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Give high school students the same freedom as college or university students

| November 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Blake Boles

In college I discovered a learning atmosphere that respected, trusted and encouraged me to make responsible choices.

It left me wondering: What if we treated all high
school students like college students?
The main ways that college often differs from high school
1. class attendance isn’t mandatory (unless it’s creative writing,
rhetoric, choir or a science laboratory, for example)
2. learning goals are largely results-oriented (i.e. achieved
through a final examination, term paper or project – not
3. students choose their own classes.
What if we changed the organisational structure of school by
letting students vote with their feet and learn by consent?1 Here’s
what I predict:

• Attendance at the worst classes would drop sharply.
• Attendance at the best classes would stay roughly the same
(or even rise.)
• Students and parents would demand better teachers and more
elective classes.
• Libraries, study halls and space for clubs would greatly expand.
• The school would adapt to offer extensive new training and
support in the realm of meta-learning (i.e. learning how to
learn): independent study skills, work habits, personal
organisation, research and self-reflection on which courses to
• Fewer total students would attend classes, but learning,
engagement and retention rates would skyrocket.
If high school were run more like college, we could still have
rigorous academic standards and we could still provide a safe,
supportive home-away-from-home for young people – we’d just
have to go about it differently.
Of course, there would be difficult and unpleasant

Focus on fostering more motivation

What if students only wanted to take ‘fun’ classes, and not the
‘hard’ or ‘important’ ones? We’d have to create more engaging
classes and scale down our vision of a required curriculum.
Perhaps we could ask high-schoolers to complete 10 general
education courses, in at least five different subject areas, over the
course of four years, in order to graduate. If you were a teen,
would you take this bargain? I suspect that more ‘hard’ and
‘important’ learning would happen if we required less of it, let
teachers design more creative and engaging courses, and let
students choose between many competing options.

What if the ‘motivated’ and ‘responsible’ students flourished in
this new environment, and others didn’t? Then let’s focus on
fostering and supporting motivation and responsibility. The first
step would be to offer every first-year student a hands-on course
in self-directed learning and then support them with ongoing
one-on-one and small-group coaching. That primary and
secondary school is ostensibly about learning, yet we never help
our students learn how to learn, boggles my mind.

Small-scale success stories

What about students who don’t want to attend any
classes or study at all? This would be an
opportunity to develop new courses and
programmes that engage young people of vastly
differing learning styles, backgrounds and
inclinations. An approach like the small schools
movement2 might make this possible. Let no school
exceed a few hundred in size (as John Taylor Gatto
suggests),3 and we could witness a diversity of small, local
solutions arise to meet the diversity of teenagers’ needs and
Here are a few other wild ideas:
• What if students could travel between schools in the same
district in order to attend their favourite classes and activities?
• What if high school classes and activities weren’t bundled into
an all-or-nothing package, enabling home-schoolers and parttime
students to selectively join a study hall, advanced
placement calculus class or football team?
• What if high school had a total open-door policy, so the
students who really didn’t want to be there didn’t have to be?
• These aren’t wild ideas because they breach common sense,
but because they would require a radical reorganising of our
schools, their funding mechanisms and perhaps even civil society. We fear the spectre of teenager gangs roving the streets.

More help than harm

As we move farther into an era that requires intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning for career and personal success, I think
reforms that embrace student freedom would help more young
people than they’d harm.
Real learning thrives when students have real choices. Give
high school students the same freedom as college students, and we’ll take education a step in the right direction.

Blake Boles builds exciting alternatives to traditional school for
self-directed young people in the United States. He directs the
company Unschool Adventures (see: and his latest book is
entitled The Art of Self-directed Learning: 23 Tips for
Giving Yourself an Unconventional Education (Tells Peak
Press, 2014). Boles’ work has appeared in the Huffington Post,
USA Today, theNew York Times and theWall Street Journal.
To learn more about him, visit: This
piece appears here with his kind permission. To read a longer version, please visit:


1. See:
2. See:
3. See:

Category: Summer 2015

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