My Radical Idea : Let’s Get Rid of High School (Part 1 of 2)


Various ideas that have been floating around in my head over the past years came together recently in a rather dramatic “Ah-HA!” moment. It was like a mental vortex that was initially moving rather slowly, as a sluggish whirlpool, but then built up momentum until, in one moment of brilliant inspiration, it coalesced like a Big Bang into an idea that got me really excited.

This plan is based on several key ideas that I’ve been pondering for some time. First idea: mentorship. How much better it is to learn by doing then to be told how to do it. Second idea: adolescence. An artificial age construct that arose from the systematic infantalization of our youth; we keep them out of the adult world at a time when biology drives them to take on adult responsibilities and we wonder why they end up creating cultures of their own whose values sometimes clash with the adult world. Third idea: entrepreneurship. Peter Thiel offers a scholarship to college students that pays them to drop out and start a business. His premise is that you get a far better education by starting up, and even failing, a few businesses over the course of a typical college education than you do going into debt for a degree. Fourth idea: the propaganda fed to parents and students that college is the only route to success. This combines with the Fifth idea, which is that university degrees are rapidly losing their value and we should stop using them as a tickets to a job.

All these ideas came together one morning while I was lying in bed, thinking about my daughter who, at age 11, is getting close to that time when she will need to start thinking about what direction to follow in terms of her working life. Given that she doesn’t go to school, she has plenty of time to start her own business, do an internship or two, attend some non-credit college courses, or mentor under somebody she admires in a field of interest to her. I thought about all the poor schmucks in high school who have to wait until graduation to fully enjoy such experiences (and then figure out how to support themselves while doing so), and I suddenly wondered what would happen if we just got rid of high school altogether and, instead, replaced it with real experiences at real jobs. Here is what I came up with:


For the first 12 – 13 years a child would be educated in a child-led learning environment whose main goal is to allow children the intellectual freedom to discover their passions and interests, what Sir Ken Robinson referred to as The Element.

Around the age of 12-13, kids would leave this learning environment and be assigned an unpaid internship at a real business in their community. At first, they might work 3 hours a day, four or five days a week, leaving them plenty of time for extracurricular activities and, later, part-time paid employment. As the kids got older they would work longer hours until, by the time they reached 18 or so, they would be working full time.

Employers would receive significant government incentives to hire such interns (from all the money we’ve saved by not having high schools anymore), and because interns are unpaid, their costs to the employer are virtually nil. When I think of my own smallish community of about 5,000 in town and 30,000 in the surrounding area, I can list dozens of  business and industries right off the top of my head: libraries, fish farms, logging and forestry, pulp mills, lawyers, doctors, dentists, city council, civic and mechanical engineering, hair salon and spa, bakery, restaurant, farmers, dog trainers, horse trainers, couriers, bookstores, health and fitness, grocery stores, software development, tech support, pharmacists, car mechanics, butcher, well and irrigation specialists, landscapers, house cleaning businesses, livestock hauling, construction and trades (plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, painters)….the list goes on. And lest you think the idea of an internship in a hair salon or gas station, for example, means just training a kid to cut hair or pump gas, think bigger: learning to run a small business (keeping the books, ordering supplies, calculating costs and profits, managing employees, etc.).

As part of the requirements for employers to get their government incentives, the interns would have to be in training, not gophers who are taken advantage of to do the tasks that nobody else wants to do. This is where the Career Consultant comes in.

Each child (intern) would be assigned a Career Consultant (CC), paid for by government using money formerly allotted to high school education. Each career consultant would handle only a few interns so that they could retain a personal relationship with each one. Their job is to be the intern’s advocate. They check in with the student weekly or bi-monthly, serve as a liaison between intern and employer, ensure that these unpaid interns are not being taken advantage of by employers, guide the intern toward the areas of work that interest him/her, and generally follow along with the student through the next five or six years until they complete the program. Ideally, the CC stays with one student throughout the course of the program to really personalize each child’s experience. This can all be done through electronic communication with some site visits. With the guidance of their CC, kids can figure out what jobs appeal to them and then focus on internships in that industry to gain job-specific skills and experience. And, of course, to network and build relationships, which are oh-so-important for getting a paid job.


