How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You

I recently spoke at the #140edu Conference in NYC on the topic in the title. This is what I said.

How many of you here graduated from high school?

#140edu stage - via digital camera

#140edu stage – via digital camera (Photo credit: NJ Tech Teacher)

How many of you liked high school?

Just as I thought. Despite the laws mandating it, despite the ominous predictions of what will happen if you leave it, not everyone should go to high school.

Let me say it again, not everyone should go to high school.

This sounds like heresy, especially coming from a teacher.

But even in a time when it seems like you need a college degree to be an auto mechanic, not everyone should go to high school.

When I dropped out of high school for the first time, yes — I’ve done it twice — dropping out was considered a sure path to economic and social failure.

Not much has changed since 1968. Dropping out of high school is still labeled a sure path to ruin. That there are students dropping out of school is still called a crisis.

It is not a crisis. It is a message.

Thinking of drop outs as a crisis leads to solutions that focus on compliance– things like raising the age at which one can leave school, or more truant officers to track down the education fugitives.

But if we look at students dropping out of schools as a message, drop outs tell us is that school sucks, that it is not reaching them, or that they feel they have no hope for success, in high school or beyond it.

They tell us that they are not being challenged enough, or not being allowed to follow their interests, or just that school doesn’t fit them: it is too big, too small, too cliquey or too dangerous.

The reasons students leave school are as differentiated as the lessons we teachers are being told to teach them.

You have heard, and will continue to hear today and tomorrow, about ways to make school better, more enticing, more encouraging, more engaging and more effective.

All that is good, but it is almost impossible for any modern high school to meet the needs of all students.

This is not for lack of intent or lack of effort. It is a result of an increasingly centrally-mandated standardized world. Now we’re all supposed to hone our lessons to the common core. Really? Does anyone really want to be common?

Instead of focusing on how to make school better or teaching better, I’m going to talk about how to make learning better.

My idea of the perfect school is one in which you can  learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, where you want to learn it, and how you want to learn it.

I say, do what teachers have been telling you to do for so long, take charge of your education and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

I dropped out of high school twice, and college once, because attending was interfering with my learning. I got tired of teachers calling my questions and observations distracting and disruptive. I got tired of being told what to learn and when to learn it.

I figured out that knowledge doesn’t come in neat little packages called math, science, English Language Arts or social studies. Art is not a subject, neither is music, or health.

Knowledge is a massive, ever growing, completely interconnected all enveloping mass. It is the butterfly effect writ large, where everything we learn, every insight we gain, every understanding we come to, changes EVERYTHING.

So I left.

My parents were not happy about any of it, but I had the biggest, most cultured and most diverse city in the world to explore.

I still got a great education because I asked questions, followed tangents and never stopped being curious.

The real key to making dropping out — or opting out if you prefer– is to do it soon enough. Don’t wait until you’re beaten down by the system and have lost interest and hope. Leave school while you still have curiosity, a hunger to know something, to know anything or everything, and before you have to support yourself financially. It may be after 10th grade or it may be after 8th. You will know when it is right for you.

Now you can sleep a little later, but don’t spend the day in bed, or watching cartoons or talk shows. There is a world to explore.

Today it doesn’t matter if you live in Manhattan, like I did, or in East Nowhere, the whole world is available to you.

Think of the tools you have now that didn’t exist when I dropped out. Computers, the internet, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, and more are all there to help you access the world and learn anything you want.

You don’t need a curriculum, a road map or a plan at all.

Just ask a question and seek an answer.

Then ask another question.

Listen to the answers you get. Follow tangents. Focus like a laser or wander aimlessly. Tinker. Play.

All knowledge is connected and things will all start to make sense as you note commonalities, wonder about discrepancies, make connections and develop insights.

Are you in love with baseball? Study it. You’ll learn about statistics – figuring pitcher’s earned run averages takes complex mathematics — develop strategies, learn the science of the curveball, learn about the history of race relations in America, and more. You’ll learn about why the Dominican Republic produces so many major league shortstops and why Japan doesn’t, but produces pitchers. Follow baseball as far as it will take you…then ask another question.

Do you like to knit? Study it. Learn about different kinds of wool, how they differ and where they come from, how they become shocking chartreuse or majestic magenta. Learn math as you figure out how much you’ll need to make that sweater, the physics of tensile strength.

