Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

The New Home For Self-Directed Education

Posted by Stephen Dill on July 5, 2017

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) was formed in 2016 to bring together the many people and organizations who espouse the belief that children are manifestly equipped to educate themselves. From the website,, we read:

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to informing people about the benefits of, and methods for, allowing children and adolescents to direct their own education. The Alliance’s ultimate goal, its vision, is a world in which Self-Directed Education is embraced as a cultural norm and is available to all children, everywhere, regardless of their family’s status, race, or income.

For many who have been in any way involved, the recurring, exasperated wonderment persists: why there are still so many forced to learn things they will never use, and so few taking advantage of the ever-more readily available learning environments? And yet, from certain vantage points, it is clear that the population of self-directed learners is growing quite large. And data is finally being collected to document their lifestyles and outcomes. And it’s good!

So that is what the Alliance wants to amplify. There is a reason to hope. The possibility exists in our lifetime to see lifelong, self-directed education become the norm. The movement is real, and it’s time to collect the converted and bind them together. That is the role of the Alliance: collect the disparate and provide the support they need to offer their children and themselves the opportunity to pursue their own passions and interests.

Join the Alliance today and become a part of the active forums sharing questions, experiences, and resources. Support the Alliance and feel good about being a contributor to one of the most important improvements to life and mankind currently underway.

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Alternative Education In A Public High School

Posted by Stephen Dill on May 26, 2013

Alternative education lives – maybe next door!

One of the best reasons to attend the AERO Conference is to meet the people who are pushing the boundaries of alternative education. Some are actively offering it, others defining it, others discovering and sharing it. Charles Tsai grew up in East Africa with a brother and not many other children to play with. I met Charles after the keynote by Dr. Peter Gray as I was helping Peter with a book signing. Charles mentioned that he had created a video of a student-directed school within a public school in Great Barrington, MA and I was struck with how close that was to me and that I had never heard of it.

Charles’ video is well done and has messages to restore the faith of those who think the teens of the world are without innovative spirit, encourage those who feel alternative options could never co-exist in public systems, and wake up those who think that alternative education is not real or valid education.

If students designed their own schools… from Charles Tsai on Vimeo.

Upon further reflection, what struck me is the power and potential for this model, and how unknown it is just to the east of Great Barrington. Many thanks to Charles for his finding and documenting it. The challenge – for this and all similar efforts on the edge of mainstream – is to get the word out. Please share this post and this video if you are at all concerned for the future of learning and global intellectual awareness!

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We Are Not Alone!

Posted by Stephen Dill on February 17, 2013

The premise of this site is the idea that the system we call public education is broken. In the years since its launch, I have come to know that the concept of education itself is flawed as it’s perceived by most—that it’s learning that is what we need a new system for. Learning is individual, education is generally seen as a group activity.

As with many ideas that challenge years of status quo, the idea of starting over to build a new system—much less one that puts the responsibility on the individual much earlier than most are comfortable with—there are many who feel this to be ludicrous, ignorant, rash, even anti-social. So when you cross paths with those who feel as you do, you want to make sure that others know – strength in numbers, right? Thus it was a pleasant surprise to find this on Ira Socol’s blog:

If education in the United States of the 21st Century is failing, that failure has been built over a very long time. And I do not think that it can be “fixed” in any meaningful way unless people understand that the failures we see today are our system working exactly as it was intended to.

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Our American public education system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It is separating “winners” from “losers” and it is reinforcing our economic gap. The system was designed in the 1840s and at the turn of the 20th Century to separate society into a vast majority of minimally trained industrial workers and a small, educated elite. It was designed to enforce White, Protestant, Middle-Class, “Typically-abled” standards on an increasingly diverse American population. A few blessed children in each generation who met those standards might move up in society. The rest would be consigned to low wage manual labor. It was designed to ensure that the children of the elites had the opportunities they needed to remain the elite. Everything about the system – from the way schools are funded, to the way standards are created, to the system of tests, to our peculiar form of college admissions, to our notions of disability – was created to meet the employment goals of the United States from the mid 19th Century to the mid 20th Century.

