Taking chances and taking action

The following blog post was written by a guest blogger and fellow learner-centered educator from Sonoma County, CA. He has taken drastic measures to pursue meaning and fulfillment in his own life, as well as to provide a path for others to join him. You can learn more about his project here.

Up until a few months ago, my plan had been to finish my undergraduate program, move on to graduate school and earn a PhD, and then become a college physics teacher.

A few months ago, however, I began thinking about how I’d like to teach—what methods I would use and what my values as a teacher would be. Very quickly my plans changed significantly, beginning when I came across the work of progressive education advocate Alfie Kohn, specifically his article “The Case Against Grades” and his book Feel-Bad Education & Other Essays. I found I agreed so very deeply with so very much of what he said in these works, and, furthermore, the strength and passion with which he argued for these ideas empowered me to conclude that deep grievances I’d had for so long with my education were valid and that they mattered.

Specifically, I concluded that it wasn’t okay that I often couldn’t see for myself how the work I was doing in school was relevant or useful for what I ultimately wanted to do; that, for the most part, the things I did outside of school and the times I didn’t follow directions were the most meaningful to me; that I worked so hard to get As in my classes, and yet I envied the students who got lower grades than me but who used their time instead to do cool stuff like build robots and volunteer with non-profits; that, other than picking what school to attend and what major it would say on my degree, I never really made any decisions for myself, that I was learning how to follow directions rather than make decisions; that school felt more like an obstacle than a resource; that, though I loved learning, I did not love school.

It was in this passionate state of mind that I rewatched the 2006 film Accepted, in which a student unintentionally starts a college which ends up standing for acceptance and learning what one wants to learn. It was then I realized what I really wanted to do and decided to go for it: to leave college and endeavor to start my own school, bring my hopes for what education could be to life, and offer to my community the alternative to college that I wish I had.

The more I think about this idea, the more energetic and inspired I get. So much of this is because I will be able to endeavor towards my goal the way I want to. For so long I’ve felt compelled to spend most of my time confined to the curriculum prescribed by my schools, and most of the time I’ve wanted to stray from it, believing there was a way that would suit me better. This conflict was deeply troubling to me; I love life so much and I want to make the most of it, however I felt trapped in a situation where most of my time was spent in a way that wasn’t truly meaningful to me. A major reason I felt trapped was because I was afraid of what would happen to me if I strayed from the traditional path. I had a career goal, but I suspected at the time and I now fully realize that it wasn’t my true passion, the thing I really wanted to do with my life. With this uncertainty, I believed following the traditional path was the only way that would lead to meaningful work, and I was afraid that if I failed at following this path, I’d be left unemployed or in an unfulfilling job. This fear pushed me to believe that all I could do was endure and hope that perhaps later things would get better.

However, now I realize I can do more than simply endure: I’ve tasted the happiness that comes with discovering your true passion and pursuing it in a way you truly believe in, and I see now that my passion is helping others to achieve this same happiness, to discover and pursue their own passions the way they believe is right for themselves. I figure that for each student, the way they will find to be right for themselves will not necessarily be any pre-existing path. I therefore believe students must, at every moment, be given full power and freedom over where they go. Perhaps a student decides that, for a specific task, following in the footsteps of others will be the best way for them to go. Perhaps a student decides that, for a different task, they must go where no one else has ever gone before to complete it. At every moment, there’s infinitely many directions a student may decide to go, and these choices put together over a lifetime form a unique path.

I want to offer a support community, consisting of individuals helping each other to form their own unique paths in life. This is what I believe the true purpose of schooling should be. Schooling as I have experienced it, however, limits students’ power and freedom by limiting them to a pre-existing curriculum. I believe one’s experience in school should instead be autocurricular, where one forms their own unique curriculum, their own unique path. Thus my school will not offer classes (unless perhaps a student requests one specifically) and therefore neither grades, nor tests, nor teachers, nor degrees. Instead, it will offer a community of similarly inspired individuals from whom to seek guidance, counsel, collaboration, encouragement, advice, and, generally, support, and a physical location to act as a workspace and a base of operations for their pursuits. As analogues to teachers, there will be individuals acting as guides and counselors whose passion is to help others discover and pursue their own passions. Instead of a degree, the ultimate outcome of one’s time at this school will be success in achieving their dreams; that is, one is finished when one has reached their ultimate goal. And one day, if property can be purchased and if the other teachers-analogues will work for free as I intend to (living on site and supporting myself through a part-time job on the side or donations) membership in this community will be free.

With all that said, I was enormously happy to learn about The Open School and the Sudbury model. I am overjoyed to find I am not alone in these ideas about education I believe in so very deeply. Although the specifics of our intended approaches may differ, I believe I share with The Open School the same underlying values of student freedom and empowerment to form their own unique path. I am honoured to be able to contribute my own story and ideas to The Open School’s blog in support of these underlying values, and I look forward to keeping in touch with them as we each endeavor to bring our hopes for education to life in our respective communities.

-Daniel Iriks
Aspiring alternative school founder
Sonoma County, California

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