One hundred tweets about unschooling

    In response to a Twitter trend prompting people to dive deep on their areas of interest/expertise, Alec posted this thread about unschooling.

    Tagged by Venkatesh Rao, this is what he said.


    1. Unschooling's greatest mistake was situating itself in the negative space of school. It doesn't have a coherent position on what learning is.
    2. Because unschooling is reacting to school's coercive structures, it has developed an overly naturalistic view of learning that's about "getting out of the way" which idealizes youth, learning, and often glosses over the complexities of actually learning and working.
    3. The future of unschooling is much more likely to be invented in the world of work than the world of school or unschooling. And it probably won't even be named as education per se for much of its infancy.
    4. Mostly we talk about "learning" only to make sense of either (a) doing something inauthentic, or (b) being a novice. At some point, you stop "learning" the guitar and start just getting better. The most radical perspectives abandon treating learning as a distinct activity.
    5. The most meaningful part of "unschooling" is the phase people go through in learning to learn and get things done without school-like structures. Understanding why we go through that phase has much more to do with psychology than education and is woefully under-explored.
    6. Education won't see meaningful reform until the time and money associated with schooling is made available for invention and experimentation. Unschooling, as long as it remains an "exit" strategy (in the AO Hirschman) sense, will never be instrumental to this.
    7. One's opinion about the relative decomposition of the premia which formal education earns people into human, network, and social/cultural capital is a far more important term in the mid-term future of school, learning, and unschooling than anyone's pedagogy.
    8. Education is a prematurely professionalized sector. Basic standards of rigor, consistency, shared vocabulary, and similar which other professions take for granted don't yet exist. Unschooling has inherited and amplified this hubris as a reactionary position and community.
    9. Human development is slow. Experimentation requires longer time horizons than most investment vehicles permit. To a first approximation, you can probably ignore research or reform efforts which don't have built into their structure deep acknowledgment of this.
    10. By framing its superiority in terms of rights, humane-ness, and ethics (as opposed to, e.g., efficacy), unschooling opts for the losing side of the political economy in conversations about the future of learning. This is a harsh critique of both unschooling and education.
    11. Unschooling hand-waves at the reasons school exists (e.g. "industrial revolution factory model"), but has failed to develop a coherent analysis of school's robustness to change and staying power. "What's adaptive about school for whom?" is an underappreciated question.
    12. School [and un-schooling] have much more to learn from kindergarten and the world of work than either appreciate.
    13. It is a deep and important question why, for the most part, graduates from graduate schools of education (having nominally studied how people learn and grow), are not some of the most highly paid and sought after designers/managers in fields where knowledge work dominates.
    14. A basic incoherence in discussions of unschooling, learning, and education, is that [mostly] people treat learning as a domain-independent activity. Domain specificity of methods' relevance/efficacy is ignored because of the political functions of discourse around learning.
    15. The set of things people worry about learning is ~arbitrary, a minute sliver of what's out there. The process of identifying, creating curricula for, and developing educators to support learning a topic is so slow so as to make content-first reformers largely irrelevant.
    16. Most discussions of learning wildly overindex on "fit" of topic-defined interest. Learning and motivation are driven by the social and cultural contexts in which people find themselves.
    17. When given the chance to focus on "cognitive" or "affective" factors in someone's learning, returns are almost always higher emphasizing the affective. We don't yet have fundamental explanations for this, but it is a fact largely ignored by unschoolers and schoolers alike.
    18. At most conferences, you hear about new ideas and new work. Unschooling/alt-ed conferences are much more similar to a political caucus coming together around values. Whether this is cause or effect, the intellectual stagnation has yet to even be identified by the sector.
    19. Unschooling [and school] has never really grappled with the reality that choice amongst "education options" is better understood as choice among "insurance products" than "investment products". i.e. it is about raising the floor to which you can fall.
    20. The timescale required to capture the long-term returns of human capital development mean that for all intents and purposes, only governments, churches, universities, and visionary billionaires will be in a position to meaningfully experiment with new K12 institutions.
