Here is a radical truth: school doesn’t have a monopoly on learning. More and more people are declining traditional education and college degrees. Instead they’re getting the knowledge, training, and inspiration they need outside of the classroom.

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April 2, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School excerpt

School is broken and everyone knows it. Public schools from kindergarten to graduation have been crumbling for decades, dropout rates are high, and test scores are low. The value—in every sense—of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt in an economy with a dwindling middle class and lessening opportunities for social mobility. This has a significant effect on lives and on the economy itself. The student debt crisis reaches through every facet of people’s lives. It affects the housing market as grads with debt are likely to be refused for mortgages, the auto industry as they put off buying cars, consumer spending in general, and decisions to start families. After college, grad school can seem like a refuge from the weak economy, which piles up further debt without clear returns. College students who go on to graduate school also delay the dilemma of the weak job market by using their continued student status to dodge familial pressure to succeed economically. They do this even as it becomes clearer and clearer every day that degrees may not increase their likelihood of getting a job.

This book is a radical project, the opposite of reform. It is not about fixing school, it’s about transforming learning—and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option. I think all the energy and money reformers spend trying to fix school misses the real problem: that we don’t have good alternatives for people who want to learn without going to school, for people who don’t learn well in school settings, or for those who can’t afford it.

Because while you don’t have to go to school to learn, you do have to figure out how to get some of the things that school provides. Since most of us grew up associating learning with traditional school, we may feel at sea without school to establish an infrastructure for learning. This consists of things such as syllabi to show us an accepted path, teachers to help us through it, ways to get feedback on our progress, ready-made learning communities, a way to develop professional networks that help with careers later, and physical resources like equipment and libraries. In its best and most ideal form, school provides this infrastructure.
But not very many people get to go to school in its best and most ideal form, and my research shows that many learners feel they do it better on their own. People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.

I speak from experience. I went to graduate school at Yale and I dropped out. I had been amazed that I was accepted, and even more so that I was offered a fellowship. Surely this was the fast track to something impressive. But leaving all that behind, to my great surprise, was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes. I had invested long years and a lot of work in the degree I walked away from, but I also had innocently misguided reasons for wanting it in the first place. I was fresh out of college and my only thought was that I wasn’t done learning.
Nobody had told me that liberal arts graduate school is professional school for professors, which wasn’t what I wanted to be. Here’s what my graduate school experience was like: I took classes for two years and learned one thing. It was not a fact, but a process. What I learned was how to read a book and take it apart in a particular way, to find everything that’s wrong with it and see what remains that’s persuasive. This approach is useful to people who are focused on producing academic writing, and it’s a reasonably good trick to know, but I could have picked it up in one course. I didn’t need two years, and it’s pretty annoying to only get to talk about books in such a limited way.

My third year, on the other hand, was bliss. I was left alone for a year to read about 200 books of my choice. I spent that time living far from school in a house in the woods, preparing to demonstrate sufficient command of my field to be permitted to write a dissertation. This was the part of grad school where I really learned things. And for me, what was most significant about the year was that I learned how to teach myself. I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it. As I read the books on my lists, I taught myself to read slowly, to keep track of what I was reading, and to think about books as part of an ongoing conversation with each other. I learned to take what was useful and make sure it was credible and leave the rest aside. I did this with a pen in the margins of the books and by talking to people about what I was reading. I had the luxury of a year to devote to it, but I devour a lot of books even when I’m busy working at a job, and I could have done the same thing over a longer stretch of time. I learned that I didn’t need school after all.

Years later, I ran into a young, successful woman who was known for hosting a popular monthly salon on art and technology and for her work as a blogger for a cultural institution. She told me she was toying with the idea of going to graduate school, and wrinkled her nose at the thought. But she lit up when she started describing the things she wanted to study, such as art history and curatorial skills. I reached back to my own hard-won lesson about what liberal arts grad school is really for. I asked her if she wanted to be a professor. She said no. So I asked, “Why do you want to go back to school?” She shrugged a little, and said, “Well, I just want to learn things and be smarter about the things I do.” That’s when I got excited. I had some really useful advice on this, and I got to be the person to tell her about it. You don’t need school for that.

