Are we nearing a tipping point for a new model of education? A talk with Peter Gray


Peter Gray is a true pioneer in exploring alternative education models, a serious researcher in the field of education and play, and an inspiring parent and activist. He speaks and writes eloquently without academic jargon about the needs of children. He’s currently on the faculty of Boston College in the Psychology Department, with dozens of books, articles, and blog posts to his name. His most recent book is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. And that title says it all! We also recommend a recent article that clearly explains the differences between progressive education models—which we know a lot about here at Alt Ed Austin—and self-directed learning. You’ll also find a whole universe of helpful resources on the Alliance for Self-Directed Education website.

Peter will be speaking at several locations in Austin at the end of April (listed at the end of this post), so we decided to take this opportunity to let the Alt Ed Austin community know a little bit more about his philosophy and predictions for the future. Peter is a passionate advocate for play as the most natural and powerful way children learn. And he is leading a national movement for self-directed education through the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, as he discusses in the interview below.


Tell our readers who might not be familiar with your work how you got started in the field of education research and alternative schooling in particular.

As a researcher, I was originally doing brain research, looking at hormones in the brain and how hormones affect behavior. But when my own son was nine years old, he reached a crisis point in school, in the fourth grade. He hated school, and they didn’t know what to do with him. We decided we needed to find something very different from traditional schools for him as he had always been rebelling against it. And so we found the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts.

Since then, Sudbury has become a model for self-directed education. The Clearview Sudbury School in Austin follows this model. Sudbury and schools like it are places where children are free to play and explore and do what they want to do. There are children of all ages, and the rules are all made by children themselves—the opposite of typical schools.

When we enrolled my son, he was immediately happy and thought this was just what school should be. But I was concerned that he might be living in my basement for the rest of his life. Fathers tend to need more convincing than mothers about this type of education. I see that all the time. I needed some evidence that it worked. I tried to convince some graduate students in the field of education to do a research study, but no one was interested, so I decided to do the study myself. The results impressed me. Graduates of Sudbury who wanted to go to college did go to college. Others went on to various careers and they were all happy. None of them regretted going to Sudbury, which comforted me as a father and intrigued me as an academician.

All of this launched my interest in play, and I began to study why children all over the world have this drive to play and play in certain predictable ways, which we now believe are part of natural selection and designed to make them ready for adulthood.

I’ve been pursuing these ideas for many years, and I’m now concerned about what our coercive schooling system is doing to our children in terms of time taken away from play and creating anxiety. Now I’m not just a researcher; I’m also an advocate for what we call self-directed education. We have an organization called the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, and we educate people and promote these ideas, whether through schools or through homeschooling and what is sometimes called “unschooling.”

 

Are you hopeful about the future direction of self-directed education in the United States? Where do you see our education moving in the next few decades?

The biggest barrier to self-directed education that has to be overcome—and I’m hopeful about it—is that the great majority of people just don’t know anything about it, don’t understand it, and don’t see how it will work! Most Americans are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation traditionally schooled. School has a certain meaning for us, and there’s a lot of social propaganda about how important it is, so it’s not surprising that most people in our culture believe that school as traditionally defined is essential in order to be successful or not become homeless. We hear that all the time. But I think that the barriers can be overcome.

In the most recent statistics available from a few years ago, we saw that about 3.4 percent of American children were homeschooled, and the trend is increasing. In the past homeschooling was done primarily for religious reasons, not to add freedom to children’s lives. But now the reasons for homeschooling tend to be more about improving the learning environment, making children happier and less constrained. I think that as homeschooling becomes more common and not so weird, we’ll see the numbers increase rapidly.

We also think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of homeschoolers are pursuing “unschooling,” but I prefer the more positive term of “self-directed education.” Both homeschooling and self-directed education allow children much more time in the day to find hobbies, discover their own interests, make friends, get involved in community activities, and all the things that are important to learning. And now there are more centers being opened to create communities and support for families who are doing this.

