School Of Un-Learning

“When you step away from the pre-packaged structure of traditional education, you’ll discover that there are many more ways to learn outside school than within.”

“The present education system is the trampling of the herd,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright once lamented in 1956. Half a century later, I started eFiction India in large part out of frustration and disappointment with my trampling experience of our culturally fetishised ‘Ivy League education’. I found myself intellectually and creatively unstimulated by the industrialised model of the large lecture hall, the PowerPoint presentations, the standardised tests assessing my rote memorisation of facts rather than my ability to transmute that factual knowledge into a pattern-recognition mechanism that connects different disciplines to cultivate wisdom about how the world works and a moral lens on how it should work. So eFiction India became the record of my alternative learning, of that cross-disciplinary curiosity that took me from art to psychology to history to science, by way of the myriad pieces of knowledge I discovered – and connected – on my own. I didn’t live up to the entrepreneurial ideal of the college drop-out and begrudgingly graduated “with honors”, but refused to go to my own graduation and decided never to go back to school. Years later, I’ve learned more in the course of writing and researching the thousands of articles to date than in all the years of my formal education combined.

So, when I found out that writer Kio Stark was crowdfunding a book that would serve as a manifesto for learning outside formal education, I eagerly chipped in. In April, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything got out and is everything I could’ve wished for when I was in college, an essential piece of cultural literacy, at once tantalising and practically grounded assurance that success doesn’t lie at the end of a single highway but is sprinkled along a thousand alternative paths. Stark describes it as “a radical project, the opposite of reform… not about fixing school [but] about transforming learning – and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option.” Through a series of interviews with independent learners who have reached success and happiness in fields as diverse as journalism, illustration and molecular biology, Stark – who herself dropped out of a graduate program at Yale, despite being offered a prestigious fellowship – cracks open the secret to defining your own success and finding your purpose outside the factory model of formal education. She notes the patterns that emerge:

“People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms. … From their stories, you’ll see that when you step away from the pre-packaged structure of traditional education, you’ll discover that there are many more ways to learn outside school than within.”

Reflecting on her own exit from academia, Stark articulates a much more broadly applicable insight:

“A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes.”

But despite discovering in dismay that “liberal arts graduate school is professional school for professors”, which she had no interest in becoming, Stark did learn something immensely valuable from her third year of independent study, during which she read about 200 books of her own choosing:

“I learned how to teach myself. I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it.”

The interviews revealed four key common tangents: learning is collaborative rather than done alone; the importance of academic credentials in many professions is declining; the most fulfilling learning tends to take place outside of school; and those happiest about learning are those who learn out of intrinsic motivation rather than in pursuit of extrinsic rewards. The first of these insights, of course, appears on the surface to contradict the very notion of “independent learning”, but Stark offers an eloquent semantic caveat:

“Independent learning suggests ideas such as ‘self-taught’, or ‘autodidact’. These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools… Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.

“Independent learners are interdependent learners.”

She critiques the present boom of massive open online classes, or MOOCs, for their tendency to attempt replicating the offline experience online rather than building a new model for learning from the ground up:

“Simply put, MOOCs are designed to put teaching online, and that is their mistake. Instead they should start putting learning online. The innovation of MOOCs is to detach the act of teaching from physical classrooms and tuition-based enrolment. But what they should be working toward is much more radical – detaching learning from the linear processes of school.”

But that, Stark found, is missing the point. When she interviewed people who did go to school and asked what they most liked about the experience, they “unanimously cited ‘other people’ as the most useful and meaningful part of their school experience.” So, then:

 “Learning outside school is necessarily driven by an internal engine. … [I]ndependent learners stick with the reading, thinking, making, and experimenting by which they learn because they do it for love, to scratch an itch, to satisfy curiosity, following the compass of passion and wonder about the world. 

– Kio Stark

“Given the primacy of community in the experience of learning, the question of how to take the auto out of autodidactic is the first and most central question for learners.”

Much of the argument for formal education rests on statistics indicating that people with college and graduate degrees earn more. But those statistics, Stark notes, suffer an important and rarely heeded bias:

“The problem is that this statistic is based on long-term data, gathered from a period of moderate loan debt, easy employability and annual increases in the value of a college degree. These conditions have been the case for college grads for decades. Given the dramatically changed circumstances grads today face, we already know that the trends for debt, employability and the value of a degree have all degraded, and we cannot assume the trend toward greater lifetime earnings will hold true for the current generation. This is a critical omission from media coverage. The fact is we do not know. There’s absolutely no guarantee it will hold true.”

Some heartening evidence suggests the blind reliance on degrees might be beginning to change. Stark cites Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh: “I haven’t looked at a résumé in years. I hire people based on their skills and whether or not they are going to fit our culture.”

Another common argument for formal education extols the alleged advantages of its structure, proposing that homework assignments, reading schedules, and regular standardised testing would motivate you to learn with greater rigor. But, as Daniel Pink has written about the psychology of motivation, in school, as in work, intrinsic drives far outweigh extrinsic, carrots-and-sticks paradigms of reward and punishment, rendering this argument unsound. Stark writes:

“Learning outside school is necessarily driven by an internal engine. … [I]ndependent learners stick with the reading, thinking, making, and experimenting by which they learn because they do it for love, to scratch an itch, to satisfy curiosity, following the compass of passion and wonder about the world.”

So how can you best fuel that internal engine of learning outside the depot of formal education? Stark offers an essential insight, which places self-discovery at the heart of acquiring external knowledge:

“Learning your own way means finding the methods that work best for you and creating conditions that support sustained motivation. Perseverance, pleasure, and the ability to retain what you learn are among the wonderful by-products of getting to learn using methods that suit you best and in contexts that keep you going. Figuring out your personal approach to each of these takes trial and error… For independent learners, it’s essential to find the process and methods that match your instinctual tendencies as a learner. Everyone I talked to went through a period of experimenting and sorting out what works for them, and they’ve become highly aware of their own preferences. They’re clear that learning by methods that don’t suit them shuts down their drive and diminishes their enjoyment of learning. Independent learners also find that their preferred methods are different for different areas. So one of the keys to success and enjoyment as an independent learner is to discover how you learn… School isn’t very good at dealing with the multiplicity of individual learning preferences, and it’s not very good at helping you figure out what works for you.”

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