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The UnCollege Blog

How I'm Building My Own Curriculum

I graduated from high school in December, 2011. I was, at the time, like most students finishing high school, envisioning the next chapter of my life. But unlike many high school grads, I wasn’t aiming to go straight to university. I was fine-tuning an application for a job at a major technology company. Why? I didn’t realize it fully at the time, but deep down I wanted to design my own curriculum, and this was part of the process.

Since then I have grown in ways that would not have been possible if I had opted for a traditional education. I’ve become a self-directed learner, and doing so has reshaped my life!

The path to self-directed learning is a series of hard questions. Each one unlocks a principle that is key to confronting the challenges posed by the next. Here are the three most pivotal lessons I’ve learned in my journey so far.

  1. Start with a blank slate.

If you want to build your own curriculum, you need to think like a painter with an empty canvas. You must have no preconceptions about education, and see many possible ways to get one. For most of us, this mindset is not easy to come by. To attain it you need to confront the question, “What potentially false ideas about education am I bought into?”

Some might include:

  • Learning (only) happens at school
  • I need a degree to be respected by others
  • The purpose of education is employment
  • University is the best place to learn
  • Studying and learning are the same thing
  • Learning isn't meant to be exciting
  • A college degree is inherently priceless
  • I need a degree to live a comfortable life
  • Studying hard will make me successful

These and other questionable beliefs are ingrained in the way we think about learning. They dictate many of our educational decisions without us even realizing it! To effectively take control of your education and make solid decisions about what it will look like, you need to be sure that your outlook on learning is untainted by false assumptions and others' opinions.

I was less exposed to these forces than the average young person because I was homeschooled as a kid and attended a nontraditional high school. But I still had to wrestle with them to get clear perspective. I actually enrolled at a big-box university while under the sway of some of these fallacies. During my time there, I had a strong sense that I was not being true to myself by adapting to a mainstream educational model. When I made the decision to drop out after my first semester, it felt like getting back on track.

  1. Decide who you want to be.

Most traditional educational paths begin with students choosing a career: doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant, etc. But self-directed learners aren’t confined to tradition. Learning doesn’t just define us professionally—it defines everything about us as people. So, now that you’ve wiped off your canvas, the next question is, “What kind of person do I want to be?”

For example, you could be one who:

  • Inspires others to act differently
  • Senses and provides for others’ needs
  • Consistently gets excellent results
  • Fearlessly tackles major challenges
  • Communicates with conviction
  • Sees beyond established ways of thinking
  • Makes things that enrich peoples’ lives
  • Knows and sticks to principles
  • Promotes unity and cooperation

Anchoring your education to characteristics like these can save you from having to redraw your map every time a different career path catches your eye. Making the effort to identify and develop the traits and values that define you pays off not just at work but in all parts of life. And strong soft skills will outlast any of the technical skills you learn for different jobs.

It’s not always easy to hone-in on what characteristics are most important to you. My high school experience helped me with this—the program is based on the liberal arts, which are all about cultivating character, so by the time I graduated I had a good feel for the kinds of people skills I wanted. (I was also pumped up and excited to go get ’em.) Studying the stories of leaders and others I admire is something else that’s helped me clarify my values over time.

  1. Go where you can be that person.

One of the greatest benefits of basing your curriculum on becoming your best self is that you can make it happen anywhere. Far from needing a school with a degree program to match whatever path you choose, your sole consideration when deciding where to learn is the question, “What types of environments are most likely to make me who I want to be?”

Your options now include:

    • The workplace. Find a job and a team that challenges you in the right ways.
    • Your own enterprise. Start a business, a blog, a movement, etc.
    • Nature. Nothing compares to an extended trip through the mountains!
    • New places. Visit an unfamiliar city or immerse yourself in a foreign culture.
    • Inner destinations. Meditate, pray, and seek insight from within.
    • Small group events. Dance class, an improv workshop, you name it!
    • The Internet. Connect globally with like-minded learners, and watch TED Talks.
    • Personal mentoring. Find and learn from someone who’s walked a similar path.
  • Community service. Contribute to a charity or other cause you support.
  • And, yes, college for the things you can only learn at school.

The best learning environments are the ones that change you in deep and lasting ways, as fast and often as possible. In most cases, for self-directed learners, book learning is less effective at this than experiential learning. That’s why immersing yourself in alternative learning environments like these can be so powerful—it's all about the experience!

When I began this phase of my journey, just after high school, I wanted to find a place to practice leadership. I had no need or desire to study for years in preparation; I just wanted to go out and try it. The tech company I chose turned out to be the perfect laboratory for me: for the past three years, I’ve had daily opportunities there to practice public speaking, decision making, conflict resolution, role modeling and motivating change. In addition, I’ve practiced personal leadership by seeking out adventures that make me uncomfortable.

At the end of the day, only you can decide what kind of curriculum is best for you—but if I've learned anything from my own learning journey, it's that you need to consciously make that decision. That means foregoing conventional wisdom about what education should be; planning from the start to make it relevant to every part of your life; and purposefully seeking out the people and places that will transform you into who you want to be.

Happy travels!

Riley T:
I have a passion for breaking the rules in education. I've been a self-directed learner my whole life, and graduated from Williamsburg Academy, a cutting-edge online high school. I also work at a major tech company, and in my spare time love to run, meditate, and backpack through the mountains of Yosemite. On Innertuition, I blog about my adventures in self-directed learning. I live near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with my family and four pets, and am a lifelong Lego fanatic.