An intern can request placement in a particular job if they already have an idea of what they want to do, but kids who don’t know what they’d like to do would be assigned an  internship somewhere in the community by the CC, based on the CC’s knowledge of the intern (through a thorough interview process and get-to-know-you period that, ideally, starts in the last months before entering the internship program). There would be a minimum time commitment of, say, 3 months before an intern can request a transfer, and internships would end after 6 months. If the intern liked the position they could stay as long as they wanted or maybe be moved to a different employer in the same field (my concern would be ensuring equal opportunity for all students to try out all fields). If the employer wasn’t happy with the intern’s performance, and if the CC could not help resolve this issue, the employer would have the right to terminate the internship and the intern would be placed elsewhere. If certain internships are really popular and can’t take on all the kids who want to work there, shorter terms and rotations could be arranged, but consider that employers can take on as many interns as they have employees to mentor them, so hopefully this wouldn’t be a huge issue. 

There is no competition for placement. You cannot get it based on grades, or marks assigned by employers, or by collecting any form of “currency” that gives you an advantage over other students. The intern’s performance is shared only with the CC and not with any other employers. This serves many functions. First, the current climate of high school students following gruelling schedules of work, school, and volunteer time simply to qualify for college entry is ruining their lives. In my day, I had a B+ average and plenty of time for a life outside high school, and I got into university with no problem. Today’s kids are  overscheduled and stressed-out because their entire life is geared towards beating out the thousands of other kids all competing for the same few spots in college. That is no way to live, and the minimum standards for college entry bear no correlation with the ability to be successful in college (and life beyond) anyway. Second, it keeps the playing field even, especially for kids in lower socioeconomic groups. Third, it allows kids to make mistakes and not be penalized by them for life. It may take some kids a while to learn good work ethics, or to figure out why they are not performing to the employer’s standards. The CC’s job is to help them with this and get them into another internship so they can try again with a fresh clean slate. In short, in my scenario, there is no reason for kids to get all competitive and try to gain advantages over their peers. It’s an equal opportunity playing field.

But what about the “fun” things that school provides, like sports teams, academic and hobby clubs, art education, and all those other things that, frankly, many schools have already dispensed with due to lack of funding? And, let’s be honest, schools also serve a major function as government-sponsored daycare centres. What do kids do outside of their internship hours? My idea includes using some of the aforementioned government savings on education to fund community centres. Each community would have a proper recreation/community centre/library complex that would offer such programs at minimal-to-no cost to students. Sports, art classes, club meetings, and other “extracurricular” pursuits could take place there, and it would provide a hangout for those kids who, for whatever reason, can’t go home after working at their internship (remember it isn’t full-time until the last year or so of the program).

community centre

There are numerous benefits to implementing such a plan, not just for students but for communities as a whole.

(1) This program gets rid of arbitrarily-designed curricula, useless busywork in the form of essays and homework assignments, and irrelevant, out-of-context, factoids that schools spend so much time and money trying to get kids to memorize long enough to regurgitate onto a test paper. As interns, kids would learn valuable interpersonal skills such as time management, conflict resolution, and other things that are so important when working in a business or industry with people from varying ages, backgrounds, levels of authority, etc. I don’t think school, with its age-segregation and overly-bureaucratized rule structure, fully prepares kids for this reality.

(2) More importantly, by the time kids have completed the program they have a portfolio, rather than a “report card,” which reflects nothing useful for the working world, unless you happen to land a job in an industry that consists of taking multiple-choice quizzes and writing essays on random topics. By the end of their internship, kids will have worked at a series of jobs over the last 5 or 6 years and that, my friends, is Real Life experience. Along the way they have picked up many skills, both technical and manual. They have likely figured out what job or industry appeals to them and, having focused on that industry during the last few terms or years of their internship, have now made connections in the business, have references, have accumulated the necessary skill sets, and have a solid understanding of how that business or industry runs. When they go to get a full time paid job in the industry in which they have already been participating, they don’t need to present their grade point average or report card or score on a provincial standardized test because they would have real, documented evidence of their skills. This could be projects on which they worked, products they helped design and take to market, and any other documentable task. Not to mention, at this point they would be allowed to gather references from any and all former employers who worked with them as interns. If you were hiring someone for a job in your industry, which would you rather take, the kid who has been holed-up in a high school for the last five years, has an excellent grade-point average, but little-to-no real experience with holding down a job, working for and with people, and doing pretty much anything in your industry? Or, the kid who has spent the last 3 years interning with your colleagues and peers in industry, who has real outcomes to show from real people in real businesses doing real work, and who can be judged on actual performance in the field. I know who I would choose.

(3) Youth would be integrated into the community, rather than warehoused and isolated from it. What better way to get youth involved in their community than by allowing them to be active participants in it? This giving of responsibility to kids who are old enough to handle it and who are biologically driven to seek it could possibly end the increasingly toxic social consequences of age-segregation and ridiculously low adult:child ratios, such as bullying and cliques. Not to mention the also-toxic consequences of boredom and exclusion from adult society and responsibilities, such as substance abuse, vandalism, and excessive risk-taking.