February 27, 2013

Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Learning goes live next week!

I’ve been working with the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project since October, and we are thrilled to announce next week’s launch of OpenNews Learning. We’ve created a place for awesome civic-minded developers to learn more about how journalists and journalism work, and to get acquainted with the hardest problems journalist-developers get to hack on. It’s the place to find out about the landmines they encounter behind the scenes in the process of making amazing maps, visualizations and data-enabled stories.

OpenNews Learning works by example, through case studies written by a stellar set of journalist-developers, designers and hackers about projects they’ve worked on, describing the hairiest coding problems and hidden ethical issues they’ve come up against. You’ll find out how they solved them, and more importantly where they didn’t. You’ll see where there are opportunities to kick ass and take names to keep information free and make democracy more democratic.

First up are cases by Jacob Harris of the New York Times, on how much you can and can’t learn from Federal data sets on food safety; developer Adrian Holovaty on data parsing problems in the journalistic context; Miranda Mulligan, executive director of Northwestern University Knight Lab, on the significance of color decisions in mapping and visualization; Jacqui Maher of the New York Times on making lightning fast sense of the deluge of data in the 2012 Olympics; and journalism professor Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska on the unexpected ethical snarls of making an app from police records.

Join the community, learn the ropes, hack the news.

December 30, 2012

Massive Open Online Classes are getting it wrong.

All the public conversations right now around higher education are getting it wrong. Everyone’s talking about the free access to college courses that Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) are creating. They talk about the potentially detrimental effects platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and MITx, might have on the higher education industry. Whether or not these online classes count for anything in terms of credentials. The economic value of college itself. That’s all important. But no one is talking about learning. Read more …

April 26, 2012

Video: my Skillshare Penny Conference talk

I gave a talk last week with a fascinating roster of speakers at Skillshare’s first Penny Conference, to an audience of enthusiastic independent learners. Everyone in the crowd considered themselves an independent learner, and more than half of them had dropped out of school at some point in their lives.

All the speakers gave fascinating presentations, and it was exciting to hear some of the themes I’ve been finding from my interviews turning up in other people’s research as well. Tony Wagner, who works on restructuring K-12 education to promote innovation, noted the same things my interviewees reported about what’s wrong with school: a lack of autonomy and control over their learning, being taught vs. active learning, the paucity of really engaging teachers, and having no room to fail. Among many other questions, I asked my interviewees how they figured out where to start, what path to follow, and where to get help. Zach Sims, founder of Code Academy, cited these questions as the dilemmas his site tries to solve for people who want to learn programming.

Aaron Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent, reframed the idea of gamification in an educational setting for me. I’ve been talking a lot with educators about taking the inherent gamification out of traditional education: grades, honors, achievements. These cater to extrinsic motivation, while intrinsic motivation is a much stronger driver of learning that people find satisfying and worthwhile. His talk revolved around the part of games that involves collaboration, narrative, and quests, which give learning a context, purpose, and interdisciplinary approach. I love having my mind changed, thank you Aaron!

And thanks to Skillshare for inviting me to speak!

April 4, 2012

Speaking at the Skillshare Penny Conference

I’ll be talking about my research for Don’t Go Back to School at Skillshare’s Penny Conference on April 20.

Here’s a discount code for tickets!

And here’s a description of the conference and other speakers:
Skillshare will be hosting its first education conference, Penny Conference at The Times Center on April 20th (1-5PM). Penny is an intellectually-charged experience where people and ideas come together. A space where curiosity, discovery, and collaboration will challenge the status quo of institutions like education. Speakers include Adora Svitak (Child Prodigy Writer), Charles Best (CEO of, Zach Sims (Co-founder of Codecademy), Kio Stark (author of Follow Me Down), Baratunde Thurston (Director of Digital for The Onion), Tony Wagner (Co-founder of Change Leadership Group), and Adam Braun (Founder of Pencil of Promise).

March 16, 2012

Shaking it up

Molly Crabapple, a wonderful artist who I interviewed for Don’t Go Back to School, is doing something right now that’s shaking up the conventions of the traditional gallery system.

