Are They Learning if They're on a Screen? Self-Directed Learning is Active Learning

This morning I received a call from a parent whose teenage son attends a nearby traditional private school that is not working for him, and she wanted to know if Abrome could work for her family. She had two primary concerns: (1) could he get into a top college if he left "mainstream" schooling, and (2) would he spend all day on screens if he came to Abrome. 

It was pretty easy to address the college admissions question, as we have done so time and again in our public presentations and blog posts (e.g., hereherehere, and here). However, she was not reassured by my answer to the screen time question. My answer was maybe.

At Abrome, we trust young people to take control of their learning experiences, and we see their choosing how to spend their time as critical to enabling and preparing them to lead remarkable lives. For some Learners, particularly older students who are transitioning from hierarchical, age-segregated, curriculum-based school settings, they may initially spend what seems like an inordinate amount of their time on screens. This is in part because computers (and iPads, phones, etc.) are common tools of society, and most young people want to play with the tools of society; and in part because they need the time and space to shed the bad habits and mindsets that develop from traditional schooling

The belief that school children on screens is a bad thing is misplaced. First, short of certain addictive disorders, limiting or prohibiting students from accessing technology during school sets them back in preparation for a future where technology will be intertwined with daily life and most careers. Second, there is a belief among many adults that screen time is for zoning out, and that being on screens means that students are not actively learning. This belief is likely colored by our generation's experiences plopped down in front of a television watching whatever came across the tube. 

The reality is that when young people are able to engage in self-directed learning, even if they choose to spend that time on technology, they are much more likely to engage in active learning than their peers who are in class in traditional schools. Today, young people have control over their interactions with technology. When they play games they are much more likely to play games that allow them to manipulate the conditions in which they play (e.g., Minecraft, Roblox). When they get bored they are much more likely to move onto something that captures their attention. And for many young people, technology provides the one outlet in their lives where they have the opportunity to experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose (experiences they are not getting in traditional schools).

At the end of the day we would prefer that Learners not spend all day on their computers, but we will not prevent them from doing so. And the reality is that they do not spend all day on their computers. Our Learners, like the overwhelming majority of humans, want to interact with others. At Abrome they have the opportunity to spend all day in front of screens, but they choose to also read books, play board games, take the dogs for walks, and run around in the back yard. They find time to test the pH, ammonia, and nitrate levels in the fish tank. They make themselves lunch, work on puzzles, and create works of art. They sit around and talk, and laugh. And they even find time to do more academically oriented tasks such as working through multiplication tables or debating topics in articles that they have read. Instead of saying maybe, I considered that I should have said maybe, but unlikely. But what I really should have said is that self-directed learning is active learning, and the medium for that learning is sometimes a screen.  

Introducing Our Sliding Scale Tuition Policy: Furthering Our Commitment to Diversity

When we launched Abrome, we endeavored to tear down the practices and structures of schooling that harm children and society. However, we knew that simply removing testing, homework, standardized curriculum, grades, age segregation, and other hierarchical practices would be insufficient. Emancipated Learning requires more than just the absence of coercion and hierarchy, it requires a supportive community of free individuals who embrace opportunities for learning and growth. In order to cultivate such a community, we must be fully committed to diversity.

Diversity of experiences open up opportunities for leaps in learning and understanding that cannot be provided through lectures or textbooks. Diversity of thought is a catalyst for creativity and innovation. Exposure to diversity amplifies empathy and inspires people to take action to address the ills of society. But diversity is difficult to incorporate into alternative, private, or progressive schools that rely on tuition paying students to fund their operations.

At Abrome, we planned to generously leverage scholarships to promote diversity and offset the cost of attendance for families that could not pay the full price of tuition. However, we received feedback from multiple families that our listed tuition discouraged them from investigating Emancipated Learning. Further, in speaking with other alternative and progressive school leaders throughout the country, we learned that the scholarship model of tuition assistance resulted in a "barbell" effect in which there were plenty of high income families, and some economically disadvantaged families, but not many in between. Finally, full-pay families sometimes gain considerable influence over school affairs whereas many scholarship families feel as though they are imposters in a privileged environment.