I see it all as a grassroots movement, and we’re heading toward a tipping point. The next stage is that there will be enough people doing this that they have some political clout. I’m not sure, but that will come when somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of families are embracing self-directed education. So what leads me to be optimistic is that we always see social change occurring slowly, gradually, as courageous people do non-normative things, but over time we reach a tipping point at which everyone knows someone who is doing it, and it no longer seems weird. It no longer seems like it’s something you’re going to be blamed for doing. That’s when real change happens. The most recent analogy is the acceptance of gay Americans and same-sex marriage. For education, I don’t know if it will take 10 years or 40 years, but we’re on a trend, and I think it will happen.

The other thing that makes me optimistic is that self-directed education is easier than ever before. The Internet has made it easy. When schools were started, there were only certain people who had knowledge and you had to go to institutions where knowledge was sequestered in order to learn. Really and truly, the Internet has now made schools obsolete. We haven’t as a society come to terms with that, but all children know that any information they need is available to them at home or anywhere by Googling it.

But what we still need is community. So i have hope that libraries will become the replacements for schools. I’d like to see libraries become community centers for activities—places for learning, recreation, and friendship. We are suffering from being isolated from each other, and there’s real value in connecting with others, especially for kids. Schools aren’t solving this problem right now.

What we’re trying to do at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is to change from individual people trying to solve a problem to an organized movement tackling the problem. We want people to see themselves as part of the same movement, whether they’re doing unschooling at home or sending their children to a Sudbury-style school. We’re trying to create local groups to support each other.

Are there places in the country that are pushing forward faster than others in this movement?

I’m not sure we know exactly—we don’t have all the information. But it’s interesting that in Austin you have a Sudbury model school and Abrome and many unschoolers. Austin may be one of the places where there’s a real concentration of people who are interested in self-directed learning.

What new projects are you working on right now besides the Alliance?

I have a new book in mind but am not far enough along on it to talk about it. It will be about the obsolescence of schools and how their functions have been taken over by other, more efficient means.

I’d also like to mention another organization I’m involved in, which is called the Let Grow Foundation. This is run by Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids. She is concerned that we’ve really excluded kids from public spaces, and we’ve developed irrational fears about letting children be free to play and explore the world. Utah just recently passed the a “free range children” law, so the idea is gaining momentum. Lenore is the main force behind this, but I’m conducting some research and supporting it.


Thank you to Peter for taking time to talk with us! He will be speaking at four events in Austin at the end of April, so if you’re interested in his thoughts about where education is heading, you have some terrific opportunities to listen and ask questions:

What Is Self-Directed Education, and How Do We Know It Works?
Wednesday, April 25, 7pm at Abrome

Smart Schooling Book Group Discussion with Author Peter Gray
(on his book Free to Learn)
Thursday, April 26, 6pm, at Laura Bush Community Library in Westlake

Play Deficit Disorder: A National Crisis and How to Solve It Locally
Thursday, April 26, 7pm, at Laura Bush Community Library

The Biology of Education: How Children's Natural Curiosity, Playfulness, and Sociability Serve Their Education
Friday, April 27, 7pm, Clearview Sudbury School


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial
 

College admissions for alternative schooled, homeschooled, and unschooled applicants (Part 2)

Guest contributor Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome and a highly experienced college admissions consultant, returns to the blog today with Part 2 of his extensive guide to college admissions for unconventionally educated students. You can learn more about Antonio and read Part 1 of this essay here.


Four-year Colleges vs. Community Colleges

University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley

Community colleges are a fabulous higher education alternative for both traditional and non-traditional applicants who are concerned about the costs of college or the distance from home, or who may not be able to gain immediate access to more selective universities. Unfortunately, many people (especially in more affluent communities [and charter school networks]) seem to look down on community colleges as an option because they do not carry with them an air of exclusivity. However, while many applicants and parents may find themselves on the outside looking in after the college admissions season, for many top state universities, community college is an excellent end-around into school, with many offering automatic admission based on GPA.[2] Community colleges have particular leverage among many elite public universities, such as Berkeley and UCLA, where upwards of 20 percent of the undergraduates come from community colleges. Although the percentage of community college transfers at the University of Texas at Austin is lower than at the California schools, over 40 percent of transfer students into UT-Austin come from community colleges.[3]

 
When to Apply

Sooner is always better than later in the admissions game. While some recommend holding off until Regular Decision (historically January 1st or 15th) so that applicants can build up their bona fides, it is extremely rare for someone to add anything to their application in a couple of extra months that will seriously move the admissions committee. The cost of delaying until Regular Decision is missing out on the opportunity to apply Early Decision, Early Action, or Restricted Early Action. And the chances of admission at most schools are substantially higher for those who apply early rather than later.