Molly is an incredibly hardworking artist who makes a living with her work in as many ways as she can. She’s an illustrator, she’s done book projects, she’s been hired to paint elaborate murals in swank restaurants, just for a few examples. Her work has a respectable following, and she’s the founder of “Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School.”

Molly hasn’t yet been able to find a gallery to represent her and sell large works on her behalf. That means it’s a real challenge–and financial risk–to give up time from the work that supports her in order to make those paintings. So she found another way. She’s funding her gallery show, called Shell Game, on Kickstarter, without a gallery, and she’ll rent a storefront to display and sell the paintings (if they’re not all sold already) when they’re done. Backers of the project at various levels get things like ephemera, prints, access to the process of creation, and, at the highest levels, the paintings themselves.

The one thing you can’t exactly do DIY has to do with the reputation and recognition that being represented by a gallery confers. Writers have the same dilemma. For a lot of us, the idea of publishing our work Creative Commons is really appealing ideologically, and has the potential for wider circulation. It’s not the loss of potential revenue that stops people–that’s not what stopped me, anyway. As a first-time novelist, I wanted the stamp of approval and legitimacy points that being published by a ‘real’ publisher confers, and ended up getting it. Follow Me Down came out last summer.

A while back, Robin Sloan took a different path. He used Kickstarter to modestly fund the writing of a novella, which he produced in hardcopy for backers and released Creative Commons for the world. It’s a great piece of literary science fiction, and as it gained momentum, it also scored him a book deal, for an expanded version, with FSG, one of the most prestigious big publishers around. The book will be out in June. Of course, that’s helping Robin in the legitimacy department, but I think the lesson of his project, and of Molly’s Shell Game, is that legitimacy and reputation can increasingly be conferred by communities of what you might call informed fans. This isn’t just sheer, unadulterated page-view populism. This is the idea that when a discriminating community of consumers of a genre think something counts as ‘real,’ it does.

That’s a liberating sea-change for everyone.

March 14, 2012

I read something incredible today

I read something incredible today, and then I read the first thousand words of it again aloud to Bre, my voice breaking over the last few lines. It’s a story of tragedy coming, and then of the tragedy itself, one of such magnitude it cannot be absorbed.

What I read is “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy,” by Michael Paterniti, about the crash of Swiss Air flight 111, published in Esquire in 2000. I saw a link and took a peek at it on my phone, and then stopped the four other things I was doing and read every stunning word. I don’t read on my phone. But the prose was so astonishing and the story so well told that I couldn’t stop long enough to find it on a bigger screen.

Sometimes when I read writing this good, it sets in motion writing of my own. And sometimes it simply does the thing that words can do. It makes me feel the story in my own flesh.

I write fiction now, but I didn’t start out that way. I used to think the real world was so interesting, how could you ever stop just writing it down. Why would you make it up? I started out wanting to write like Michael Herr and Joan Didion and Truman Capote and Tim O’Brien, beautiful, brutal, and true. Now, there is a deep and complex conversation among writers and readers of nonfiction about writing truth and telling stories and which matters most and how the two meet and depart and entwine. I don’t know exactly when I shifted over into the realm of invention, but I do know that my writing is still driven by wonder at the things that are most real. And driven too by wonder at how the smallest molecules of what is real can be coaxed by a pen into bonding differently than they did when you first saw them.

January 2, 2012

Still want a copy of Don’t Go Back to School?

The Kickstarter campaign is over–and wow! Over 1500 copies are going out as rewards when the book is done later this year.

If you missed the Kickstarter but still want to get a copy, give me your name and email here, and I’ll let you know when it’s ready for purchase.

Many thanks to all the backers and to the Kickstarter community team for giving the project so much love.

November 9, 2011

New book project: Don’t Go Back to School on Kickstarter!

I’m putting together a handbook for independent learning called Don’t Go Back to School, and funding it on Kickstarter. I’d be so grateful for your support. Please check it out and spread the word.

September 20, 2011

upcoming event–reading at KGB Bar

I’ll be reading at KGB Bar this Sunday at 7PM, with Lynne Tillman and others from Red Lemonade.