Unfortunately we are 50 years past that historic moment, and we are no longer happy with the results.

But if you want different results you will not get there through changing teachers, or changing managers, or expecting more from students. You can only change the results by changing the system itself.

Ira Socol, education technology professor and consultant.This concept of a class-motivated altruism motivation behind public education is found repeatedly in education histories. But those same histories rarely draw the conclusion that the system built upon it is impossible to fix and should be replaced. It’s a key element in the argument for revolution, but it falls on deaf ears when parents hear it. Ira goes on to discuss the debilitating effects of age-based segmentation, grades, and the inadvertent constraints placed on teachers, making it near impossible to adjust curriculum to the individuals they are charged to inspire and guide toward learning. Those are the topics that raise the interest and pulse of parents. Talk about societies and you lose every parent long before they read the punchline. But talk about children being denied their individuality, their independence, their democratic rights, their promising future and more and you have completely engaged those same parents.

For those who have read this site, these are familiar points, some may wonder if there will ever be progress. The good news is there is change afoot. Observing the various homeschooling groups and pages on Facebook, the many listservs for democratic schools, and the rise of unschooling in mainstream press (albeit misunderstood and often with incorrectly characterized methods), there are signs that access to alternatives is being sought by many more students and their parents who have realized that their dissatisfaction with public education is not their fault and can be remedied.

Stay tuned – soon there will be an announcement here of a new site offering knowledge and resources for those who seek to change their circumstances and options for learning.

Many thanks to Ira for being another voice in the growing chorus for revolution.

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Was There Ever Joy In School?

Posted by Stephen Dill on May 14, 2012

Learning is not always going to be about following rules.You might have seen the article in Forbes by Jessica Hagy that recently was shared by the many who would wish for a different learning environment for the world. Her list of 9 things that school taught you that would make no sense if not in the context of memory rang true for most of us, I am sure. But I found the responses to my posting of it in Facebook interesting. Much like my post earlier this year comparing public school failure with the denial of slavery’s inherent evil that frustrated abolitionists, there are some who see no problem with our current system or the system they were in (survived) when they were young—which, of course, resembles in most measures the system we are sending our children through today.

Understanding why people cannot sense the distinct differences between a joyful, empowering, enlightening learning experience and that which the clear majority of adults experienced and the children of the world currently experience is fundamental to what All New Public Education is all about. For every person who agrees with me that there is a need to start from scratch to build a better system, there are 100 who think the system is just fine, or can be fixed with, in essence, a few tweaks and more money.

Just how insidious the damage is that can be wrought by the current public education system is the subject of a book by Kirsten Olson I have recently read, Wounded By School. In the remarkable foreword by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the true value of Kirsten’s work is summarized by this statement:

At this time, when the public discourse about schooling tends to focus on the quantifiable indices of access, achievement, and opportunity, when the measurements of inequality use a rhetoric that is literal and objectifying, when educators and policymakers tend to be preoccupied with “achievement gaps,” with “high-stakes testing,” and with statistically based assessments and accountability, Olson raises up another specter of injustice that is more randomly spread. She speaks about the wounds of schools that cannot be easily classified by race, class, or gender, by the disadvantages of disability or giftedness, by the things visible or countable. … But she also, importantly, underscores the ways in which people who seem to thrive and excel—the perfectionist, the overachiever, the valedictorian, the brilliant athlete—may also be carrying around the pain that dulls curiosity, limits creativity, stifles imagination, and ultimately may one day lead to inertia and depression.

In an equally inspired second foreword by Parker J. Palmer, he adds:

Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring to the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling.

The wounds of schooling do not belong to students alone. They are frequently shared by teachers.

Yes, there are teachers and parents who participate in the wounding of children, adults who have grown so numb (and dumb) that they have lost touch with the feeling-life of the child, adults who subject the children in their care to the same kinds of cruelty that led to their own deformation.