Many counselors and consultants also advise applicants with financial need to apply Regular Decision because they believe that applying early locks them into a school with no opportunity to compare financial aid offers. This is also a misplaced argument. First, those with the most financial need are most likely to benefit from the free room, board, and tuition that is offered by the most selective colleges with the most generous financial aid (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Stanford). Second, all schools allow their applicants out of a binding admission if they can demonstrate that they cannot afford to attend. Third, many schools are need blind during early admissions, but become need aware later in the admissions process, meaning those with need are even more disadvantaged by waiting to apply.

It is also worth noting that many applicants can have multiple bites of the early admissions apple. Early Decision (ED) limits applicants to applying to only one school, and they must enroll if accepted (or forgo college altogether unless they can be released from their commitment due to financial or other exigent circumstances). Some of the more exclusive universities that have ED include Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as some of the most exclusive liberal arts colleges, such as Amherst and Williams. However, some schools also have an Early Decision Round 2, which allows people who fail to earn admission to their first-choice ED school to apply to another ED school. Although this is no longer an “early” admission, it is binding. More exclusive schools with an ED Round 2 include NYU, Pomona, Swarthmore, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Wellesley.

Instead of Early Decision, applicants can choose to apply Early Action (EA), which does not bind them to the school should they gain admission. This allows them to apply with an increased likelihood of admission (although not as much of an advantage as ED) without taking away other potential college options. Some of the more selective schools with an EA round include CalTech, Chicago, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Finally, a small number of schools offer Restrictive Early Action (REA), where applicants can apply early and get a non-binding response but can only apply to one school early. This means that they can apply to either a bunch of EA schools, or one REA school, but not a mixture of the two. The four most selective universities in the country happen to offer REA: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.


Crafting a Story

Another tremendous advantage of applying as a non-traditional applicant is that it is remarkably easy to come across as interesting, accomplished, and intellectually curious to the admissions committee. Most conventionally schooled students simply do not have time to be interesting, accomplished, or intellectually curious. They are stuck in required classes in school for 5 to 7 hours per day for 180 days per year for 13 years of their lives, in addition to all of the hours they spend on expected extracurricular activities and sports, required service hours, and the many more hours of homework and studying needed to finish at the top of their class. There is a reason why most high achievers are perpetually exhausted: there is not sufficient time to sleep, especially for those who come from feeder high schools and the schools that wish they were feeder schools.

On the other hand, non-traditionally schooled applicants are able to lead remarkable, interesting lives. It is not a given that they will, especially for those who attend schools where they have little to no say over how they spend their time, or for homeschoolers who are forced to work though boxed or online curriculum. But when young people have the freedom and time to take learning down pathways that meet their needs, they get to engage in the type of deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that turn them from just another applicant with good numbers into someone who captures the attention of the admissions committee as well as future classmates. When those experiences are coupled with a level of intellectual vitality that rarely survives the K–12 schooling process (because of the coercive nature of schooling), colleges are eager to offer admission and bring these applicants onto campus.

It is not sufficient to have a great story, however. An applicant must also be able to tell a great story, and that is where the college essays and recommendations come in. Telling that story in a way that will move an admissions committee that reads tens of thousands of applications is challenging. It is why a select number of college admissions consultants charge over $20,000 to their clients. But non-traditionally schooled applicants typically have ample essay fodder to work with, and they typically have a sense of purpose or a mission in life that allows them to string that essay fodder into a powerful and compelling personal story.


