school and try unschooling, the self-directed form of homeschooling.
While my peers sat in class through middle school and high school, I found mentors, took college classes, started businesses, lived in France, worked on political campaigns and helped build a library. I created my education by taking these traditional “extracurricular activities” and turning them into a cohesive academic program.
I created my education by taking traditional “extracurricular activities” and turning them into a cohesive academic program.
Although I never set foot in high school, I assumed college was the next step on my path to success. After all, my peers were all going to college, my parents had gone to college and that’s what society expected. I chose a private liberal arts college, Hendrix, which promised to change my life.
At college I saw professors researching, administrators building state-of-the-art facilities and students partying. I found smart people with good ideas, but they were mostly just writing papers, not changing the world. College felt contrived, theoretical and irrelevant.
I started UnCollege.org early in my second semester to challenge the notion that college is the only path to success. It spread like wildfire. In late February, I told New York magazine that I would leave school whether or not I got the Thiel fellowship. Two months later, I did.
Why did I make trouble? Going along with the program seems pretty sweet. I could have written papers, skipped class and partied until dawn. After four years as a college student, I would have had many friends, a good job and letters after my name. But I left college because I realized I couldn’t rely on a university to give me an education.
To get a real education, I took matters into my own hands.
The way I accomplished this — by leaving college — was a bit drastic. But directing your own education does not require dropping out. While SAT scores might predict your success in the classroom, beyond a basic level of intelligence your passion, motivation, initiative, networking and hustle matter more than your grade-point average.
The reality is that school and dropping out are not the only two options. You can hack your education. That means breaking some rules. It may also mean annoying some people. But most important, it means creating options and opportunities for yourself where it seems none exist.
Start by looking around you at the way things are done and paying attention to that little voice that starts asking questions when someone tells you “this is just how it works.” Most people, myself included, spend years convincing themselves that the drudgery of school is an essential part of life — that you have to fill in those little bubbles on the Scantron if you want to get a good job. The student who challenges authority is often dismissed, but in the real world, the great leader is the one who asks the contrarian questions.
The first step to hacking your education is creating a life syllabus. To start, you need to find the answers to three questions:
Who am I?
What do I love?
Where am I going?
First, answer these questions yourself, and then ask your friends, mentors, parents and teachers the same questions. It is important to understand who other people believe you are, what other people believe you are good at and where other people think you should go, but do not let their answers sway your responses. Ultimately, you must answer these questions for yourself. Let’s examine each one.
Who Am I?
It’s normal to have difficulty coming up with an answer to this question. For much of our lives we are defined by other people — we are known as our parents’ child or our teachers’ student. Try to figure out who you are for yourself.
Take inspiration from six-word stories. Instead of telling your life story in six words, define yourself in six words. The six words can be independent or form a sentence. Here’s me in six words: Logical unschooled changemaker reinventing learning globally.
What Do I Love?
If you’re in school you may have never been asked this question. In the six years I was in school, no one ever asked me what I wanted or enjoyed. Here’s your chance to tell the world what you love. Ask yourself: What am I passionate about? What do I enjoy doing? What gives me energy? What do I consider fun? Your answers to these questions may relate to school — perhaps you love math — but they don’t have to. You might love horses, traveling or talking. It all “counts.”
Where Am I Going?
It’s easy to get caught up in the decision-making framework that school provides without thinking about the big picture. Your choice to take advanced math may send you down a certain scholarly route, and before you can blink you’ll be studying something like cardiology. You may not be too sure how you got there or whether you even want to be there. To avoid this fate, it’s helpful to write down your life goals.
Take out a sheet of paper and write down 100 things you want to do in your lifetime. This is your bucket list. Once you’ve written down 100 items, break the list down into what you’ll complete in one year, five years and 10 years. Next, break down your goals for the next year into what you’ll complete in the next 30, 60 and 90 days. (Revisit your goal lists often because they can and will change.)
Share your goals for the next 30 days with a friend and have your friend share his or her goals with you. You two are now accountability buddies, each responsible for making sure the other completes his or her goals in the next 30 days.
If answering these questions was hard, don’t feel bad. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone to know what they want to do with their life. This is why people have midlife crises. But answering these questions now puts you on the path to directing your own education.
Students who hack our educations will change the world. You can tell these students apart because they have spark in their eyes, and if you ask them about their passion they won’t stop talking. These are the students that will have jobs waiting for them — or, more likely, will create their own jobs before graduation even rolls around. You can be one of these students. Your life is a field trip — and you don’t need a permission slip.