And so begins a powerful examination of what so many of us experienced in our public and private schools:

  • Wounds of creativity
  • Wounds of compliance
  • Wounds of rebelliousness
  • Wounds that numb
  • Wounds of underestimation
  • Wounds of perfectionism, and
  • Wounds of the average

Kirsten Olson's powerful book, Wounded By SchoolOlson based this book on interviews to support her own research while a Masters of Education candidate at Harvard. She speaks of how “almost immediately I began hearing stories about educational wounding. Although in this project I was speaking with very “successful” individuals … individuals who felt that learning was at the center of their lives, as I tried to capture their educational biographies, nearly every one of them told me they felt they had a lot to recover from in their school experiences, and that their learning lives had developed primarily outside of, or in opposition to, their experiences in school.”

The stories Kirsten recounts are gripping and make for engaging reading. But more importantly, there are few aspects of any of them that I could not remember either going through myself or feeling that I had witnessed similar scenarios happen to my friends or children of friends I know now or have known. I would posit that the depth that Olson goes into would shake a scintilla of recognition from even the most hardened advocate for sustaining the current system. Who can deny that—at the macro level—schools (as represented by teachers and administrators) are “more focused on managing kids’ behaviors than fostering their academic growth”? And even more disturbing, the government-fostered perception that “If you get good grades, test well, and overall do well in school, you are intelligent, but if you do poorly, you are not intelligent.”

This deep dive into the unintended consequences of a system whose effects rob us all of our creativity, flexibility, understanding, higher cognitive ability, and social confidence is critical reading for everyone: educators, administrators, legislators, parents, and students. For the many parents who have been suckered into thinking it’s acceptable to hold their public school responsible for taking care of their child from age 5 or earlier to age 18, Wounded By School is a wakeup call. True, there are bright spots, there are the Sudbury Valley Schools that allow for student-centric learning. There are the halfway houses (charter schools) that allow for some individualized programming, though still heavily supervised by an adult. But the clear majority of public and private schools use conformity as a measure of success, testing as a measure of results, and ignore the rights of the individuals trusted in their care to seek, find and express their inner calling, their true passion.

Kirsten Olson is a saint. As a consultant, she willingly enters one school district after another to identify and document what is a repetitive and monotonous scenario: these few teachers respect the child and thrive in spite of the environment and system, the rest are here to get through the day without hitting anyone. Olson writes that “School administrators often function as barriers to parents and “protectors” of the teachers, “doing their job” when they keep parents from intruding into the classroom or the instructional workings of the school.” The more enlightened of these will allow her to walk the halls, observe classes, and speak with their various communities, but to what degree they will agree with her assessments and recommendations is anyone’s guess. And in the quagmire of a system that is based on an incorrect foundation, one school on stilts above it will not last long, much less make a difference.

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We Knew What To Do About Slavery, Why Not Public Schools?

Posted by Stephen Dill on February 29, 2012

To appreciate how people could be so willfully blind as to permit such a ubiquitous malevolent presence as slavery, one needs only to look at American public schools.  The analogy between public schooling and slavery is presented solely to demonstrate that both are socially destructive institutions that are sustained by the belief that oppression, when it is even acknowledged, is necessary and beneficial.

Cevin Soling takes an opportunity to guest post in a friend’s column in Forbes to pose a very provocative question: most knew that slavery was not right, and yet it took much too long to swing public opinion to create the legislation to outlaw it. Public schools are based on outdated methods and needs and are doing great harm to the cognitive skills of entire populations, why are we not abolishing them, too?