Decision Time

The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin

Almost as stressful as the application process is the decision process once the offers begin to roll in (if an applicant is not bound by an Early Decision offer of admission). Non-traditional applicants have a tremendous advantage over their traditionally schooled peers in picking a college and in taking advantage of the resources available to them at the next level. This is because traditional school applicants have been fighting to get to the top of their high school class, because ranking ahead of peers is deemed necessary to success, and now they are moving on to 13th grade with a vision of climbing to the top of their college class as well. To too many traditionally schooled students, education is about satisfying teachers and competing against peers, as opposed to learning.

Non-traditionally schooled young people have more likely seen education as a collection of experiences that have allowed them to understand themselves and to grow as intellectuals and humanitarians. Education to them is an opportunity, not a competition, and because of that perceived opportunity they are more likely to choose the college that is the best fit for them, as opposed to obsessing over college rankings. They are also more likely to take advantage of the many opportunities at college that they can use to continue to grow, as opposed to being worried about going down the same path as all of their pre-med and Goldman Sachs–bound peers.

Good luck to all the non-traditionally schooled young people out there who are heading into the college admissions season. You have tremendous advantages in the admissions game, but more importantly, you will have tremendous opportunities to make the most of your college experience.
 

Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.”
—Frank Bruni
 

Far more significant than where you go to school, however, is why and how.”
—William Deresiewicz


      2. For example, the University of Virginia is one of the most prestigious public schools, often considered a “public Ivy,” and offers Virginia community college graduates who meet very reasonable standards a guaranteed admission into UVA. https://admission.virginia.edu/vccsguide

     3. Conversation with UT-Austin admissions office, August 1, 2017.


Antonio Buehler
 

College admissions for alternative schooled, homeschooled, and unschooled applicants (Part 1)

Antonio Buehler is the founder of Abrome, a private K–12 school located in West Austin between West Lake Hills and Bee Cave. Antonio has over 13 years of college admissions experience as an admissions consultant where about 75 percent of his former clients gained admission into a Top 10 school, and about 50 percent of those who applied to Harvard and/or Stanford were accepted. Antonio previously volunteered for the West Point admissions office and currently serves as an alumni interviewer for Stanford University.

Antonio no longer provides admissions consulting services, but as a guest contributor to the Alt Ed Austin blog, he is here to explain the college admissions process from an alternative school perspective. This is Part 1 of his two-part guide, and it’s packed with helpful information for aspiring college students who’ve educated themselves in unconventional ways. Visit the Abrome website to learn more about Antonio and Emancipated Learning, and come back here tomorrow for Part 2.


Today, the Common Application goes live, and with it the college admissions season is once again here. And today, hundreds of thousands of rising high school seniors begin transitioning from the thrill of imagining themselves in a variety of university settings as they flip through college websites and view books to the anxiety of filling out applications and wondering if they will get into a college that is prestigious enough for their parents to place a sticker of that college on the back of the family car(s). While students who were able to opt out of traditional (public and private) schools so that they could go to a progressive alternative school, be homeschooled, or unschool themselves were able to avoid much of the stress associated with the ever-present college admissions arms race that has fully permeated the high school experience, they are often less sure of the next steps forward because they do not have a clear understanding of the application process or how they measure up against other college applicants. This essay serves as a brief primer for these applicants moving forward.


Start Early

Harvard University

Harvard University

Ideally you (or your children) are not applying this year, and instead are planning to apply several years down the road. Those who begin earlier rather than later have significant advantages because they can be more thoughtful about building an interesting and relevant transcript, conduct meaningful research of their target schools, prepare for standardized tests, manage potential recommenders, and endlessly edit their essays until they near perfection. Additionally, those who understand that the college admissions process is a game can turn the game on its head by leading a remarkable life over a period of several years, as opposed to trying to package themselves in the 11th hour (see “It’s a Game” below). Some of this advice will be geared toward those who start earlier, but even those who wait until the summer before applications are due to dive in can benefit from a better understanding of the admissions process and what they can bring to it.


