Deconstructing School

LESSON ONE: Throw everything you know about school out the window

Most schools are built to manage a large number of students efficiently and cost-effectively. They have hundreds of students to deal with and it is much easier to get the students to adapt to the school than to adapt the school to the needs of each student. 

The whole notion of classes and letter grades, organizing students by age, scheduling each hour of the day down to the minute, and rules, rules, rules has less to do with learning and more to do with managing a bunch of young people with a minimum number of adults. 

If we could start over and design schools around learning we would do things differently. 

That’s what we are doing at u.school. 

We are trying to have a school that can adapt to each student. A school that is built around the way people actually learn. A school that is less concerned with managing hundreds of students than it is with helping one single student figure out their path in life. 

At u.school we don’t give grades or tests (unless the students ask us for them 🙂 )

We don’t schedule each minute of the day in advance. We figure you are old enough to manage your time.

Any rules we have are voted in by the students themselves.

You are given the choice of whether you want to participate in activities and classes. And if you don’t like what we have going on, you are welcome to design your own stuff to do. 

We think it is important that you be given the freedom to guide your own learning. How can you be a self-directed learner if you aren’t allowed to direct yourself?

So welcome to u.school. We aren’t like most schools. We are a school built around you. It is kinda where our name comes from You School. 

It’s a lot of freedom. And you know what they say, with freedom comes responsibility.

LESSON TWO: You are now in charge

Being the boss is great. No one can tell you what to do. You are in charge.

Of course the flip side to being the boss is that your are also responsible for what happens. If it doesn’t go well, guess who gets the blame?

It is not unusual for a new student at u.school to spend a month or more amazed at their new freedom. They can’t believe what they are getting away with. No one is yelling at them and telling them what to do every second of the day. There is no mandatory homework. No tests and quizzes every week. They can go to the bathroom when they want. Eat when they want. Heck, they could take a nap right now if they wanted and it wouldn’t be a big deal. 

It’s pretty crazy how liberating it can be. 

After 7 to 10 years of regular schooling and being told what to do and when to do it, a new u.school student needs some time to decompress. We get it. Take a breath. We can wait.

Eventually though, you are going to realize that being in charge is a different kind of pressure. Being the boss is great. But it is also hard work.

Don’t worry. We are here to help. We are going to describe a way of thinking about your learning that will help you recapture the magic of being a kindergartner and develop the tools for being the boss. 

LESSON THREE: Self-Directed Learning Machines

When you were five, learning came naturally. You didn’t need any extra motivation; you just played and observed and learned. You were a self-directed learning machine. 

Over time, learning became less and less natural and more like a job. Maybe we can blame traditional schooling or maybe it is just the natural process of growing up. At some point we became more self-conscious, more worried, and less open to new experiences. In adolescence, our motivations shift from figuring out how the world in front of us works to figuring out how the social world works. 

It’s not hard to imagine that many thousands of years ago, the arrival of adolescence was a perfect time for switch off the learning machine. A teenager in a tribe needed to be able to handle some responsibilities instead of playing all day long. Our brains have evolved over many millennia for this switch.

In the modern world we have extended the period of learning. Even though your brain is switching over to becoming a social machine, society needs you to still be a learning machine. You could argue that in our modern world, we need you to be a learning machine and a social machine for the rest of your life. 

The one thing that is true about the future, it is going to keep changing. Because we are a technological society, our society changes as our technology changes. Over the past two hundred years we have seen the introduction of train travel, car travel, air travel. We have gone from telegraph to telephones to a world wide connected network we carry in our pockets. We have eradicated diseases that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time, extended the average lifespan, and made the quality of life better for the vast majority of the globe. 

We have also introduced new problems, new dangers, and technologies that threaten the entire globe. Our brains can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with technology. The ability of humans to learn and adapt to new environments has been the trick that has allowed us to span the globe.  But society is changing faster and faster and we need to be learning machines longer and longer. 

How do you get back to being a self-directed learning machine? In some ways, that ship has sailed. We can’t make you an innocent five year old anymore. 

Truth be told, you don’t need to be a five year old. You just need some of the self-directed learning machine qualities of a five year old. 

The solution isn’t to go back. It is to go forward. To use the strengths and qualities that make five year olds such great learners but also to use the strengths and qualities that make teenagers into social machines. We want to retrieve mindsets from your kindergarten self and use them again. We also want to introduce new mindsets and habits that you can add to your playbook.

LESSON FOUR: Learning and School aren’t the same thing

You may have been led to think of school and learning as the same thing, that learning happens in classrooms, with teachers, at a school, with kids your exact same age. Not true.