Charity brochure final.cdr

(4) It’s not just the students who benefit, but the entire community. The aforementioned community centre/library/recreation centre complexes that take the place of high school buildings would serve Everybody in the community, not just high school kids, and many more programs could be run than just those for the kids. Most communities already have such facilities in place, but for many they are badly in need of upgrading and enhancement. Smaller towns that currently lack such facilities would hugely benefit by having the funds to build one. So immediately this program would benefit communities for everybody in them, and no more battles around how best to use taxpayer money for schools.

(5) Workers would benefit by having a second set of hands to help them with their jobs and by getting mentorship training (perhaps provided as part of those government incentives I spoke of earlier). If every working person in a community had a student intern, it would ease the work load on everyone and free up more time for other pursuits. Think of the community building that could take place if people had some extra leisure time.

more leisure time

(6) The interns would need a transportation system to get them to and from their internships, home, and the community centre as most can’t drive and/or don’t have cars. Communities could put some of the money they save by not having high schools and school buses into boosting transportation infrastructure so that the interns can get to and from their jobs and their after-job activities. Governments could subsidize or pay for student bus/transit passes which would provide a monetary boost to cash-strapped municipal transit systems. Whether it’s a shuttle bus system in a small town or subway passes in a larger town, the adding of the entire population of high school students to the transportation ridership would definitely provide a much needed boost to their bottom line. For smaller towns and rural communities, which often lack decent transit systems due to low ridership, it would be enough to make it worth their while to invest in  transportation which, again, would serve EVERYBODY in the community, not just high school kids.

So that is the basic outline of my idea. In Part 2, I’m going to present an example of what this would look like using two hypothetical kids.

The Future of Education, Today

new economy 2

This post was inspired by a recent post over at The No-School Kids. It’s a wonderful, meaty read, questioning why homeschooling is rapidly increasing in popularity, and relating it to the modern, technological age. This quote gives a taste of the article:

I think these issues of technology changing our relationship to information, changing our jobs and economy, and therefore changing how we want educate our kids — these are real reasons for the growth of the homeschooling movement in my lifetime.

Reading this, I was prompted to put down some thoughts that have been percolating in my own mind lately.

The idea that the internet and the new economy are game-changers when it comes to “what your kid needs to know” is not new. In one of the most popular TED talks to date, Sir Ken Robinson highlighted the importance of creativity and the lack of emphasis on creativity in schools (the title of his talk was “How Schools Kill Creativity”).

In another popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra demonstrated that, using technology, kids can teach themselves what they need to know without the help of any adults. Here is a quote from Sugata Mitra that is particularly relevant to the subject of today’s post:

Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.  – Sugata Mitra

I’m drawn to this subject because of my experiences watching my children use the Internet to learn. They approach learning in a very different way than I approached it (or, more accurately, how it was presented to me) in school. There is the ability to seek out information, yes, but then there is the ability to process it in myriad ways that were not readily available to us back in my day. Rather than a smattering of subject matter broken down into neat blocks of time that rotate throughout the week, my kids immerse themselves in a subject, exploring it in ways that are different for each child but far broader than the usual concept of read-book-memorize-facts. Their learning is more discussion-based, more exploratory, and facts are just stuff that gets stuck in their head along the way by virtue of being used and encountered frequently. Fan sites, discussion forums, YouTube channels, websites, wikis, and blog rings provide different ways to explore a topic, to turn it around in your mind and share others’ perspectives. This is idea-generating learning, the kind that is needed in order to take advantage of today’s opportunities, and those in the near future.

new economy

Learning online is not just limited to global conversations, however. Who doesn’t wish to immerse themselves in technical details when it comes to their passions? Enter the online video course. My first encounter with such a learning platform was through my own use of the Craftsy website. Craftsy offers courses in sewing, quilting, knitting, and other crafts presented in video lesson format. Lessons are broken down into separate videos that students watch on their own time, at their own pace. It’s easy to skip back a few seconds and listen again to something the student may have missed, or to see a particular technique being demonstrated over and over (using the 30-second loop function). In addition, it allows for the student to insert notes at any point in the video, which can later be used to quickly access the exact point in the video relating to that subject. Not only can questions be posted to the instructor, who usually replies within a couple of days, but students can also reply or comment on the questions. There are forums in which students and the instructor can engage in detailed discussions about any aspect of the course, and places where students can post photo examples of their class projects. With today’s technology, it is easy to snap a photo of your work, post it, and ask “what did I do wrong here?” or “any feedback?”. In my particular field of interest, quilting instructors have been around for decades, but until the availability of such courses many people had to travel to learn. The online learning platform takes accessability to a whole new level.