    21. Much of the work of unschooling has as little to do with school and learning as remediating an unhealthy relationship to body image has to do with the theory of nutrition.
    22. One of the greatest unrecognized reform strategies is to leverage new, salient skills (e.g. programming) to create cover for new pedagogy. Doing this in K12 requires inventive, intellectual work connecting these skills to all the disciplines for which school is responsible.
    23. Dewey, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, etc.—the extent to which these have succeeded or not has ~nothing to do with their pedagogical efficacy. It is a political/financial/cultural fact. Efforts which do not have a historical analysis and story about this are unserious.
    24. One of the most important [false] things you learn in school is that you learn by being taught. In unschooling, many people never unlearn this, instead substituting other classes or courses for the classroom that's now gone.
    25. Many explain away counterfactuals about people who drop out/unschool/homeschool by pointing to privilege. This is a fascinating datum. If it were an honest point, then educators would be interested in the pedagogical and managerial insights of the upper-middle class family.
    26. There are approximately as many people homeschooled as there are in charter schools. "Charter school" is a design and governance mechanism. As is "homeschooling". Talking about them as though they are pedagogies—e.g. "Does homeschooling work?"—is pure confusion.
    27. Just as corporations have offered us new [often dark] visions of what the next nation states look like, so too will the first entities to figure out how to leverage tools like income share agreements to securitize human capital offer us new [maybe dark] visions of cities.
    28. The bias to emphasize the cognitive in education leads people to vastly overestimate the power of remote technologies and experiences to transform learning. If it is fundamentally social, much of it will be fundamentally local.
    29. To the extent unschooling recognizes learning is a slow, social, high-touch, and therefore local process it has one up on every company tackling this space which aims to be the first in history to create a large-scale, high-touch organization anyone wants to join.
    30. One of the most valuable skills those who unschool and support others who unschool develop is the ability to introduce people to a map of an intellectual territory without confusing exposure for attempted mastery. Formal education could learn a great deal from this.
    31. The most important ratio in the future of learning is the relative balance of dollars and minutes which go into (a) investigating how school works and could be improved, (b) investigating how "non-traditional" learning works, & (c) inventing new tools/approaches.
    32. Pick any organizational unit (company, lab group, whatever). The first 100h of activity on-boarding a junior colleague to that group likely represents 1000h (8–10m full-time) of rigorous activity for a young person. Unschooling should focus on organizing access to this.
    33. One of the cleverest sleights of hand—whose provenance I'm still mystified by—is that we discuss learning's future in terms of methods instead of entrants/products. Learning is one of the most "execution-dependent" and "recipe-resistant" activities I can imagine.
    34. Once you assume the moniker of "alternative", you've lost the whole ball game.
    35. Unschooling is really a battle against legibility. Competing with school will mostly be about subverting or competing with its measures of legibility. School's measures are far less meaningful than most will admit. In whose interest is it to improve them?
    36. To the extent that unschooling (and school reform) must confront legibility, as work product becomes increasingly structured and digitized (e.g. Figma, GitHub, etc.) there is a growing opportunity to leverage passive process artifacts for analysis and evaluation.
    37. Conversely, most attempts to leverage portfolios or similar dramatically underestimate the sensing bandwidth constraints they're up against. Last I checked, MIT spends an average of eleven (11) minutes evaluating a candidate.
    38. Unschooling rightly recognizes an opportunity to unbundle (often leveraging online and community resources). Its efficacy requires knowing youth well (which dramatically increases CAC). No one knows whether, including that, there's any value to be unlocked by unbundling.
    39. Many undertake alternative educational arrangements/endeavors prompted by their own children. Though an authentic motive, it is not durable: Starting and growing the organization will outlive your kid's needs.
    40. A core challenge in organizing for educational change (in unschooling and elsewhere) is that your constituency (youth and families) are definitionally ephemeral. Someone is only in middles school for three years. The average urban superintendent is in office for ~3y.
    41. One of the hardest rhetorical positions unschooling (and any reform) are forced to adopt is "doing less" than school. School doesn't do what it sets out to for many youth. But, it controls the dialogue around new entrants and can hold them to that, unachieved standard.
