From 1980, the year I began kindergarten at the local public school in Arcadia, California, until I graduated from high school, I was part of the traditional K12 education system in the US.
This education system was ingrained in my family. My mother earned a graduate degree in education and was a teacher for ~15 years. My father also earned an undergraduate degree in education (but after 2 years of teaching decided to go back to school and become an optical engineer and work on satellites for NASA). Just like me, my three older siblings also went through the K12 system in Southern California.
I can’t say I hated school…much. But I didn’t exactly love it, either.
My favorite time was free reading time, when I could read whatever I wanted to. I also enjoyed art class. I loved summer school where I took classes on oceanography.
Everything else felt forced and meaningless.
After all, I knew I was going to be an artist, so why did I need math, biology, physics, or grammar?
The last math class I took was Algebra 2. I got a D-, which effectively meant I failed, but the teacher had pity on me and gave me a passing grade so that I wouldn’t have to take any more math classes. I think she understood it wasn’t my thing and more of it would simply be torture.
I agreed, and had no regrets about my poor performance or the blot on my report card.
Nobody took the time to find out why I was failing my classes. The messages I received from my parents and teachers were “Work harder,” and “Study more.”
“But why should I?” I wondered, “What’s the point?”
“Because you need good grades to get into college,” they said.
“Why do I need to go to college?”
“To get a good job.”
“But I’m going to be an artist. Can’t I just do that? Why do I need college?”
Near the end of my high school career I learned about ArtCenter in Pasadena, next door to my hometown. It’s one of the premiere art schools in the world. When I spoke to a graduate who attended my church and expressed my interest he said “You don’t understand, it’s a ton of work. You’ll be working 14 hours a day while you go to school there. You’ll eat, drink, and breathe art and won’t have time for anything else.”
Art classes and projects, 14 hours a day? It sounded like heaven.
However, by the time I made the connection between good grades in high school and getting into ArtCenter, it was too late. I had a 2.3 GPA and wouldn’t be attending “premiere” anything. I was slightly bitter. I didn’t understand why ArtCenter cared about my high school grades any more than I did.
Instead of my dream school, I went to Ricks College, now renamed BYU-Idaho. At the time, it was a small school of a few thousand students, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the rural town of Rexburg, Idaho.
While there I enrolled in art classes and loved them. I planned to finish two years there, earn my Associates, and then apply to ArtCenter.
After my first year at Ricks, I took two years off school, as is customary for young men who are members of my faith, and served as a full-time missionary. I was assigned to Manaus, Brazil, where I learned Portuguese. It was a coming-of-age experience during which I was thrown into adult-level responsibilities with little-to-no supervision, witnessed extreme poverty, and faced a host of challenges associated with living in 3rd-world conditions.
That experience changed me and when I returned from Brazil I no longer wanted to be an artist, not professionally, anyway.
You see, as a young kid I was involved in various types of entrepreneurship. I collected newspapers and cans from neighbors for recycling (back when you could make decent money doing so), I mowed lawns, washed cars, and during high school had a booming business buying candy wholesale from Costco and selling it to other students. On my best days I netted $80.
When I was seventeen I started a business tied to my favorite pastime, skateboarding. I got a reseller’s license, contacted skateboard companies, bought wholesale, and sold the goods at local skate spots out of the back of my car. When I went to college I found a partner and we opened a retail location that we ran for eight or nine months until I left on my missionary adventure.
When I went to Brazil as a missionary I had never heard the word “entrepreneur” and had no knowledge of the larger business world. Toward the end of my mission, a buddy showed me a pamphlet for a business school and as I read it I was shocked–you mean you can study business?!
I had no idea. I thought people “just started businesses.” As I sat reading that pamphlet I knew art would be a hobby for me, not a career, and that my future was in business.
Upon my return to college life I decided to switch my major from art to business, but there was just one problem…I had to take calculus and statistics to get into the business program. I hadn’t taken a math class in five years, and my previous math skills were nonexistent. I hadn’t done well in a math class since pre-algebra in the 7th grade.
Normally, college students in the US take around 12 credit hours per semester. 15 is considered a heavier load. My first semester back from Brazil I took 25 credits, including go-at-your-own-speed math classes, starting with pre-algebra and going through pre-calculus. I got an “A” in every class except Philosophy, which I got an “A-” in (when I visited with the teacher he said he’d switch it to an “A” if I wanted him to).