It’s a Game

College admissions is not a meritocracy; it is a game. Sadly, it is a game that weighs heavily on applicants and parents, and it is often seen as a decision that can make or break one’s future prospects. Even more sad is that college admissions decisions have little to do with merit, and much to do with class and privilege. It is essential for applicants to recognize that the college admissions process is not fair, and that the decisions that colleges make in favor or against an applicant have absolutely no bearing on the academic or personal worth of that applicant. Easier said than done. But when an applicant recognizes that college admissions is a game, and they know the rules of the game (and how to hack it), they are more likely to be successful at the game. And an applicant who opts out of traditional schooling has a huge leg up in the admissions game.


Building a Transcript

Stanford University

Stanford University

Hopefully, most young people who are alternatively schooled, homeschooled, or unschooled know that a high school degree is largely worthless. No reputable college or university in the United States requires a high school degree. However, all colleges will want to see a transcript, and this is one area of several where non-traditionally schooled applicants have a sizeable advantage. The time and effort that typical high school students put into their transcripts usually end with a verification that they are hitting all graduation requirements (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits) and a quick calculation to determine which honors and AP classes they should take to boost their GPA relative to their peers. But young people who are responsible for their educational pathways have the opportunity to walk admissions committees through a unique journey that was tailored to the applicant’s needs, goals, and interests. The best way to do this is to celebrate how the applicant spent their time engaged in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences, without trying to conform it to a standard academic transcript (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits).

Additionally, letter grades or percentages are meaningless on a non-traditional transcript unless it shows anything less than a perfect GPA, which would hurt an applicant. Those who opt out of the traditional schooling system should never introduce the rank ordering aspects of grading that pull applicants down. [1]


Standardized Testing

Another benefit of opting out of traditional schooling is that young people get to avoid the relentless testing that is required in the classroom and for the state (e.g., Texas STAAR, New York Regents). Testing serves as a means for lazy politicians, bureaucrats, administrators, and teachers to assess and sort students, at the expense of students. Hopefully, the first time any young person takes a test is if they opt into it for their own benefit, such as taking the PSAT or an AP exam. However, one of the very few downsides to a non-traditional education is that many colleges will lean more heavily on standardized test scores during the admissions process. While the SAT or ACT most often serves as a disqualifier for top private colleges and universities (and as an automatic qualifier for many lower-ranked private or state schools), non-traditional applicants may have a more difficult time overcoming a poor SAT or ACT score than a traditionally schooled applicant who has a perfect GPA and ranks at the top of their class might.

The good news for non-traditional applicants is they should have ample time to prepare for the tests without being burdened by the unnecessary time requirements associated with traditional schooling (e.g., compulsory attendance, mandatory classes, homework, studying, testing). And for those who do not perform well on standardized tests even with plenty of prep, there are now over 900 colleges and universities that do not rely on or require standardized tests in the application process.

It is worth noting that the most exclusive schools also require or “recommend” applicants submit SAT subject tests with their application. Non-traditional applicants should treat SAT subject tests as required if a school “recommends” them, and as recommended if a school “considers” them. Similar to the SAT and ACT, these tests can hurt an applicant’s prospects if the scores are low, but are unlikely to substantially help since so many applicants score in the high 700s or 800 on these tests.


Building a College List

Yale University

Yale University

Traditionally schooled applicants typically have an easier time than non-traditional applicants in zeroing in on schools to apply to because (1) they are more likely to focus on college rankings as a guide for constructing their list, and (2) based on their class rank and GPA at their particular school, combined with their standardized test scores, they can lean on their guidance counselor or Naviance to help them identify the highest-ranked schools where they have a chance of admission. Unfortunately, this approach results in a high volume of applications to a wide range of schools, lower-quality applications, excessively high rates of anxiety, and very often a failure to identify best-fit colleges.

Non-traditional applicants can more easily overcome the aforementioned challenges because they are more likely to “understand thyself” thanks to years of self-directed learning (or less-coercive schooling) and reflection, and therefore are more likely to be drawn to colleges based on what opportunities and experiences the colleges can provide the applicant in accordance with their needs, as opposed to being drawn to colleges based on their rank. This process will still lead many of these non-traditional applicants to elite, private research universities such as Harvard and Stanford, but others may find that the flagship state school or even starting out at a local community college may be more advantageous for them, while many others may be drawn to liberal arts colleges that are less selective than the elite research universities but that arguably provide the best college education of all.