Into dolls, dogs, drumming or debate? Are you passionate about golf, gardening, guitar, grapes or Greta Garbo? It doesn’t matter what. Take the paths   your interests and passions give you.

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander B...

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander Binder (for Atelier Binder) made the portrait during the filming. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while you’ll become an expert, an authority. You’ll wander off one path and discover another one, perhaps the secret of life, the universe and everything.

Just keep asking one more question and you will find many more answers. Each of which will lead to more questions.

Joyce Valenza calls it “a never ending search.”

Here are some things you are likely to discover:

People are eager to talk about what they do and what they know, to someone who is interested in learning.

People are eager to tell you their stories, what they think, what they feel, to someone willing to listen.

Your bullshit meter will develop and become more accurate.

You will find the joy of learning again, the joy of teaching what you learn, and you’ll rediscover the excitement of wondering.

You will learn that all answers lead to more questions, better questions, deeper questions.

Keep asking.

Keep learning.

Do all the things school doesn’t leave you the time to do and you will get a better education than any institution can give you.

Don’t worry about getting into college. Getting into a good college requires standing out from the crowd, somehow distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of thousand other high school seniors.

So while all those other kids are all taking the same classes, cramming for exams and spending every extra minute doing every imaginable community service and extra credit assignment, you’ll be having different experiences.

While they’re being told what to learn, you’ll be deciding what to learn. Their learning will be limited by the curriculum, your learning will be free-range, going as far as your curiosity takes you.

Just think of the application essay you’ll be able to write.

And somewhere in the process of writing that essay, you might begin to wonder whether you really need to go to college.
Once you start becoming a free-range learner it is almost impossible to stop. And that is the best part of it all.

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11 Responses to How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You

  1. […] Dropping out is not s crisis, it is a message. Not every student should go or stay in high school. Dropping out successfully takes effort, but it is effort that's easy to make because you'll be tak…  […]

  2. pseudandry says:

    Unrest is in the air – did you see the NYT article “Is Algebra Necessary?” By ANDREW HACKER, Published: July 29, 2012? http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.xml

    • If you follow any interest far enough, you’ll find algebra (and history, literature, science, engineering, art, music, etc.), so yes, algebra (and everything else) is necessary. The current American model for teaching it, however, is worse than useless. Fortunately, the American model isn’t the only model out there, and other models will likely work better for most people…

      • Deven Black says:

        The American model for teaching almost anything is so removed from what we’ve learned about learning, about the brain, about the construction of knowledge and the preservation of creativity that it is more damaging than enlightening. We take sponges and turn them into mirrors; instead of children soaking up knowledge from all that surrounds them, ask them to reflect only what we teach them.

  3. Stefy says:

    I dropped out of school february 2011,in the middle of the 10th grade.I have learnt in a year by myself more than school could have taught me in two years.I learnt about life,music(one of my passions),aviation,spirituality.Dropping out of school has changed me on the inside-I became a better person.Although now and then I wonder what it would be like if I went back to school,I don’t have any regrets and I’d never seriously consider going back.I love my freedom and my life now too much to give it up.I only hope that one day people will see dropping out of school through different eyes.It feels quite difficult to put up with judgements of others.
    Congratulations for the wonderful article.

    • Deven Black says:

      Thank you so much. I always like to hear from others who see that learning, even academic learning, does not have to happen in a classroom. Good luck on your continuing journey.

  4. […] love this post- How to make Dropping Out of School Work for You. Click on […]

  5. Thanks for sharing this DB. Interestingly, I followed a path similar to yours. Have always loved learning so much so that in my youth my interest in the limited range of offerings being forced waned early on…It wasn’t so much that I failed school as it failed me. The vindication has come in my now being an educator -ironic perhaps but I’ve always believed that if you’ve got a problems with something you should work to find solutions. So that’s what I’m doing now with and for my students, colleagues, and I hope the field of modern education. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. Opps, when I wrote “being foced” I mean tot say “being force fed to me” -please correct. Thanks!

  7. […] then there is this story about Deven Black who I can swear I blogged about, but can’t seem to dig out of my archives.  He dropped out […]

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