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The UnCollege Blog

Self-Directed Learning: An Inner-City Perspective

By Tiffany Mikell

While touring for his book, Dale Stephens stopped by the Chicago area to participate in a panel discussion on taking control of your education by following your passion. The event was held in a high school auditorium and I had the pleasure of being in the audience that evening. The panel shared inspiring stories of challenging the educational status quo.

When Dale shared his unschooled story, a dad in the crowd asked a question that challenged the practicality of Dale’s method of acquiring education. He asked something along the lines of, “How can this be applied to students the school districts of Illinois?” The dad was probably referring to students like his child, who attended school in the north shore suburbs of Chicago. It was clear that he was a concerned parent and understood that the current antiquated methods of education were no longer working as well for the upper middle class as they had in previous decades. He wanted his son to take the most certain path to success, which for him meant being gainfully employed post-college. The problem is that that path is becoming less and less certain — college degrees no longer offer the security they once did. Still, that parent, like most of us, was risk-averse and was a looking for a way to incorporate the ideas of unschooling and self-directed learning into the traditional educational model. Let’s not get all crazy, he was probably thinking, and call for complete transformation of the system.

While I have some general thoughts on how we can apply unschooling methods in all classrooms — despite the socio-economic and cultural background of students — the question asked by the concerned parent brought to mind just how powerful knowing how to teach yourself, finding unique learning opportunities and learning how to learn can really be. This is especially true for students in low-performing schools in inner-cities across the U.S. and in urban areas around the world.

An Inner-City Education

I know all too well just how broken the current education system is, especially in the inner-city. Last month, 54 schools were closed in the Chicago Public School district. Next year, 30,000 students will need to find a new school. This occurred just 7 months after Chicago’s teachers went on a 7-day strike, demanding more resources and smaller classroom sizes. A third of all students who attend public school in Chicago are performing below grade level.

Unfortunately, this isn’t isolated to the Chicago area. Earlier this school year, New York released a list of 106 schools that are targeted to close this year due to poor academic performance. Just last month, in the city of Philadelphia, the school board voted to close 23 schools due to lack of funding and resources. The Los Angeles Unified School District has a long-time reputation for having extremely crowded schools with large class sizes, high drop-out and expulsion rates, low academic performance, poor maintenance and incompetent administration. Even in our nation’s capital, Washington DC, public schools have resisted reform plans and multiple changes in leadership, remaining among the most troubled in the nation. The overall dropout rate for low-income students in the U.S. is five times greater than their high-income counterparts. Clearly, our current system of education is failing an extremely large segment of the population, one that is vital to our collective success as a nation.

Self-Directed Learning, With Fewer Resources

I’m a firm believer (and living proof) that affluence does not determine your level of intelligence or your capacity for learning — I grew up on Chicago’s South Side and attended public schools in the inner city most of my life. What’s more is that where you come from is also not indicative of your ability to creatively solve problems. I had awesome parents, for example: although they weren’t financially rich, they made sure that I explored the communities around me. My sisters and I created reading lists and visited the library weekly, as well as the local museums on all the free days. We sacrificed new clothes in exchange for piano lessons and had family discussions about the importance of economic development in our community. Very early in life, we became aware of the skills and talents we had that we could use to either earn a small income or improve conditions in our neighborhood. This inspired me to start neighborhood cleanup groups and create book clubs and computer classes from my living room.

As a family, we talked about strategies for overcoming oppression. We set a standard of excellence and high achievement for our household — even when that excellence wasn’t expected of us in our classrooms. We understood that what we needed to know to change the world around us included both traditional subjects AND information that was directly related to our current socio-economic and cultural status. If something wasn’t taught in school, we figured out a way to obtain the knowledge through community-building and project-based learning. Above all, my parents helped me understand that I was in control of how and what I learned and that I could use my “customized education” to do something about the problems that plagued my neighborhood and my community.

The Lesson Belongs to the Student

I did eventually drop out of high-school and earn my GED. At 17, I was restless. I couldn’t understand how learning polynomials and quadratic equations would help me with anything but the standardized tests that I loathed. I enjoyed my English classes, but Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes seemed so far away from the crime-ridden blocks I walked through on my way home from school. I knew that learning this seemingly irrelevant material might help with college admissions, but I wasn’t sure how it would help my friends and neighbors eat at night or prevent my classmates from getting shot on the playground that afternoon. At 17, living in the South Side of Chicago, those were my main concerns.

Teachers in this environment find themselves in a tough place. Under policies like the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers are forced to stick to a strict curriculum that teaches lessons directly related to standardized tests. There is very little room to deviate, and students that cannot see themselves in the lessons they are being taught quickly become disengaged with the material.

In low-income homes, there are often fewer resources and is less parental involvement. Naturally, we cannot hold students of these circumstances to the same standards that we hold others to. Instead, we should teach these students to be independent thinkers and to act more entrepreneurially. Wouldn’t individualized lesson plans, personal goal setting, accountability groups and project-based learning make the most sense in this (or any) environment? Instead of students being dependent on authorities to disseminate information, they can be empowered with the tools to teach themselves. To date we have seen these learning methods adopted in small independent schools, but not widely in the public school system, and certainly not in inner-city schools.

Instead we, as a collective education system, feel that rigid structure, strict discipline and the discouraging of individuality are appropriate methods to teach these groups of students. Perhaps somehow the achievement gap between these students and their affluent counterparts will be minimized if only they were more focused or if they spent more time in the classroom. We feel that we have to cram information into the minds of these young people so that — despite clear disparities in resources — standardized test scores will reflect equality in knowledge.

We effectively create a culture where students, parents and even teachers at times are waiting for others.....waiting...for the government, the school board, for Superman to create an atmosphere for learning that fulfills the need of urban students. While we should absolutely demand accountability from our governing bodies, to truly make change we must step up and empower our students to become stakeholders in their own education.