“As soon as a child realizes that important learning doesn’t only happen in school, he starts becoming a self-directed learner. That’s what matters most.” – Blake Boles, USA
30-year-old “unschooling” advocate Blake Boles was studying astrophysics at UC Berkeley when he stumbled upon “a treasure trove of books” by authors John Taylor Gatto, Grace Llewellyn, John Holt, and other alternative education pioneers. He was so inspired by these innovators’ philosophies of unschooling and free schooling that he custom-designed his own final two years of college to study these subjects full-time. After graduating, Boles joined the Not Back to School Camp community and began writing and speaking widely on the subject of self-directed learning. He also fit in plenty of real-world experience, having worked as a high-volume cook, Aurora Borealis physics research assistant, delivery truck driver, math tutor, outdoor science teacher, EMT medic, summer camp director, market researcher, web designer, and windsurfing and tree climbing instructor.
Today, Boles is a passionate proponent of educational approaches that help teens learn on their own. He plans unconventional adventures (like cycling through the Argentinean countryside) for young people who choose to learn on their own through his company,
Unschool Adventures. The company is guided by the unschooling philosophy, granting students a high degree of freedom, but providing them the structure and support needed to follow through on their ambitions. They offer domestic and international programs, including their popular Writing Retreat, which takes its inspiration from National Novel-Writing Month.
Boles is an outspoken cheerleader for unschooling– check out his recent Ignite presentation – and his enthusiasm is contagious. Here, Boles share his views on self-directed learning, its benefits, and why now is the right time to experiment with alternative education options.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
After decades of expensive, centralized, and standardized education, I see innovation wherever someone offers an inexpensive, decentralized, and personalized education solution. For me, that solution is self-directed learning. My writings and programs focus on building the attitudes necessary for self-directed learning within young minds.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
I think I’ve helped spread the idea that full-time self-directed learning (via homeschooling or “unschooling”) is a workable option for more families than we usually imagine possible.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
Much earlier, I was enamored with free schools like the Sudbury Valley School and Summerhill. Then I realized that self-directed learning didn’t require a physical school—it instead required a state of mind and a supportive community, each of which was available without an expensive physical plant. Now I run all of my programs out of temporarily rented properties: youth hostels, co-working spaces, friends’ houses, etc. Don’t assume that an alternative program must look like a traditional school.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
Not yet—but I have plans to use Google Hangout as a key piece in one of my new programs.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Tying a sense of accountability to self-directed learning. Unschoolers are very good at brainstorming big plans for their lives, but they often need more support with follow-through than they receive.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
I operate all over the country! What I love about the U.S. is that home education is legal in every state. That’s not true in so many other parts of the world.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
I’d love to see a huge number of low-cost, start-up style experiments in education—everything from Montessori to military schools—competing for families’ time and money. I want to see a little Silicon Valley of education in every major metropolitan area.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Think deeply about what will serve young people in the 21st century: more teaching, or more self-directed learning? If you can’t find a workplace that lets you promote self-directed learning, you might need to create your own.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
The Internet is the greatest learning tool of all time. Any trends that push in the direction of open-access and technological literacy are probably helpful. The trends towards increased standardized testing and lengthened school-days (and school-years) don’t help learning. Why do more of the same when the same isn’t working?
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
The experience of learning something important outside of the classroom. As soon as a child realizes that important learning doesn’t only happen in school, she starts becoming a self-directed learner. That’s what matters most.
About Blake Boles,
Boles delivers presentations and workshops for conferences, camps, parent groups, bookstores, and radio audiences. He has appeared on NPR, The Huffington Post, TEDx, and Ignite.
- Birthplace: Tiburon, California
- Current residence: Asheville, North Carolina
- Education: (better title: “Schooling”) U.C. Berkeley, B.A., 2004
- Website I check every day: Google Reader
- Person who inspires me most: Grace Llewellyn
- Favorite childhood memory: Solo month-long homestay in Chile, age 14.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Hiking across the South Island of New Zealand (work).
- When was the last time you laughed? Why?: Last night, when a group of teens at my Unschool Adventures Writing Retreat program bought me a squirrel calendar as a joke.
- Favorite book: A Different Kind of Teacher by John Taylor Gatto
- Favorite music: The Avett Brothers
- Your favorite quote or motto:
Ah, you miserable creatures!
You who think that you are so great!
You who judge humanity to be so small!
You who wish to reform everything!
Why don’t you reform yourselves?
That task would be sufficient enough.