You might also have been led to think that the subjects you learn in school are carefully selected to be the most important and useful things for you to learn, that the order and sequence that you learn these things has been highly optimized by experts and tested regularly for efficacy and efficiency. Not true.

In third grade you may have learned about state history and chapter books and multi-digit addition and subtraction. In fourth grade you may have learned about US history and paragraphs and fractions. Those must be the best time to learn those things. Not true.

You might have also been led to believe that the best way to measure what you have learned is to take a test and then to compare your score on that test to the kids in the same room with you. Not true.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to assume that the best way to communicate your accomplishments was to assign a letter grade from A to F because that is what happened in most of your classes.

All of that must be true because that is how everyone does it, right?

Not true. 

Someone somewhere put desks in rows and it caught on and stuck. Someone somewhere put the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. Someone somewhere organized kids by age, made classes an hour long, decided that A, B, C, D, and F work as shorthand for feedback. 

Someone somewhere decided tests should be 100 questions long, and math, English, history, and science were the important subjects and art and music and sports were nice activities but didn’t count the same. 

Someone somewhere decided that middle school starts at sixth grade and high school starts at ninth grade and graduating high school means collecting enough credits in the right areas with good enough grades. 

None of this was predestined. It happened because someone somewhere decided it should be that way. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Right here, right now we can decide something else. You can decide what is the right time to learn something. You can decide what is the best way to measure your learning. You can decide the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW. 

We are going to deconstruct this old idea of school and build a school designed just for you. Except it won’t really be a school. It will be a way to think about learning.

The first step is to change our language. We know that a “class” is a construction. Not all learning happens in a class. Probably most of what you have learned in your life happened outside of a classic classroom.

Humans are wired to learn. We learn through watching and doing and making and experimenting and playing and questioning and sharing and interacting and copying and daydreaming and making mistakes and trying new things and changing our minds and breaking things and fixing things and all kinds of other messy, non-sequential, unstructured, ad-hoc, hard to measure ways.

Even though we know this to be true, we still have “classes” and “classrooms” where these things are actively discouraged. We design our schools around controlling and ordering learning.

So let’s do away with using “class” as the basic unit of learning. It carries too much baggage. It makes us think of learning in the wrong ways. We are going to replace it with a broader phrase. A phrase that centers learning and how learning actually happens. We are going to use “Learning Opportunity” as the basic unit of the u.school way.

It’s not perfect either. There is no way a word or a phrase can easily capture the complexity of learning. But we need a way to refer to the act of intentionally putting yourself in a position to learn. We are going to use “Learning Opportunity” for this idea. A Learning Opportunity is anything that intentionally puts you in a position to learn something. You choose to participate in a Learning Opportunity.

But let’s not overwhelm it with an over emphasis on the word “learning”. Most people don’t go about their life saying, “I am going to put myself in a position to learn.” They say, “That looks like fun.” or “I am curious about that.” or “I want to be able to do that.”

As you work through this Field Guide you will begin to recognize “That looks like fun” and “I am curious about that” and “I want to be able to do that” are legitimate reasons WHY you might learn something. Finding things that are fun, that you are curious about, that you want to be able to do is exactly the point of u.school.

The phrase “Learning Opportunities” is the phrase we are going to use to capture and collect those things even though they might not look very much like a class.

We aren’t going to throw away the word, “class”. Instead, we will say that a class is one type of Learning Opportunity. You might choose to take a class in Computer Programming because it will give you an opportunity to learn something new. A class isn’t the only way to learn. But it is one way.

The truth is that there are lots of types of Learning Opportunities. You could travel somewhere. You could talk to someone; you could read a book; watch a video; make something; join a club; perform in a play; practice an instrument; meditate; volunteer; play a game; make a game; solve a mystery; paint a mural; watch a movie; make a movie; cook; draw; knit; daydream. Any of those are valid ways to learn. None of those require a class. All of those are what we will call a Learning Opportunity.

So, a Learning Opportunity is our basic unit. It describes “intentionally doing something with the idea that you will have an opportunity to learn.”

It might help to think of a traditional school as a place where most Learning Opportunities are provided as classes.

But not all.

Even traditional schools expand beyond classes and classrooms.

The volleyball team, theatre, clubs, dance committees, jazz band, debate, school trips are all Learning Opportunities. In fact, many people will look back on those activities as some of the most important and most formative parts of their school experience. For some reason though, most schools don’t value those Learning Opportunities at the same level as classes.

U.school is a way to create, join, or participate in Learning Opportunities. We don’t predetermine which ones are important and which ones are extra. That’s for you to do. That’s the WHY. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Step one in the u.school way is to deconstruct school and see Learning Opportunities all around you and to realize that you get to decide what to do and when to do it and why it is important. 

That takes us to step two. Figuring out all the ways you can learn something.