    42. In the analogy to environmentalism, if "unschooling" is "going off grid", we are still in search of our Rachel Carson, our Silent Spring, our Learning Environment Protection Agency. Without that, efficacy at the margin is irrelevant.
    43. Continuing the environmental analogy: Unschooling would do well to find its Alice Waters — What is its Chez Panisse? What is the highest practice of it which is unimpeachable, even if it is upmarket and unreplicable?
    44. The legal/political approaches which characterized the rise of homeschooling are underfunded and underexplored. e.g. Whence families' [and youth's] rights to free assembly? Pursuing these requires meaningful alternatives, which is one function of
    45. Learning experiences involve tools/materials, learners, and facilitators. We are limited by our tools and materials. Many are designed for school. Funding the creation of new tools and materials generally requires targeting schools as your customer. This is unsolved.
    46. An underappreciated question for theories of change which assume you can work forward from school as it exists: If culture eats strategy for breakfast, and if many of the fundamental, sector-wide issues in schooling are cultural, what form should your answer to that take?
    47. A basic human capital challenge facing both unschooling and schooling: For youth to [learn to think critically, develop and pursue their own projects, whatever], they need to see people doing that. How do you define adults' role as both facilitators and investigators?
    48. One of the most exciting shifts now possible (given the nature of remote knowledge work) is the economic emancipation of youth aged 14–18. Small steps toward this represent radical threats for traditional educational establishments.
    49. A big strategic obstacle facing unschooling is that school can always shift internal structures to enable ongoing rent-seeking on your education. So you should expect (as you see), more options for flexible "school" experiences which don't threaten the institution overall.
    50. Just as we have postmortems and sunsets of companies and their strategies, we need the same for educational thinkers and initiatives. The arc of work by someone like John Holt can tell us a lot about the dangers and obstacles for reformers, these remain unarticulated.
    51. Whatever your flavor of reform, one of the most valuable distinctions to make is between the political question of who should control youth's experience how, and the technical question of how to support learning. Incumbents benefit from their conflation.
    52. In the near-term, unschooling will be a force for increased socioeconomic and racial stratification. Whether it will be so in the long term is a question of institutions. This makes unschooling's failure to engage with institutional politics all the more serious.
    53. One of the most radical exogenous events which could unfold for unschooling (and many of the caring professions) is the development of a UBI and UBI-like systems.
    54. There are many reasons you see "alternatives" flourish in K5, to a lesser extent 6–8, and not at all in 9–12. The proximity of social/economic realities of adulthood. Without changing this, those constraints will always backpropagate through the ghost of high school future.
    55. In searching for an alternative identity, unschooling groups have a lot to learn from other groups which are quite narrow but seen as broadly rigorous (Iowa Writers Workshop, MIT Media Lab, Harvard Law School).
    56. One of the core things unschooling [often] gets right is a set of advantages taken for granted by every upper-middle class family: a small set of people who know you well, are invested in your success, and can responsively allocate resources on the behalf of your development.
    57. Another conceptual challenge for unschooling: Conceptually, what is the difference between a great book and a great lecture? How would you criticize a lecture without resorting to stereotypes of bad lectures? Or coercive elements?
    58. Oftentimes, it is hard or impossible to get interested in things which are not in your environment. To the extent that unschooling focuses on the absence of structure, it also fails to grapple with the question of how to think about fertilizing youth's soil. [NB From this thread so far, it may sound like I'm just dumping on unschooling. If so, this is merely the narcissism of small differences: I have so much hope for alternative approaches, I wish their proponents tackled these bigger questions more seriously and aggressively!]
    59. One of the greatest opportunities facing various, self-selected communities of "alternative" education is to use their access to time with youth and adults as the foundation for an organization analogous to the Mayo Clinic or Media Lab or Xerox PARC.
    60. One of the most radical requirements of taking unschooling seriously is defining a social life/role for youth distinct from their identity as students. The dramatic expansion of the ease and possibility of this when you can be Very Online™️ is a tremendous opportunity.
