“Hacking Your Education” Has Ample Lessons for Those in Academia

The movie Good Will Hunting came out when I was in my first years as a middle and high school teacher. I watched anything with Robin Williams in it and this was no exception. I don’t think I’ve seen the film for a decade but when I think of it, a specific scene comes to mind.  It is when Chuckie (Ben Affleck) and Will (Matt Damon) are in a bar and an Ivy League student starts giving Chucke a hard time.  Will steps in and you can read the entire exchange here.  The punchline is this:

“See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a ****** education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

In some ways, this line could serve as the theme for Dale Stephen’s Hacking Your Education: Ditch The Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will. In fact, a portion of that quote shows up at the beginning of chapter one.  In this book, Stephens, who unschooled himself through high school and then dropped out of college to pursue learning in a different form, provides a vision and practical tips for an alternative to college. The target audience for the book is largely the college-age student, but I’m ready to argue that this is an important read for University faculty and administrators as well as anyone else who is interested in learning more about a significant trend that will leave a mark on higher education (if not have some disruptive effects).

While there are a few quotes that I would directly challenge (like the claim that “Universities exist to make money” p. 9), Stephens draws the reader’s attention to important challenges and offers a viable alternative to college for some people. In fact, I would argue that his book is an excellent resource for a college student simply seeking to get the most out of the college experience.  This is where I suggest that the book is a worthwhile read for those in academia (students, faculty, and administration). With that in mind, here are ten lessons from the text that have plenty of value in or out of traditional higher education institutions.

  1. Know Why – Many college students never develop a clear and compelling answer to questions about why they are going to college. They just do it because that is what they think they are supposed to do. Knowing the why is an important part of staying engaged, motivated and getting the most out of the experience.
  2. “As an Insurance Policy” may not be the Best Answer to the Why Question -Many college students go simply as an “insurance policy” against unemployment or a poor future job outlook. College can open doors, but it is not a certain insurance policy against unemployment or underemployment. Besides, this is a really expensive insurance policy.
  3. Passive Attendance is Not Worth It – College is not worth the money unless you “deeply engage.” Plenty go to college and do just enough to get by, studying very little and not fully participating in the intellectual opportunities. This is a waste of time and money.
  4. The Best Learners Do Things Differently Than Others – Dale Stephens was not an ordinary student, not even back in 5th grade.  That is when he decided to unschool. He tells the story of seeing an ad in the newspaper for a “Not Back to School Night.”  When I read that, I realized that he was a different sort of 5th grader simply by the fact that he was reading the newspaper. Even at that age, he has traits of a learner. These are important traits to develop, cultivate and acquire.
  5. Become a Self-Directed Learner – He highlights the power of learning things like, “how to set goals, find learning resources, and convince people to let me work with them despite my age” (p. 23). These skills of the self-directed learner are important regardless of whether one goes to college.  How is college doing in helping students develop them?
  6. Value Learning – “Unschooling is an educational philosophy that values learning over schooling.” In the race for the Dean’s List, good grades, and similar accolades, that is easy to lose sight of this fact (p. 24).
  7. Create a “to-learn list.” – It is just what it sounds like, a list of things that you want to learn, and then you figure out how to learn them (p. 36). How many college students do this? They are told what to learn, but how many take the time and interest in developing some of their own learning goals and then developing a plan for how to reach the goals? College should be a launchpad for lifelong learning, but that requires taking personal initiative as a learner.
  8. Find Accountability Partners & Mentors – Experience the power of an accountability partner, someone who holds you accountable for your learning and you do the same for them. This is not a teacher-student relationship, but a peer-peer relationship, and developing such relationships with others is a life skill that will serve one well in or out of college. In addition, look for mentors, people who have accomplished what you want to accomplish and learned what you want to learn.  How might Universities encourage and empower students to do these things?
  9. Do, Create and Build Valuable Things – Demonstrate what you know by doing or building something of value to people in the world. Many college students create lots of papers and projects, but how many of them actually benefit someone else?  What would it look like if we encouraged more learning by doing, designing, and creating things that are shared with and of benefit to people beyond the University?
  10. Participate in Brain Trusts and Learning Communities – Learn to create and participate in communities of practice.  Find others who have a shared passion or interest, meet, encourage, learn from, and collaborate with one another. Many great authors, scientists, and scholars had one or more such communities, groups like the famous Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, Charles Williams, etc.).  Why not start your own?

There are dozens of other worthwhile points, but these are a few that struck me as having some immediate importance for those working in or studying at colleges and Universities. Even for those who ignore Stephens’s invitation to consider an alternative college, there is also plenty advice for how to become a more self-directed college student.  For those working in Universities, this list serves as a challenge to think about how we might encourage students to embrace this sort of self-direction.



Posted in blog, education, unschooling

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.