An 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.

 

 

10 Comments on “An Unconventional Education

  1. OMG finally people who get it. As an educator for over 20yrs I’ve learned that they’re sooo many ways in which these kids can learn-especially with new technologies popping up everyday. The question is, can we as teachers be open to (and willing to discover) new ways of teaching. Very refreshing post Celi.

  2. You have really hit on the truth of the matter with this statement,”I think the reason it doesn’t change is because teachers are really not allowed to teach how they see fit–they are not trusted to teach and reach each child in their classroom as needed.” As a public school teacher, I can attest to this. We are expected to teach and reach every child in the classroom, we are expected to differentiate our lessons, but the fact is all general ed students must take the same standardized tests and we must deliver the state mandated curriculum, often in the district mandated way. Trusted?? For the most part, no. Respected? Again, for the most part, no. Considered as professionals? No – instead, we’re held accountable for students’ scores on those standardized tests. If enough students do well, we’re good. If they don’t, well, we’re not good. We don’t have powerful teacher’s unions where I live and work – but I almost wish we did! It’s going to take disgruntled parents AND teachers working together, cohesively, to effect any kind of change in the current shoddy educational system. I’ve been saying this for years; as have many of my colleagues. It’s time, and past time, for a new approach! Doubtless, some people will read this and think, “Well, if you’re so disgusted with the system, get out!” It’s difficult to explain to those who have never taught, but it gets in your blood, and when you really do care about kids and leading them to discover new interests, etc., it’s nearly impossible to just walk away. And I think the best way to try to change the system is from within, down in the trenches.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you for being such a dedicated and caring teacher. And you are absolutely right about the teaching profession and how teachers are expected to teach–no, a better word would be perform. It is the downfall of our education system.

      I agree that the only way for this to change is for parents and teachers to work together as many school systems are headed down a very wrong path. As I read your comment, I was reminded of one school system in particular which my youngest son used to be enrolled in (I still have friends whose children are in this school system). My family has since moved to another state as this school system, but I keep up with friends there, and the teachers and parents have formed a strong, unified effort and are fighting back against this public school system.

      These parents and teachers have formed a few secret Facebook groups where they share information, make plans to attend board meetings and make regular contact with the local television and radio stations to get their messages out. They are making a big impact, but still have far to go. To learn more, if interested, here is a blog which chronicles the ills of this system: http://www.geekpalaver.com If you want more information on how the teachers and parents organized together and are making a difference, email me at crushingtallpoppies at gmail. com.

      Thank you, Jennifer!

  3. Hi Celi;

    You wrote: “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.”

    That’s the nub, I think, of the whole problem. The school system as we know it began back in the early-to-middle part of the 19th century, and psychology (the study scientifically, that is) of human behaviour was in its infancy. Education as a scientifically founded discipline was also in its infancy. People really didn’t know a ot about human differences,a dn thus didn’t know that different people learn in different ways.

    Stupidly, we now DO understand that different people learn in different ways, yet school systems insist on churning out “product” like some sort of Victorian-era factory. Why? Is it that politicians, among others, don’t have the courage to change the system (and thus come up against powerful teachers’ unions)? Is it because idealists in the education system keep searching for the ‘magic bullet’ the one true means by which all students will magically be transformed into the “ideal” student? Hasn’t 160+ years of only partial success taught us that the system didn’t work from the get-go, and still isn’t working?

    I like the fact that you didn’t specify the problems for gifted children and teens only, but instead generalized the problem to the whole school system — which is where the problem lies, I think.

    Thank you for a well-written piece. I am certain many students and parents have had an unarticulated dissatisfaction with the school system to which you have given expression.

    It’s something I have mentioned in other postings in the comments section, and I am very glad you have taken up my cudgel. Few will listen to me, but perhaps some will start listening when an educator finds such sever fault with the educational system.

    • Hi John!

      I’ve heard it said many times, if our educational system offered a more personalized education to each child, we would not need labels, identifications and classifications in school.

      But, as you said, we are still using the standardized and industrialized model of long ago. I think the reason it doesn’t change is because teachers are really not allowed to teach how they see fit–they are not trusted to teach and reach each child in their classroom as needed. The reason for this is because our educational system has too many businesses trying to profit off of the system–it just goes downhill from there once money is involved. This leads to the standardization of curriculum and education. Standardization saves money, but poorly educates many, many students.

      And you are right, many parents are upset with the current state of our educational system and we are starting to see parents fighting back–they are opting out of the endless testing and pushing back hard on all of the hours of homework which is proven to have no affect on a student’s grades in elementary school. But, there is certainly a looooong way to go to get it right!

      Thanks, John, for sharing your thoughts and your right-on-the-money insights!

  4. Great read and spot on, as always, Celi. It gives hope for those of us in the “trenches of winging it” now! Thank you!!

  5. Excellent read and great information. I chose an unconventional path for my older daughter . For all the reasons listed in your article, the normal school path was not for her. She did some homeschooling and then took online courses and college classes. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with 56 college credits and is now at university in the honors college. My younger daughter is now embarking on the same path. I have always felt guilty asking myself “why can’t my kids just stay at one school”. I am constantly having to choose different pathways. But, the same as your son, my daughter could not have gotten a better education and all of the changes helped shape her into a confident person and student. I would recommend that anyone facing challenges not be afraid to try something new and know that if it isn’t working, they can choose another path. There are always options.

    • Hi Linda!

      This is the truth of the matter—> “I would recommend that anyone facing challenges not be afraid to try something new and know that if it isn’t working, they can choose another path. There are always options.” We shouldn’t be afraid of a different path for our children; I just hope someday all paths can become equally respected and offered as equal options on par with a traditional education. I also hope that public education will adopt multiple choices and options for students.

      Thank you for your input, Linda!

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