Reading the comments that are mounting up beneath this article you get the feeling that some people think little of children’s ability to guide themselves, have personal interests (much less passions), or even to want to learn new things. Emotional responses, I suspect, but prevalent enough to convince me that Cevin is right in the parallels he has drawn to slavery. As he cites in the article,

The prevailing myth was that slavery not only enabled the cultural superiority of the South, but also the institution benefited slaves who were not morally or intellectually fit for the freedom they found in the North. …  The danger of negating tangible, albeit specious, benefits in addition to suppressing the expressions of support for tyranny by the oppressed is that it prevents us from recognizing institutions of subjugation within our midst.

We are all survivors of public schools. Rarely can anyone point to their years before college or entering the workforce as the years when they were encouraged to find and pursue their passion. Most have memories that are anything but supportive and nurturing. If we all took necessary the time to reconstruct the feelings generated by those years even the least scarred among us will characterize those years as learning how to conform, how to get by, how to suppress their preferences and real interests, and a period of waiting for freedom to do what really interested us. As Cevin says, ” It is remarkable that parents voluntarily subject their children to conditions that would be considered war crimes if they were enemy combatants.”

Cevin Soling has spent a considerable amount of his most precious resources—time and thought—on this issue. Do not think for a moment that the ideas of this article are illogical or shallow. I have had the pleasure of working with Cevin for a year now and I know that this man’s mind is working in a constant metacognitive state (thinking about his thoughts) to ensure that he is not missing anything or basing his positions on fallible data.

I found great resonance in his closing statement about what to do instead of public schools,

The insistence that alternatives to public schooling must be presented in any discussion that attacks public schooling is a diversionary tactic that need not be entertained.  Abolition of slavery was not postponed until there was a clear vision for how to integrate millions of former slaves into society.  Mass recognition of the fundamental evil of the institution demanded immediate action.

That speaks to the premise of All New Public Education. We need to create a new system from square one, but we do not have to wait for that system to be designed, tested and delivered to every living soul to make the most important first step: dismantle the inept system that is currently an anchor around our collective necks. It is holding back our progress as human beings.

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What If Humans Knew They Were Unique?

Posted by Stephen Dill on February 26, 2012

Wayne Dyer, in his book, Change Your Thoughts—Change Your Life, quotes Pablo Casals:

When will we [teach our children] what they are?

We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move.

You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if learning was about nurturing the marvel within us all throughout our lives, from conception to death? It flies in the face of the industrial foundation that our current public education system continues to hamstring us with. Who among us is ready and willing to walk away from the one-size-fits-all approach? Even tougher, who is ready to walk their child away from that which is seen by most as “acceptable” toward something they most likely have never experienced themselves and they have no idea how to be a part of?

Speak up! There is no penalty for voicing an aspiration!

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Education Is Unique To The Individual

Posted by Stephen Dill on June 2, 2011

So if education is unique to the individual, why is it that most students are forced to learn what all their peers are learning at the same time? And why must they learn it in the same way as everyone else? And why must they be tested in the same way as their peers, and be judged as having learned the topic only if they can recite as much or more of the facts than the majority of their peers?

Alfie Kohn, long known as an advocate for the rights of the student, has carried on a lifelong effort to eradicate the stress of homework and AP testing. In a panel discussion held in Atlanta after a showing of Race To Nowhere, Kohn and others on the panel point to the flaws of the current education system for all the reasons most ANPE readers are familiar with: high-stakes testing, homework before high school, imperfect college admission measures, and more.

Kohn also gives advice to parents who are looking for solutions to support their children’s inner urge to find their passion, or at best to cope with the environment that they are submersed in today. [Since first posted, the referenced video has been removed and cannot be found elsewhere. Instead, I offer this Alfie Kohn video for those who are unaware of Alfie’s viewpoint on public education.]

And while on the topic of Race To Nowhere, the creator and director of the movie, Vicki Abeles, is in the process of collecting stories for a book. If you have a story to tell, go to the RTN site and share it with her. Keep us posted if you have something accepted for the book! Below is my submittal:

For so many reasons well documented elsewhere, public education in the United States and around the world today is a highly unpredictable system. We cannot expect consistent results in one school over 5 years, much less the entire nation. What if we started over? What would it look like?

