An Unconventional Education

Unconventional education

There are many ways to get to there from here.

The Traditional K-12 Path

For as long as most of us can remember, the only path to an education was to begin school in kindergarten and then graduate from high school where the paths to the future were to understandably diverge, becoming more personalized and befitting a person’s needs and goals for his future. Yet, the conventional K-12 path, where everyone is taught the same information using the same methods,* is predominantly accepted as the one path all must take to get an education.

Success on this traditional K-12 path—excellent grades, commendable behavior, conscientious work ethic, exemplary performance in extracurricular activities—determines who is smart and is going to have continued success, and who is not smart. For those who do not find success on this well-trodden K-12 path, they learn about frustration and failure. They doubt their ability to learn. They likely come to believe they are not smart enough to have a successful future. They struggle, and may drop out of school. Our traditional education system leaves behind many such children.

When it becomes apparent that the current instructional approach in traditional education is not reaching every child, the pendulum begins to swing. Throughout history, the education pendulum has swung back and forth from one educational approach, method, curriculum or trend to the next one, just trying to meet the needs of all learners. From Montessori, to Whole Language, to STEM, to Project-Based Learning—many educational approaches have been tried, but implemented as a one-size-fits-all educational fix. We know we have not yet found that one educational path which meets the needs of all learners and ensures their success. Maybe that one-size-fits-all educational model which is needed to reach every learner simply does not exist. Maybe traditional school is not right for every child. Maybe a conventional education is the wrong path for many children in order to fulfill their potential and find their success.


Why Not a Non-Traditional K-12 Path?

While education and career paths will likely take different directions after high school, why not different paths during K-12? For those who are not successful on the traditional K-12 path, they will come to learn failure, they try to learn despite frustration, and worse, they eventually lose their motivation, their love of learning and their self-esteem. These children lose the belief in themselves, doubt that they can be successful in life, and fear they can’t achieve their goals and dreams. The thought of the unfulfilled potential of these children blows my mind because I believe every child can learn, be successful and find his place in the world where he can find happiness—the place he was meant to be.

But, when we put all children on that one common industrial-style educational path because that is how it has always been done, whether it works for our child or not, we may unknowingly contribute to the loss of self-esteem and motivation to learn. And we also risk losing our children’s future happiness and success. How many children do you know who receive a steady flow of mediocre or even failing grades still feel empowered to follow their passions and dreams, and remain confident that they can achieve their goals? A conventional education can make or break any child.

And when they break, how can anything be achieved without confidence, without self-esteem? Why do we not have many different K-12 educational paths so we can reach all children, assuring that they can all be successful while nurturing their self-esteem? Shouldn’t all children be allowed to take that one special path which will lead them to their own happiness and success?

The critical point I want to make here is, if a child is not thriving in the traditional education model, this DOES NOT always mean he cannot learn, is not smart or may not find success later in life—it can mean he is on the wrong educational path to his future success. Achievement and success in a traditional school should not define a child or determine whether he is smart or not!


There Are Probably As Many Educational Paths As There Are People

My youngest son recently graduated from high school at 16 years old with several college credits already under his belt. His K-12 path was quite unconventional. Homeschooling, public schools and private schools were all part of his sometimes-bumpy path—sometimes successful and sometimes not so successful. Traditional school was not the right path for him. As a parent and a former public school teacher, it was scary to trust an unconventional approach to his education, but his eclectic mix of homeschooling, traditional school classes and college classes was the right approach for him. In fact, the speech he gave at his high school graduation ceremony was both surprising and validating—surprising because he wrote it an hour before the ceremony and validating because I never really knew how he truly felt about his unconventional education.

Here is an excerpt from his speech:

“Because of homeschooling, I was always able to follow my passion. In a traditional school environment, you are taught inapplicable knowledge, facts that don’t mean anything to you other than something that you need for a test later. Without being tied to the academic machine, you can choose how you take in this knowledge, these facts and skills. It is not required that you sit through a class and take a test on what you have learned. In my case, I chose to surround myself with older, more experienced people who could mentor me. I could soak in the same knowledge and facts, but through a more meaningful way–a way in which those facts were tied to something I was passionate about. 

People ask how I get tested. I say I don’t when in fact, I do. The tests don’t take the shape of normal tests where you sit down and bubble in the answers; rather, they are how I use my skills and knowledge in a meaningful way, a way in which those facts are tied to something I was passionate about. One of my favorite examples of this is being part of a maker space; it’s a place where I can come in with ambition, then leave with the information to chase those ambitions. 

Because of being able to follow my passions and learn along the way, I know what I want to do after high school and college. I know homeschooling isn’t for everyone but I am extremely thankful that my parents knew it was right for me and for that I thank them now for all the encouragement and support they have given me through high school and my schooling as a whole.”


As We are All Different, Our Paths Will Be Different, Too

And that goes for our educational paths, also. Traditional education does not work for all children, and struggling on that conventional path does not mean a child is not smart. I have always said that if everyone were traditionally expected to go to law school as part of a conventional education path, I would have most definitely been a failure.

Learning has to be meaningful for it to be applicable and long-lasting. Learning does NOT have to be conventional for it to be the best educational approach for a child. Because it is the way it has always been done is not a reason to continue to expect all children to take the same, common educational path; tradition is not a reason for education to continue to be a one-size-fits-all approach. What if many or all productive educational paths could be considered conventional?

More and more, we are seeing a shift in the understanding of how differently children and young adults learn. We see colleges offering unconventional approaches to education by assessing students based on projects and not on graded tests.1 Statistics are showing that enrollment in homeschooling is growing at a fast and furious rate.2 And we see parents and teachers actively rejecting the common core and the growing overuse of standardized testing.3 Conventional education, standardized curriculums and across-the-board common goals should not be the only path to an education and future success. One size does not fit all.

Education and an ongoing love of learning is essential for all humans; shouldn’t we make sure that we offer a variety of paths to educational success so that each child can feel empowered to fulfill their potential, to have a healthy amount of self-esteem, and to have the knowledge and skills to follow their interests and chase their dreams. Shouldn’t we provide each child with the appropriate education to find their personal success and happiness?

There are many ways to get to there from here, and all productive educational paths should be considered acceptable, even conventional, so every child can feel successful.


1. Olin College, Needham, Massachusetts

2 Research Facts on Homeschooling, Brian D. Ray, PhD, March 23, 2016

3. The Opt-Out Reckoning, Jonathan Schweig, U.S. News and World Report, May 9, 2016

*Traditional education, as I am stating here, is the typical K-12 age-based grade level model where a child sits in a regular classroom with a group of same-age students while a teacher is in charge of delivering information which has been determined to be appropriate for every child at that age and in that grade level. This is also known as the industrial model of education. Some schools, teachers and classes do model education differently from the common traditional education which is most prevalent.



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