Math was not only easy the second time around, it was fun!
For years I puzzled over how different my math experience was in high school compared to college. Certainly I had picked up skills and a work ethic as a missionary that helped me, but that didn’t seem to be enough to explain things. The only conclusion I could reach was that the second time around, I was motivated. Business was my primary interest, and if math was part of business, then that was enough to make math interesting.
Funnily enough, I haven’t used any of the math I studied in college since I graduated, 20 years ago. Turns out running a business is mostly simple addition and subtraction.
Now, I’m the father of a nine-year old boy who struggles with math, just as I did.
My son is also addicted to skateboarding, just like I was.
My wife and I have leveraged my son’s interest in skateboarding to help him academically, which got me thinking…what if there was a different type of school, one where everything you learned was within the context of skateboarding?
Imagine you’re a kid who’s super into skateboarding, but not so interested in anything to do with school.
One day, your parents say “Hey, we just heard about a school you may be interested in going to,” and you think “Um, yeah, right,” but then they say “It’s a skateboarding school.”
You perk up.
They tell you that at this school there’s a huge indoor skatepark, and it’s designed to help you progress rapidly. There are mini ramps that are 2 feet, 3 feet, 4 feet, 5 feet, and 6 feet tall. There’s a 13-foot vert ramp. There are bowls, flat bars, and ledges. There are sets of stairs going from 2, to 3, to 4, all the way up to 9, with all sorts of rails and ledges going down them to do tricks on.
“Yeah, but do I only get to skate for a half hour a day, or what?” you ask.
“You get to skate as much as you want,” they tell you.
“Wait, what?! What about classes? Like math and stuff?”
“What, you’re worried about missing out?”
“No, I just can’t believe there’s a school without that stuff. It would be illegal.”
“You’ll pick it up while you learn about other stuff. I mean, you can’t run the skate shop at the school if you can’t count, right?”
“I get to run a skate shop?!”
Your parents tell you that in addition to skating as much as you want, there’s everything else a young skater might be interested in.
Want to make skate videos? They’ve got cameras and editing bays so you and the other students can film each other, edit the videos, and publish them online.
How would you like to learn how to design and manufacture your own skateboard decks, wheels, or other hardware? They’ve got the software and tools to do it, plus connections to factories.
Want to start a skate clothing brand and learn how to make shirts, pants, and more? They’re going to do silkscreening on premises to test out ideas, and they have partners who have launched successful lifestyle brands.
How about an online magazine, maybe a print one? How would you like to publish a book?
And yes, there’s a skate shop at the school, plus the skatepark is open to the public and run by the students as a business in the afternoons and evenings, and on weekends.
In addition to skateboarding and entrepreneurship you’ll learn branding, digital marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, web design and programming, construction, and engineering.
Of course to get involved with all this you’ll need to know how to read, write, and do some math.
“You’ll pick it up along the way,” your parents tell you.
“Wait, but there’s gotta be math and English classes…” you say, you just can’t imagine school without classes.
“There will be classes, but everything is voluntary, and most things you’ll learn as you need, in the moment,” your parents tell you. “If you need some geometry while you’re learning the software to design a skateboard deck then one of the guides will teach it to you on the spot, when you need it.”
“What’s a guide?”
“There aren’t any teachers, just guides,” your parents respond. “They’re all skaters or into skating.”
Your parents explain that while the guides may teach classes, you don’t have to go to them. It’s up to the guides to make classes interesting enough that you want to go to them. “After all,” your parents say, “If someone said ‘Tomorrow we’re going to have a class on they physics of an ollie,’ wouldn’t you go on your own?”
Your parents tell you sometimes the school will have a special guests. Maybe a pro skater will come by and talk about what it’s like to be a pro and how to get sponsored, or a skateboard deck artist will come by and teach an art class. Maybe they’ll get Danny Way on a video link to talk about how he designed the first mega ramp.
“How do I get graded?”
“Oh, there aren’t any grades.”
“What?! How do I get into college?”
“You’re worried about that? I thought you were going to be a pro skater and didn’t need college.”
“Well, yeah, but I mean, what if I get hurt or something?”
“If you get experience with all the other stuff then you’ll already know how to make money. Maybe you’ll start the next Supreme, Palace, or Hypebeast. Maybe you’ll do something totally unrelated to skateboarding, like get interested in fashion and go work for Dolce & Gabbana. Maybe you’ll take your skateboard video skills and go work in Hollywood like Spike Jonze. Maybe skateboarding will help you become an actor like Jason Lee.”