My 150-year goal is to be the catalyst to bring about that discussion and the design of a new education system. One that recognizes that education begins at conception and continues after death as others learn from our examples. Education that is natural and exciting, customized and managed by the individual, always a part of our lives—either as students or teachers.

As described in more detail on, youth education is seen as a family function, augmented by a volunteer force of seniors, retirees, and experts available in the immediate and adjacent communities performing the roles of teacher, coach and mentor. Such an individual education is an individual’s obligation to society, advocated by federal law, supported by employers, communities and families.

Such an individualized system will probably not be public, as so much will change and move away from centralized buildings, busing, chronologic and geographic groupings, and all the trappings of the industrial-age society that created it. Instead, education will  leverage technology to connect students with common interests across any and all boundaries when they are ready to learn or teach a subject. Learning happens in life: in the workplace, the libraries, on the farms, in the factories of the immediate and adjacent neighborhoods. Education is not seen as a formal stage of life, instead a life-long habit of reading, reflecting, exchanging and growing.

And with a new system, we need to accept that “success” will not be determined by test scores. Not all those individuals are going to want to study languages, math, science, engineering or art—at least not at the exact same time as everyone else born the year they were born. They may not test with their peers, ever. They may outshine their peers, or lag behind, but they will be creative individuals, leaders, innovators guiding their own lives at their own pace. When the individual exhibits enough maturity, progress is self-determined, self-monitored, and presented to the relevant communities for input and use by others.

I have a dream for my kid’s kids to live in a world where education starts at conception: parents are taught how to parent and raise a world citizen. Education is a daily occurrence for everyone in this world, for everyone is a student and a teacher, as soon as they have something to teach. Classes are local or worldwide, alone with a teacher or hundreds of students working one-on-one with a teacher in a hub-and-spoke topology aided by technology and managed by the student. In such a world, nations do not measure their success by how many hoops they can teach their children to jump through.

Let us all hope that we can begin the process of revolutionizing education in our lifetimes for the benefit of our progeny, and of the world.

For those who have read the site, you will recognize much of that is covered in the Solutions page. But for some of you new to the site and this topic, I would encourage you to explore the site beyond the blog to better understand the concept and inspire your own systems design thoughts. What would a wholly-new education system look like to you?

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Let Our Children Go!

Posted by Stephen Dill on May 24, 2011

I am slowly beginning to realize that there are many people alive today who consider the current public education system as dysfunctional and out of synch with human nature as I do. For those who I have already crossed paths with, I want to hear who you are running into in life who share our perception, if not our commitment to creating a new system. Keep us posted!

Peter Gray, author and research psychologistIn that vein, I wanted to alert you all to a wonderful resource I was fortunate enough to meet and spend an afternoon with. Peter Gray is a research psychologist who recently retired from teaching at Boston College. He is the author of the primary textbook for college-level instruction, Psychology. I ran across Peter’s thoughts on education through the blog of a fellow education revolutionary who was extolling Peter’s bravery in calling public schools prisons. Peter’s blog, Freedom To Learn, struck a chord in every post I read, as I am sure they will for you:

We can use all the euphemisms we want, but the literal truth is that schools, as they generally exist in the United States and other modern countries, are prisons. Human beings within a certain age range (most commonly 6 to 16) are required by law to spend a good portion of their time there, and while there they are told what they must do, and the orders are generally enforced. They have no or very little voice in forming the rules they must follow. A prison–according to the common, general definition–is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty.

That from a wonderful post Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education, one of the first I read of Peter’s writings. Needless to say, I was intrigued with his insights and assessments of the true nature of our current system. A link on this post took me to an even more exciting conviction that I had been harboring for some time, that children are more than capable of educating themselves, given the right environment, trust, and support. Here’s a small piece of a very important post titled, Children Educate Themselves I: Outline of Some of the Evidence:

We do not have to worry about curricula, lesson plans, motivating children to learn, testing them, and all the rest that comes under the rubric of pedagogy. Lets turn that energy, instead, toward creating decent environments in which children can play. Children’s education is children’s responsibility, not ours. Only they can do it. They are built to do it. Our task regarding education is just to stand back and let it happen. The more we try to control it, the more we interfere.