    61. One of the deeper things Seymour Papert ever said was that you can't think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something. Strategically, this suggests that unschooling might do better to tackle supremacy topic by topic, tool by tool.
    62. Significant portions of unschooling and homeschooling are not about alternative pedagogies. They are about avoiding toxic environments, securing needed special education services, and similar.
    63. One of the beautiful things about the idea of "public" education is its availability to everyone. Minority needs (special education, English Language Learners, etc.) play an outsized role in school bureaucracy. Unschooling has ~ no answer to these questions currently.
    64. One of the most important consequences of a constitutional guarantee of freedom of education would be to, over time, force the government to unbundle funding and services for these minority needs.
    65. This is the most exciting/frustrating time to be alive if you're interested in the future of learning. The gap between novices and real, intellectual work is shrinking at an unprecedented rate. There are lifetimes of work to be had mining the progress of the past decade.
    66. Early College High School is a model for what rent-seeking will look like as alternatives push their way into school: Its insight and reform is literally send youth to less high school. And they managed to get high schools to own it!
    67. [For the wealthy,] the equivalent on the consumer side will look increasingly like the relationship between, say, Stanford and YC. Consumers will secure intangible cultural capital through institutional affiliation, and someone else will take on human capital.
    68. Some branding alternatives for unschooling (if it is really about self-directed learning and removing school's structures): PhD, MFA, apprenticeship, football team, contemplative practice. All of these have less brand liability than unschooling. Why stick with it?
    69. One of the scariest suspicions of my own beliefs (as they align with unschooling) is that perhaps our relationship to institutions is just as fundamental, immovable, and worth just working forward from as our relationship to any other tribe.
    70. Self-direction is powerful. It leaves largely unanswered questions of critique and quality. To the extent excellence emerges from environments of intense critique and aspirations to excellence, neither school nor unschooling have coherent answers to this cultural question.
    71. One of the most powerful corollaries of erasing the line between learning/living is that you realize that novices are often doing the same kind of intellectual work as professionals, just less effectively. Unschooling should leverage this opportunity for apprenticeship.
    72. The biggest problem in unschooling is access to time with youth + money to spend it well. The second biggest is access to adults who can create intellectually rich/rigorous environments for youth. The third biggest is access to great tools and materials to support work.
    73. A common question in confronting unschooling and similar is, "But what if they [don't want to, are bored, don't know what they're interested in, etc.]?" One of unschooling's great integrities is pointing out that school has approximately no answer to this question either.
    74. A categorical question unschooling must answer if it is to ever become mainstream: Left to their own devices, under what conditions can/should a young person be able to choose an "inferior" educational product or experience? Technocrats will say "None", purists "Any".
    75. Every educational innovation is "experimenting" on youth, nearly nothing is validated with anything approaching the rigor or seriousness that you expect of any other good or service in the public sector.
    76. One of the biggest reasons this is not a problem in practice is because youth are remarkably robust. This is as an advantage of this sector's! Very little of what systems do or don't has an outsized effect. Class remains the strongest predictor.
    77. People's concerns about the "socialization" of unschooled youth are disconnected from reality. One of the best things unschooling could do would be to cement its position as often a socially and emotionally healthier pathway to reframe its work as a public health issue.
    78. This is a photograph from the original Sudbury Valley School a few years ago. It is the rules for operating the microwave. Democratic/free-schools make the same mistake as those suggesting that everyone need to re-discover calculus for themselves.
    79. In contrast, this is a photograph from a Boston Public School. Plenty of people choose unschooling or free schooling or democratic schooling over public school because of nothing other than what the semiotics of this juxtaposition imply.
    80. Neither schooling nor unschooling will play a significant role in the liberal goals of equalizing society. School will always play handmaiden to the structure of labor and capital. The most radical efforts look for ways to leverage this fact.
    81. Understandably, unschooling is full of people with a fraught relationship to school. Many in school look down on them (either irrelevant bc they are wealthy or irrelevant bc they secretly think failure in school makes you a failure). This is a serious strategic challenge.