Wanting to ensure that all families who would benefit from the Abrome learning environment were encouraged to apply, we decided to review our tuition policy. We wanted our tuition policy to be inclusive of all families across the socioeconomic spectrum, promote the egalitarian belief that every child can lead a remarkable life, and eliminate social hierarchy among families based on their cost of attendance.

Effective immediately, we are implementing a new sliding scale tuition policy that eliminates the categories of "scholarships" and "financial aid," and replaces it with an income and resources based method of determining tuition for each family. While affluent families will still be expected to pay the maximum tuition, families with fewer financial resources will pay a smaller, but equitable, percentage of their income. The minimum annual tuition is $600 (or $50 per month). 

Sliding scale tuition policies are not typical among private schools, but they do exist. This policy is sometimes called “indexed tuition” or “flexible tuition,” and the degree to which schools graduate the expected tuition payments varies greatly. Perhaps the most notable example of a sliding scale tuition model is that of the Manhattan Country School which was adopted in 1970. Today, MCS has broad economic diversity and no racial majority, rarities in the private school education space.

Abrome seeks to provide an environment for learning and growth, whereby students are introduced to, welcome, embrace, and celebrate differences. Diversity is essential to that end. And our new sliding scale tuition policy demonstrates our commitment to cultivating such a space.

Abrome Parents Share Thoughts on Abrome

This summer we sat down with Abrome parents to ask them about their families' experiences at Abrome. We hope these videos can provide you with some insight on Emancipated Learning.

What changes have you seen in your Learner?

What do you like / dislike the most about Abrome?

How has your home life changed since starting at Abrome?

How has your Learner benefited the most from Abrome?

What would you like to see Abrome do in the future?

How has your philosophy of education changed since enrolling at Abrome

Tell a story about how Abrome has impacted your Learner

What else would you like to say about Abrome?

If we want students to think for themselves, let them.

Last week, a group of Ivy League scholars published an open letter urging college bound students to "Think for Yourself."

Unfortunately for most students, thinking for oneself is really difficult because most students, especially the ones who manage to get into the Ivy League, have spent their academic years doing the opposite of thinking for themselves--they have allowed themselves to be shaped by others, seeking to perform perfectly as charged by adults. They have been rewarded for neither questioning the dominant narratives in society nor questioning authority.

The letter, however, seems to focus more on the debate over whether schools should be safe spaces for all, or if people with oppressive agendas (e.g., promoting racism, fascism, patriarchy) should be shut down in order to maintain that safe space. Or as The Atlantic puts it, should schools focus on "seeking truth" or "advancing social justice."

Contrary to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, we do not need to make binary tradeoffs between the two. As the professors allude to, the truth is the antidote to bigotry. However, debate does not mean entertaining absurdity. Universities should not subject themselves to debates over the virtues of slavery anymore than they should subject themselves to debates over a flat earth theory.

Truth seekers do not fear debate. In fact, they venture into territory where most people refuse to go because it is uncomfortable, and without easy answers. They look backward to learn from the past, but look forward to build a better future. They stand in stark opposition to those who see an earlier era as the ideal, where women, people of color, or LGBTQ folk "knew their place."

Those students who have been convinced to stay in line, follow a prescribed path, and to repeat what their teachers (or parents, preachers, or politicians) laid out as truth are the ones most likely to fall for bigoted ideologies that actively prevent truth from bubbling up in favor of maintaining a status quo that benefits the privileged.

It is the students who have not been beaten down with curriculum, standards, demands for conformity, and prescribed academic tracks that are the most likely to question. And for those who were able to engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences in a self-directed manner, they are the most likely to question in an intelligent manner that will inoculate them from embracing simplistic (and often bigoted) explanations for the challenges we face in society.

So students, please, question everything. Challenge yourselves, each other, and your professors. Professors, challenge your students. Take on controversial topics. And parents, do not merely hope that your children will think for themselves once they get into college. Educate yourself on the benefits of self-directed learning, and investigate learning environments such as Abrome, as well as unschooling.