Now, do you see why I am so excited to have met Peter Gray? I encourage you to read all that you can of Peter’s blog and spread the word. Peter’s interests are focused on the lessons to be learned from hunter-gatherer cultures and how they raise their young, also the influence of play as an education-rich environment. Any and all expertise in those fields of research could benefit our cause greatly, who do you know?

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A Glimpse Of The Future Of Education

Posted by Stephen Dill on May 5, 2011

Salmon Khan is a remarkably humble man. He just did what he was able to do in his free time. Then some guy named Gates caught on to what he was doing and felt he should do it full time. And the Khan Academy was born. Watch this TED Talk and ponder the potential that both Khan and Gates speak of:

Doesn’t this address some of the most pressing problems that All New Public Education faces?

  • How to make a difference in the capital-intense, building-dependent system we are currently laboring under?
  • How to help people see the value and potential of a borderless classroom?
  • How to facilitate a transition to student-centric learning environments that are less dependent on the teacher and more on the student’s innate ability to learn?
  • How to understand where time and attention from parents, learning partners, coaches, and mentors can best be applied?
Maybe I have just been too close to this issue for too long, but the thrill I feel when I hear and see what Sal has done is overwhelming. What do you think? Do you agree that is this the leap forward I sense it is?

I’m off to brush up on my calculus, I’ll keep an eye out for your comments.

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Is There Time For Ed Reform? Or Is It Time For Revolution?

Posted by Stephen Dill on March 8, 2011

The President is asking for your advice. In a program called Advise The Advisor, Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council and one of President Obama’s senior advisors on education policy, is asking for feedback from parents, teachers, and students about what’s working in their communities and what needs to change when it comes to education. There is a promise within her video that all responses submitted before the end of the day Friday (3/11/11) will be read by White House staffers and compiled into a summary document for review by the President and his advisors.

Here is what I submitted. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on what you would have said (or did) in the “under 2,500 characters” they asked for.

Our system is antiquated, built on foundations that could not scale with America and have not provided consistent results for decades. When a system is broken it is a waste of time to focus on bandages if no one is developing a cure for the cause. Can we entertain a two-pronged approach that maintains buildings and programs for a little while longer while another team starts from square one? The smartest investment would be a new system that is in tune with the future: distributed, decentralized and individual. A system that is not based on capital-intense administration and buildings. One that affords every citizen the same opportunity, not just what their community can afford. We need to put a team together to rethink education from scratch.

And with a new system, we need to accept that success will not be determined by test scores. Not all those individuals are going to want to study languages, math, science, engineering or art—at least not at the exact same time as everyone else born the year they were born. They may not test with their peers, ever. They may outshine their peers, or lag behind, but they will be creative individuals, leaders, innovators guiding their own lives at their own pace.

I have a dream for my kid’s kids to live in a world where education starts at conception: parents are taught how to parent and raise a world citizen. Education is a daily occurrence for everyone in this world, for everyone is a student and a teacher, as soon as they have something to teach. Classes are local or worldwide, alone with a teacher or hundreds of students working one-on-one with a teacher in a hub-and-spoke topology aided by technology and managed by the student. In such a world, nations do not measure their success by how many hoops they can teach their children to jump through.

Let us all hope that we can begin the process of revolutionizing education in our lifetimes for the benefit of our progeny, and of the world.

(and then I pointed them to this site)

Bottom line: is there really anyone out there who thinks that Ed Reform is going to direct the system we have to any semblance of stability? Consistency? Humanity? And isn’t there still that messy issue of mass testing to determine “success” (whatever that means)? How did we ever buy the idea that our child was the same as any child their age? On every continent!?!?

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