From a strategic perspective, fewer schools are better than many in the college applications game. By focusing on only the most selective schools as opposed to the best-fit schools, many applicants are driven to apply to upwards of two dozen colleges that may each have single- or low-double-digit acceptance rates. In doing so, they undermine their chances by stretching themselves thin on supplemental essays, applying to schools that their applications will not resonate with, and failing to help recommenders (especially optional recommenders) tailor their letters to a targeted group of schools. Applying to a bunch of schools also costs a lot of money.

Many counselors and consultants recommend applying to 6–10 schools, but we would recommend applying to no more than 5 schools. We have advised applicants to only apply to schools they would be thrilled to attend because of what they could make of the experience, whether it is Harvard, Stanford, State Flagship University, or Directional State U. We highly recommend against applying to “safety” schools as something to fall back to if best-fit schools do not work out. We also recommend against applying to any schools that do not require supplemental essays beyond what is required in the Common Application or Coalition Application, unless the applicant feels that the school is a great fit for their needs. Schools that do not have additional essay prompts often benefit from having large numbers of lazier applicants apply because of the marginal effort required (an application fee), making it more difficult for a non-traditional applicant to drive home their unique story to the admissions committee. [The author of this essay applied to only three universities: West Point for college, Stanford and Harvard for business school, and Harvard for education school. The author has never been rejected and attributes much of this success to being able to submit a near perfect application on the factors that he was able to control or have considerable influence over (e.g., essays, recommendations).]

[Join us back here on the blog tomorrow for more advice from Antonio in Part 2. —Ed.]


     1. Grading also undermines the learning process. Any school that grades its students fails its students. There is never a reason for an alternative school to engage in this destructive practice.


Antonio Buehler

Raising Resisters

We invited Antonio Buehler back to the blog to tell our readers about a new group that is working to nurture and strengthen the next generation of effective anti-oppression activists. Among his many other roles, Antonio is founder of Abrome, a local school centered on self-directed, meaningful learning for ages 5–19.


The 2016 presidential election campaign reminded many Americans that while our society likes to boast about its commitment to equality, justice, liberty, and tolerance, an often stronger undercurrent of bias, bigotry, oppression, and hate courses through the veins of American culture. Prior to the election of Donald Trump, and coming off two terms of America’s first black president, both the political left and right were generally dismissive of what appeared to be a rising tide of hostility toward immigrants, black and brown communities, Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and women. However, since the election, the hostilities against marginalized and oppressed groups have continued to rise, while fascist and white supremacist organizing has moved out from the shadows and into the streets. Although the fabric of society may have changed very little over the past year, the aesthetics have changed significantly.

As organic and organized protests began to grow after election day, and leading up to the inauguration, it became apparent that many previously inactive people were looking for ways to become engaged. While more established political and nonprofit entities were eager to pull those people into their organizations, a small group of Austin activists came together as the Oh Shit! What Now? (OSWN) Collective to find ways to introduce those people into more radical activist circles that focus on direct action tactics. OSWN has since helped organize and plan study groups, discussions, trainings, and workshops aimed at building a diverse community of resisters, and equipping folks with radical skills that they can share with others to push back against hierarchical and oppressive forces within society.

The younger generations have historically been one of the drivers, if not the primary ones, of radical social change, while their caregivers or guardians, as well as those who contribute to the development of the younger generations (e.g., teachers), help shape whether the youth believe that they can drive social change. That’s why OSWN came together with Abrome, the Crustacean Zine Library, and Austin Yawp to launch Raising Resisters, a discussion group that focuses on anti-oppressive parenting and education tactics.

Parenting, education, and activism have a long history of interrelatedness. Radical leftists and anarchists have often understood that oppression is more easily dismantled within the family than within societal institutions, and that young people could be spared being conditioned by mainstream schooling into accepting authoritarianism, capitalism, nationalism, and other hierarchical belief systems. For example, in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Leo Tolstoy, and Francisco Ferrer Guardia all led alternative schools that were the precursors of radical free schools and democratic schools wherein children had full control over their educational experiences. In the 20th century, in conjunction with the rise of the free schools, writers such as Paul Goodman, George Dennison, and John Holt helped introduce the notions of deschooling and unschooling as a means of resistance into a wider counterculture that was already questioning American foreign policy, racial segregation, and assumptions about social norms. Holt, the most influential of these thinkers, even forewarned of today’s rise of fascism and the inability of system reforms to effectively stave off that rise.