    82. In my lifetime, ~free college will become a reality in the United States. This will be an enormous opportunity for those interested in unschooling. They will not take this opportunity; industry will. And so industry will define the future of "alternative" education.
    83. One of the most persistent sociological effects in education research is that poor youth define "good" students by obedience/work ethic while rich do so by creativity/intelligence. Changing this is one of the most politically radical projects unschooling could tackle.
    84. Structure is not coercion. Just because something is hard does not mean it is rigorous. Just because something isn't fun doesn't mean its coercive. These distinctions matter, and both school and unschooling confuse them to no end.
    85. As unhealthy as they can be, one of the better facets of, say, hustle culture or creative self-help is the embrace of meaningful work + fulfillment as hard + challenging. Progressive education (incl. unschooling) must get beyond handwaving about how to support this well.
    86. The first thing people did w/ the movie camera was make films of plays. We've made online, distributed classes. Unschooling could be a small market for those exploring meaningful, creative applications of technology with youth. But it won't be VC scale in the next 20y.
    87. Nintendo spends more on R&D than the NSF spends on education research each year. These alternative sources of capital are long frustrated with the irrelevance of their results to traditional school. Unschooling, homeschooling, and similar could be real partners for them.
    88. Graduate schools of education don't investigate homeschooling and unschooling (or better yet, run their own educational environments) because (a) their clientele are traditional schools, and (b) they cannot afford the brand risk of failing. Business model is destiny.
    89. One of the signs of a healthy professional and intellectual community is self-critique and reflection. I may not be in the community enough to know, but as a small, alternative perspective, unschooling has yet to muster this capacity.
    90. At some point, industries w/ a surplus of inbound talent will take the already nearly-formalized structure of tech internships to their logical conclusion and begin charging tuition. One of the best things unschooling could do is offer case management around these paths.
    91. One of the silliest illusions education reformers (including unschooling) labors under is that improved results will persuade the system to do anything.
    92. In many other domains, 10x improvement is possible. In education, 10x improvement is ~ impossible on time or cost for reasons of human development. This has serious ramifications for the challenges of organizational change, theory of change, funding innovation, and similar.
    93. Something unschooling gets right is that it frames its work as a movement and school of thought. Too much change these days is framed in terms of individual entrants, products, and technologies. The staying power of incumbents requires institutional time scales.
    94. Something unschooling gets wrong, having gotten its timescales right, is its complete lack of any [critical] sense of history. There are no consensus explanations for the arc of unschooling's success or lack thereof. This is a crazy situation for a reform movement.
    95. The @recursecenter is one of the most serious and thoughtful efforts in (influenced by?) unschooling I know of. As practitioners, they have more to say about the practicalities of these issues than 90% of the people I meet.
    96. Unschooling has many unknown allies in other disciplines and domains. The refusal, by and large, to engage the academy or its output means there are significant, low-hanging fruit to seize to bring to unschooling. This will require making epistemology and psychology allies.
    97. Much as great management and communication is often the limiting reagent on a team, great management and mentorship is often the limiting reagent in human development. Pedagogy has nearly no language for this. Most differences in efficacy therefore go unexplained.
    98. From the POV of theory of change, one of the most challenging aspects of beginning work w/ marginal communities is that you actually bolster and improve the position of the incumbent. "Disruptive" innovation moving upmarket requires feedback loops which don't exist.
    99. Confidence is socially constructed, and represents a significant part of what forms the cultural capital of top tier schools and similar. Unschooling would do well to establish and build counter-narratives around artifacts like this.
    100. Despite all of these challenges, I believe that inventing the future of learning is among the most exciting and impactful work anyone can do. It beats the constraints of industry and artifice of the academy. Unschooling would do well to leverage this to attract talent.

    OK that's 100. I have no original ideas. If you found anything in this thread interesting, please take the time to review, in detail, the work of thinkers like Holt, Papert, and Dewey. None have the answer, but they and others have done incredible work on these questions.

    For those interested, a few starting points: Dewey's "My Pedagogic Creed" Papert's Mindstorms Illich's Deschooling Society Holt's How Children {Learn; Fail}