“But still,” you ask, “What if I want to go to college? Maybe I don’t, but maybe I want to leave that door open.”
“If you want to go to college there’s nothing stopping you,” your parents tell you. “You take some tests and get in. There are millions of homeschoolers in the US who do it all the time, and they don’t have any grades to show, either. Some elite colleges even say they prefer homeschoolers, so grades schmades.”
“No, you’ll also have a portfolio. Your portfolio is kind of like a collection of everything you’ve done and learned, but it’s better than grades because it shows what you really know and that you can do something with it. Instead of showing colleges that you got an ‘A’ in your photography class, you show them your photography and they can see if it’s good or not. Your portfolio might include a video of you talking about how you designed 20 different molds for skateboard decks, or how you used your graphic design and entrepreneurship skills to create a new t-shirt company. Colleges are relying on portfolios more and grades less, so by the time you graduate from this school you might be in better shape than a lot of other kids out there.”
“How many kids are at the school?”
“It’s small. Maybe 100. Maybe they’ll allow more kids later, but it will always be smaller than a normal school.”
“Where are they from?”
“Everywhere. With skateboarding in the Olympics now and tons of kids getting into skateboarding, some parents are taking this seriously and moving to where the school is so their kids can go.”
“All ages, starting at 5 up to the year you turn 18.”
“But…,” now you’re thinking of a new problem. “What if I don’t want to leave when I’m 18?”
“Well…they’re going to open more skate schools around the country, and they’ll need guides.”
There wasn’t a day during my K12 education I was excited to go to school, or that I would have chosen to go to school vs. stay home and do something else. But if there had been a skateboard school, like I described above, I would have been waking myself up early every morning and doing whatever it took to get to school on time, and I wouldn’t have ever wanted to leave at the end of the day, or when I graduated.
I’ve had a pretty good life with lots of opportunity, but I can’t imagine what a skate school that taught around a context I would have appreciated could have done for me.
But I’m beginning to imagine what it might do for my son.
The most important single factor influencing learning is the active engagement of the learner with the material. Obtain this – and teach by whatever methods retain this engagement. – Campbell et al. (1994)
Kids are learning machines, but they learn better when they want to learn.
I’ve talked about a skateboarding/entrepreneurship school, but that would only appeal to kids who are into skateboarding.
What other types of schools could one start? How about:
The possibilities are endless. What context would get your child excited about learning?
Context & Self Direction
The school I described above isn’t just a context-based school, it’s also a self-directed school where students have a lot of freedom.
Self-directed learning is what it sounds like–the kids choose what they learn, just like adults do. When adults accept this paradigm, they get creative about how they can inspire kids to choose to learn, like Dr. Skateboard does with his graphic novels.
A context-based education could be created with a traditional school environment, at a charter school, at home, or in a self-directed, Sudbury-esque environment. I believe the impact of context-based education, or context-based learning, is greatest within a self-directed environment.
There are many schools, including charter schools, that focus on certain topics, but they often bolt the context onto a traditional school model. That may be an improvement, but it’s still tinkering with a system that is broken for most, and perhaps all students. In a pure context-based, self-directed educational system the context and interests of the children define what system gets built, rather than the context being fit into an existing system focused primarily on the needs of teachers and parents.
Our traditional education system, which includes private schools, charter schools, and “schooling at home” (a form of homeschooling that duplicates a traditional school environment at home), aren’t optimized to give children what I call The Four Essentials of Education:
- Exposure. It’s hard to learn about something if you don’t know it exists.
- Inspiration. Sometimes you know something exists, but it hasn’t been presented in a way that makes it interesting. Like many other kids, I hated history class when I was in high school. Now I voraciously consume anything I can get my hands on, including books about the Civil War or the Stoics. Have you watched Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary? Sure, it’s 18 hours long but it’s sooo good! (and it’s on Netflix)
- Tools/Access. You know something exists, you want to learn it, but if you don’t have access to learn it, or the right tools, you’re stuck.
- Free time. Without freedom there is no true education, only indoctrination.