OSWN, Abrome, the Crustacean Zine Library, and Austin Yawp invite parents and educators to join us at our monthly Raising Resisters discussion group meetings to continue the tradition of marrying parenting, education, and activism so that we can build community to resist, and create something better.

Upcoming Events (meetings at 6:30pm at Austin Yawp, 4548 Page St., Austin, TX 78723):

  • Thursday, June 15th
  • Thursday, Jul 20th
  • Thursday, Aug 24th
  • Thursday, Sep 21st
  • Thursday, Oct 19th
  • Thursday, Nov 16th
  • Thursday Dec 14th


Antonio Buehler

Conversations about schooling: The Smart Schooling Book Group

Smart-Schooling-Book-Group_FB-cover-image.jpg

Alt Ed Austin is pleased to help spread the word about a new book group focused on crucial questions about educational systems and new understandings in the psychology of learning. Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome, joins us on the blog to explain why he started the group and how you can join the conversations.
 

The majority of the parents we talk to are not eagerly looking to provide their children with a rich, self-directed learning environment. Sadly, most of the parents we talk to are trying to save their children from the trauma that is so often associated with schooling (e.g., testing, sleep deprivation, depression, bullying). One of the greatest challenges we face when talking to those parents about Emancipated Learning as an alternative to school is that it is often the first time that they have heard of an educational environment that does not rely on coercion. Most of them have never been introduced to the notion of self-directed education, or they believe that self-directed education can be achieved by allowing a student to pick a topic they are expected to write a report about. They might have heard of homeschooling, but have never heard of unschooling, Sudbury Valley, or Summerhill.

Instead of being able to highlight how we are creating a psychologically safe learning space where young people can engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that will allow them to lead remarkable lives, we are left trying to educate them on human psychology, the history of schooling, and the science of learning. Needless to say, a 30-minute conversation covering such deep topics is typically not enough to compel parents to take meaningful action to improve their children’s learning experiences in their current schools, to move them to alternative schools that better meet their children’s needs, or to opt out of schooling altogether.

At the same time, there are a lot of teachers and administrators who know that something is not working at their schools but do not know what they can do to substantially improve the situation.  They have most likely never been introduced to much of the research that proves that self-directed learning is the best way to deepen learning, promote lifelong learning, and eliminate much of the trauma associated with coercive schooling. It is not their fault, as the organizations they work for and the education schools that they attended go out of their way to ignore these topics, and instead focus on marginal reforms while pushing the baseline assumption that young people need to be forced to learn, and that schooling environments are where that happens.

In an attempt to spur the necessary conversations around education that are currently not happening, we will be hosting the “Smart Schooling Book Group” at the Laura Bush Community Library for the duration of this year. We will read one book each month that focuses on education, with an emphasis on the psychology that would ideally inform how we approach education, and then come together to discuss it on the last Thursday of each month.

2017 Reading List
Jan 26:  Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham
Feb 23:  The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine
Mar 30:  Wounded by School by Kirsten Olsen
Apr 27:  Free to Learn by Peter Gray
May 25:  Overschooled but Undereducated by John Abbott
Jun 29:  Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman
Jul 27:   Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
Aug 31:  Drive by Daniel Pink
Sep 28:  Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood by A. S. Neill
Oct 26:  The End of Average by Todd Rose
Nov 30:  Old School by Tobias Wolff (novel)
Dec 28:  Mindset by Carol Dweck

We hope that young people, parents, future parents, teachers, and school administrators can all benefit from these readings and conversations. Hopefully, some school board members will also drop in.

Antonio Buehler
 

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (movie review)


Looking for a movie to see with your teen or tween this weekend? Our guest contributor, Antonio Buehler, says this film is worth your while. Antonio is the founder of Abrome, a K–12 school just west of Austin that offers a program of “Emancipated Learning” for students age 5 to 18.
 