We do not have to subject students to oppressive ideologies that have no place in an intellectual setting in order for students to think for themselves. We simply need to allow them to think for themselves.

 

West Point's Open Letter to High-Achieving High School Students Highlights What's Wrong With High School

This summer, the United States Military Academy at West Point released an "open letter to high-achieving high school students." No doubt West Point released it in the hopes that it would go viral and increase the number of candidates who end up applying this fall, but the letter drives home an unfortunate reality about the high school experience and college admissions, and perhaps what West Point is looking for in applicants.

I’m even more selective than the Ivies. In addition to being academically competitive, qualified applicants must be physically fit, have leadership experience, acquire a congressional nomination and pass a rigorous medical exam just to be considered for admission. So if you’re into history, prestige, academic rigor and competitiveness, then I’ve got what you’re looking for.
— West Point Admissions

West Point emphasize their selectivity, prestige, and competitiveness in the letter. While there is no shortage of high school students who are living their schooling existence for the purpose of outcompeting their peers so they can get into highly selective universities as a marker of their own self worth, there is a severe shortage or young people who are leading remarkable lives. People who lead remarkable lives do not get validation from being tied to certain institutions, or by beating others. People who lead remarkable lives own their lives. They make the relevant decisions about how to spend their time, and they find meaning in the work they do. They value their contributions to society far more than they value how society ranks them relative to same-aged peers at any given moment in time. 

A West Point Cadet at graduation

A West Point Cadet at graduation

West Point is seemingly choosing to pass on trying to appeal to those rare students who choose to lead remarkable lives today. Or maybe they are making a decision to pass on those who can find meaning within their lives without tying it to the prestige of established institutions?

West Point highlights that their alumni include "presidents, generals, governors, astronauts, CEOs, and captains of industry." But they don't talk about the humanitarians, scientists, and artists. They don't highlight the people who make their families and communities better by investing in the people close to home. This open letter sends the message that success is rising to the top of established institutions. Staying within your lane, doing your job very well, but never really challenging the status quo. This open letter is an extension of the high school experience for most "high-achieving" students, where they are told to take the most challenging classes, get the best grades in those classes, and seek out opportunities that will pad the resume, but never really challenge the status quo.

This open letter may bring more applications into West Point this year. That increase in applications would decrease the admissions rate. That would make West Point even more prestigious in the eyes of applicants, parents, high school counselors, and the publications that produce college rankings. And that may be what West Point is looking for. And given what West Point has to offer (an existence within a highly regimented military schooling environment), the extreme costs of attending (five or more years of required military service, and maybe one's life), and what they need graduates to do (obediently work within a hierarchical, slowly changing war machine), perhaps appealing to the desire of many schooled students to have their self-worth validated by being associated with a prestigious institution is the way to go for them.

However, this approach is completely out of step with what the most selective colleges are really looking for in applicants. Most selective colleges are not just looking to improve their admissions statistics. They are also looking for people who lead remarkable lives. They are looking for people who love to learn, who are constantly seeking out opportunities to learn, and who are trying to identify ways that they can contribute to improving the world around them. These rare applicants will raise the level of intellectual inquiry on campus. They are the ones who will dive into the additional readings in the syllabus because it will contribute to their understanding of the topics they are studying. They are the ones who will commit to leading campus organizations, joining research labs, and tutoring others because of the opportunities to help others and for personal growth, not because such activities will help them with future scholarships or graduate school applications. And when they move on from college they will have the courage to not go into the military, or banking, or consulting if they are more drawn to less "prestigious" professions that will ultimately allow them to lead lives of purpose and meaning, and contribute to the human condition.

Unfortunately, very few high school students have the opportunity to lead remarkable lives. The practices and structures (and pressures) of high school simply do not allow time for a remarkable life. And in lieu of a remarkable life lived, colleges are left using one's ability to rise to the top of high school as a proxy for their ability to someday lead a remarkable life. Or at least to be a competent military officer. Unfortunately, what it takes to get to the top of the class (including a focus on achievement and competition) is often incompatible with leading a remarkable life.  

Disclaimer: the author of this blog post graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1999.