Yes, some schools do a better job of providing parts of these four essentials than others, and all schools provide them to some extent, but traditional schooling provides exposure within relatively narrow confines. Inspiration is generally limited to those outstanding teachers who go above and beyond, often defying standardized curricula like Common Core. iPads, Chromebooks, and Internet access are tools and access, but how much freedom are students given to truly explore their potential? And free time? Most schools have highly structured schedules that tell you when to go where and what you’ll study when you get there. We’ve been trained to regard free time as chaos and wasted time, rather than a fertile field for true education.
The traditional education system as we know it is not optimized around providing the Four Essentials of Education, nor can it be. It wasn’t designed for it, it was designed to train compliant factory workers. That’s why changing it is so difficult.
Self-directed learning at least offers the potential for improvement in every one of the Four Essentials. When combined with context-based learning, you could say the most powerful aspect becomes inspiration, which is arguably the most important of the Four Essentials. To paraphrase Nietzsche:
He who has a good enough “why” can deal with any “how.”
In a pure context-based, self-directed learning environment, children study what they want to study, and are forced to study absolutely nothing. At the skate school I describe, it would be up to the guides to make any class or lesson interesting enough for the kids to want to learn it. If the guides can’t make something interesting, they don’t deserve to have kids listen to them.
To learn more about self-directed learning, read Unschooled by Kerry McDonald.
To learn about an interesting chain of schools based on self-directed learning, check out Acton Academy.
Soon after I wrote this, my friend Zach, a successful entrepreneur, sent me an email detailing his experience growing up as a skateboarder working in a skate shop, and I thought it worked well as a case study for what I’ve been talking about above, and he was kind enough to let me reprint it here:
Hi Josh, I read your context based education article just now. Fun to read, and freakishly relevant to my upbringing in a skateboard shop.
My path was a mix of home school, an underfunded private performing arts school, public school, learning packets, community courses, college, George Wythe University, etc.
But from ages 13–18, up until I left to Minnesota on a LDS mission, I worked in the skate shop.
Throughout my earlier life, I struggled to anchor or relate all of the information I encountered into its relational place in the real world. I know very little about convention and learning, but I do know learning within context is critical to organize information and ideas we encounter. I do like at Slope School (our local Acton Academy) how they organize their topics over a period of time.
What’s extra special about your idea of contextual learning is when you can insert it into a real operating business. Similar to the farmer who raises his kids to rise early, feed animals, manage and work the farm, I also envision an environment where kids are blending work and learning together, and interfacing with society too.
Working at the skate shop + skate park in my early years was an amazing experience:
– From managing the skate park I learned about maintenance, cost of building materials, measuring for and calculating an outcome, and getting peer user experience on what we would build. I planned and marketed contests and skate demos, learned about protocols with equipment, etc.
-From working in the skate shop, I learned about people, their various wants and needs. I learned people value the same thing differently for different reasons. I had invaluable interactions working in that store with people around purchases and products. I learned inventory management, product marketing, retail procedures, I learned margin setting and pricing, cashflow, budgeting, and too much to mention here. I was exposed to so many rudimentary business principles at a young age in an environment that I LOVED and therefore I cared about all those business principles because they were relevant to me. It was a platform to grow on. And looking back, it was the difference maker that changed how I approached everything that followed in life.
The idea of contextual learning makes learning meaningful and gives us a platform or canvas to orientate our learnings into and engage with ideas through experience.
I’ve spent little time studying the process of education, I remain curious and will continue to monitor our experiences with our kids at Slope.
I remain curious to see what unfolds for you as you pursue your path.
“But there are things kids won’t learn on their own, sometimes you have to force them.”
Nobody learns anything unless they choose to. You can “inspire” someone to learn something by wielding negative consequences, which may be defined by some as “force,” but even if we accept that definition it remains difficult to argue that anyone learns better when forced to than when they willingly cooperate.
“What if my kid dives into one context, but then changes her mind and wants something else and now all she knows is skateboarding?”
Context-based learning doesn’t mean you don’t learn anything but the primary context, it means everything is based within that context. You can teach math using skateboarding, horses, art, or anything else. In fact, it’s difficult to learn any one thing very well without learning 20 other things, and you’ll learn them better if they’re tied to a context you care about.
A kid who learns within a context of interest could end up ahead of her peers who are in a traditional system, even based on standardized testing, although I would argue that’s measuring a child based on standardized tests misses the point of what real education is all about, which should be learning to learn, and learning to love learning.
“I’ve got questions you haven’t answered.”
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