Recently, Miss Em enrolled in an online programming course offered by Youth Digital where students learn to program their own Minecraft Mod. This course follows the same idea as the Craftsy courses: video lessons, interaction with the teacher and other students, and includes weekly video podcasts by the host highlighting various students’ projects, etc. It is a truly interactive learning experience that the student can access 24 hours a day, whenever it suits them. The student can progress as quickly or slowly as they need. The lessons are geared toward youth, taught by a young instructor who is familiar with the current culture and language around Minecraft and programming in general. Miss Em found him funny and engaging and far more interesting than I found my Grade 11 computer science teacher to be.

My final example of online learning is the math program I’m using with Mr. Boo. Dreambox Learning presents mathematics in an interactive, video-based format that is heavy on visual representation (something I’ve always felt really enhances the presentation of mathematical relationships). Not only can students progress at their own pace through the lessons, but the program tracks the student’s progress and adjusts the experience to suit their particular needs. When proficiency is demonstrated in one area, the program moves the student through that module faster, and allows them to progress as far ahead as they are able. At the same time, if the student is struggling with other concepts, those are presented in a manner that is gradually broken down into more basic concepts until the program “meets” the student where they’re at, and then slowly brings the student through the material. This ability to completely personalize the experience for each student is one of the most impressive features of such programs and really trumps the experience in school. Ask any teacher how much they could accomplish if they had only one student assigned to them, and you don’t need to think too hard to appreciate what a difference a personalized education can make.

As a long-term homeschooler, my perspective on the current schooling system is already skewed. It strikes me as a giant, slow-moving machine, whose cogs spin with such momentum that enacting any degree of change takes inordinate amounts of time. In our home, when an educational approach isn’t working, we can try something else right away. However, when I ponder the implications of this with respect to the design of schools and what they are intended to achieve (preparing kids for adult employment and engagement with the world), it seems no mystery that the system used to educate our children is now woefully outdated.

I believe in children’s inherent drive and ability to learn, without being instructed in a “top-down” fashion (where student=passive listener and teacher=dispenser of information). However, with the availability of the Internet, and programs such as those I’ve described above, anybody who is comfortable seeking information for themselves can become “educated”. My children have only ever experienced the freedom of self-direction in their learning. They are not familiar with the concept of someone else dictating what they need to know, when they need to know it, and in what order it is all to be presented. But for children in school, this idea that learning is something that happens TO you, rather than something you MAKE happen, is still central to the pedagogy. And this is where I think they are being really shortchanged. Because in the present and future world, in the new economy, the status quo changes so rapidly that without creativity, thinking outside the box, and adaptability, one risks being left behind. Under such circumstances, waiting to be told what to learn, and how to learn it, is a significant disadvantage.

new economy time

I think these online courses and programs are truly the future of education. I imagine a world where children can choose their subjects, the order in which they are presented, the degree to which they immerse themselves in each, and follow a path that, like the strands of the world wide web, can be traversed by billions of people with never the same path being followed twice. My children’s learning is already intimately connected to the language of the new economy: technology, interconnectedness, and niche environments. They are immersed in that world, that culture, those tools – as are most children –  but unlike most children, my children’s learning is also intimately embedded in that world. In many schools (particularly the lower grades) children are still discouraged from using laptops, iPads, calculators, and other devices for “real learning” (those things are considered appropriate for extra-curricular activities). Parents struggle with “screen time” and popular culture treats it as something to be feared and fought against. We have assigned Value status to that which is taught in schools, and anything else is just a temptation leading us away from Success to a life of failure and sloth. I shake my head at this attitude, given what we know about the jobs of today and where they appear to be leading us in the future.

The bottom line is this: the structure of schools is based on a system that has long since gone extinct. We are short-changing our children by presenting them with only one path to learning and success: 12 years of mandatory schooling, another several years of expensive college education, and competing for jobs with the millions of others following the same path with the same results. Massive, bureaucratic, industrial machines such as the education system cannot keep up with the rapidly changing pace of today’s economy and job possibilities. It is my hope that, by allowing my kids the freedom to follow their own learning paths, they will not have to wait to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the new economy. By the time their schooled peers are allowed to leave the early-19th-century world of en masse, one-size-fits-all, rote-memorization education to join the Real World, my kids will already be long-term residents.

new economy