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (PG) revolves around a young man named Rafe who has a wild imagination that flows through the drawings he keeps in a special notebook. He also has not had the best experiences at school, seemingly due to behavioral issues, and is on his third school since his younger brother died from leukemia. He understands that this is his last shot at public school, and the threat of being sent away to a military school looms on the horizon if he does not make it work at Hills Village Middle School (HVMS). 

His first day of school does not get off to a great start. After staying up all night drawing cartoons in his notebook, he is stopped by the principal as he is approaching the front doors of the school. Principal Dwight informs Rafe that the clothes he is wearing violates one of many school rules. While he is droning on, telling Rafe to get to know all of the rules in his rule book, Rafe’s friend Leo shows up behind the principal and mocks his every gesture. Rafe is thrilled to see Leo, who says that he was pushed out of his old school, too.

In class, the first thing Rafe experiences is laughter from his classmates when they find out what his last name is, and then a student tells him, “Welcome to hell.” Bullying is baked into the environment at HVMS through the common structures of schooling, which include age-based segregation, competitive testing and grades, and the oppression of restrictive rules and abusive adults (e.g., Principal Dwight). The social conditions within the school and society also contribute to a bullying culture. While giving a pitch for his student council campaign at a school assembly, a male student encourages people to vote for him because “my dad is super rich and my mom is smoking hot.”

While bullying contributes to the misery of schooling, so does standardized testing. At the aforementioned assembly, Principal Dwight attempts to rally the students to focus on the upcoming B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness) test. Unfortunately for Rafe, a fellow student grabs his notebook while he is drawing up a sketch that mocked Principal Dwight’s focus on the B.L.A.A.R., and this brings the assembly to a tense halt. In retaliation, Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s notebook.

Distraught, Rafe holes himself up in his room at home. Fortunately, Leo comes to the emotional rescue and encourages Rafe to seek revenge by engaging in a campaign to undermine Principal Dwight’s oppressive rule. Leo convinces Rafe to figuratively destroy Principal Dwight’s rule book. With eight weeks left until the B.L.A.A.R., Rafe and Leo begin to plan and execute elaborate pranks that systematically violate each of Principal Dwight’s beloved rules.

As Rafe and Leo carry out prank after prank, with the outcome always seen by an amused audience of students, many older viewers will be brought back to their middle school years, wishing that they could have done something about the needless limits imposed on their freedoms, while younger viewers may find themselves imagining taking on The Man in their schools in their own ways.

Just beyond the pranks, the B.L.A.A.R. is a constant, brewing threat. Not just for the students in terms of a stressful waste of time, but even more so for Principal Dwight and Vice Principal Stricker, who are judged based on the scores of their students. Rafe recognizes how pointless the B.L.A.A.R. is and comments at one point, “I’m learning more by breaking the rules than by preparing for some dumb test.” Principal Dwight, on the other hand, is willing to expel students in an effort to boost the test scores for the school, much like many public schools have been documented pushing out poorly performing students or those with disciplinary issues.

In the course of breaking all the rules at school, Rafe falls for a social justice oriented classmate named Jeanne while trying to navigate around a bully named Miller. At home, Rafe and his little sister Georgia have a complicated relationship, likely complicated by the passing of their brother, while they both suffer through socially painful interactions with their mom’s obnoxious boyfriend, Carl. The acting is not as moving as the story, although I doubt many people can get through it without shedding some tears, particularly during a moving plot twist toward the end of the movie.

All in all, the movie does a fine job of highlighting some of the problems inherent in conventional schooling. Rafe’s homeroom teacher asks at one point, “What is this obsession with testing and categorizing kids?”—which, hopefully, plants a seed in the mind of every student and parent who sees the movie. Unfortunately, the movie does not take this question to its logical conclusion, given the reality that traditional schools will continue to test and categorize young people for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, for those who are willing to pursue an answer, there are many alternatives to conventional schooling, including progressive alternative schools, homeschooling, and unschooling.

I encourage people to go see this movie, preferably as a family, and then discuss the themes it raises.


Antonio Buehler