But Julia, what exactly are you doing? I can't visualise this in concrete terms. That is something I probably hear 3 times a day. If you are one of those wanting to ask me this as well, keep reading to understand the pillars of the system I have been creating:
Self-Directed Learning: Instead of an external institution, I am the one who 1) chooses topics to be studied 2) creates goals and syllabus 3) finds and selects both theoretical and practical educational resources 4) determines how to assess my learning progress. Essentially, I took apart the components of a 'normal' university education and substituted them with alternatives that are more aligned with the learning philosophies I believe in.
'In its broadest meaning, self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.' (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)
Alternative resources: One of my guiding principles is that that which makes any resource or experience educational is the process in which one engages with it. That means educational resources can be found in places one usually doesn't look for, especially in our interconnected and technological world. Thus, I rely on a variety of both conventional and unconventional resources that range from online courses, workshops and classes, mentors, books, websites, work-exchanges, databases, programs, internships, projects and experiments.
Experiential learning: In order to assure that I am actively creating my own understanding and knowledge rather than passively absorbing content I uphold the value of experience in the educational process. And so despite relying a lot on online resources, I always look for practical counterparts and real world challenges so that my knowledge is the result of the cognisance and transformation of these experiences. This is why you will find me doing work-exchanges, creating workshops and participating in projects most of the time.
Travel: Having spent a year traveling before going to university, I felt extremely alienated within the walls of campus and recognised the educational value of the exposure to different contexts and realities. Observing a concept from more than one perspective obliges us to make sense of and combine different references, which leads to a more complete and ultimately autonomous understanding. This is why I am always trying to experience different lifestyles, communities and cultures.
Well, how do these pillars translate into my actual system? As already mentioned, I took apart the components of a traditional education program and experimented with substitutions that are aligned with my vision. These substituted components have been and will be shaped and reshaped several times throughout my past and upcoming years. Currently, they are:
Central to the system is a Self-discovery process, a constant investigation into my own dreams, passions, natural talents, and understandings of purpose. This translates into a clearer vision of where I currently am at, wher e I want to go and what needs to be done in order for me to get there. Although I often rely on self-discovery books and coaching exercises for this investigation, I believe the assistance of a life or academic coach or therapist is extremely valuable in the process.
The vision acquired via these self-discovery tools is then translated into what I came to call Tracks, which are subjects that look a little bit like university courses. Each of them is a field that is personally relevant to me in which I need to grow in order to achieve the understanding I want to have, the life I want ot live and the person I want to become. Each contains course goals, syllabus and step-by-step instructions with resources that are to be used. My tracks so far have been: Photography, Coaching and Facilitation, Education, Filmmaking, Woman and Sexuality Studies, Dance, World Knowledge, Study of Communities and Organisations, Music and Surf.
Directly connected to each Track, Fieldwork Experiences are tangible projects I either create or participate in order to complement theory with practical application. These ought to be paid or not real-life work experiences with all the challenges and struggles they encompass, rather than educational simulations. This leads to a more organic transition from a studying to actual work. I have been relying a lot on workaways and work exchanges, given that they are flexible opportunities to gain actual work experience, but any genuine project in which I can play a function related to the correspondent track is an option.
I believe a key element in transforming an experience which is ordinary into de facto educational is reflection. By clarifying intentions, delimiting focus areas, documenting progressions and evaluating outcomes, most experiences can allow for growth in almost every field of study. Hence, I created guidelines that prescribe how to reflect before, during and after any fieldwork experience. This has been crucial in helping me maintain a learning focus rather than getting disperse in the unlimited amount of information one can attend to in any real world experience.
STRUCTURE AND ROUTINES
If one assumes that learning means knowing where you want to get and how to do so, then the ability to align action with intention is a most fundamental aspect of the learning process. In order to translate my visions and syllabus into actual action I created a structure of habits and routines based on daily, weekly and monthly planners. These have helped me keep on track with my learning goal and while also to adapt to constantly changing schedules and lifestyles.
Having a structure that is both strong and flexible has been the key for me to remain balanced, focused and moving forward both at home and on the road.
Recently I came to realize the importance of having some sort of 'window' that showcases one's ideas, projects and skills if they don't belong to an institution. Reaching out to projects, making connections and being found by collaborators is an essential part to make this system work, and yet challenging when one does not have a degree to showcase or access to a certain network. Thus, creating anything between an online resume, portfolio, webpage or blog can be very helpful in building that bridge. For me, these have been and are taking the form as a photography instagram, an online audiovisual portfolio, an education vlog on instagram and this website.
Meanwhile, researching and looking up opportunities out there needs to become a habit. It is often not easy and takes time and practice to find reliable educational resources, mentors or projects. After all, the world can be intimidatingly big and we are used to having institutions do that work for ourselves. This is what led me to pay for actual university courses recently, given that I wanted to save some time by receiving quick and easy access to trustable resources and mentors. Nonetheless, the habit of spending some time every week doing online research has been the key to finding many nonconventional educational opportunities.
ASSESSMENT 'When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure' Goodhart's law
Evaluation is an essential part of the learning process, given that it provides external feedback and also extrinsic motivation to go out of one's comfort zone. However, grades have become the ultimate target within most systems, sabotaging the original purpose of evaluation. Within these circumstances, learning becomes a secondary means to an end, while appearing knowledgeable is the ultimate goal.
Hence, when it comes to finding alternatives to assessment, not only a shift in format but above all in mindset is indispensable: critique needs to be truly valued and desired. Once that shift happens, there are multiple possibilities of creating alternative assessments: creating workshops on topics I study has yet been my favorite, given that they are an excellent way of forcing oneself to master everything about the topic while also teaching you a lot in the moment. I have done several photography, connection, coaching and dance workshops so far, and every time I ask for thorough feedback. Google feedback forms are a great way to have people genuinely assess your skills!
NETWORK AND MENTORS
Creating a strong network of people who are willing to engage you in projects, orient you and give you feedback is probably the most important and yet challenging part of this system, simply because we are not used to having to reach out to people in this way. Attending networking events, presenting one's ideas and being direct and confident in asking for helps are are habits that take time to form. However, it is amazing how many people are willing to share their knowledge if they see your genuine interest, desire to grow and openness for critique. And in the end it is not about having someone teach you specific things, but rather having an expert overview your learning process, provide references and even recommend changes in course.
When I think about university, I think about an greenhouse with fertile soil and controllable climate. The real world on the other hand is not controllable. Learning to navigate it is essential, however one should look for fertile soil in the first place to make growth possible. And that is what I mean by playground - finding an environment that connects as much as possible with one's fields of study.
When starting this journey I decided to move a 10 hours drive south to Florianopolis, a relatively small city on an island with plenty of social innovation projects, startups, artistic work opportunities, easy networking and even surf. This allowed me to try my system out on a easier small scale, slowly learning to integrate my studies into my surroundings - something that is not always easy to do, especially when traveling. I thus always look for these little playgrounds that will be a fertile soil for the seeds I want to grow.
As I already mentioned, many different factors led me leave university and try something different. Frustration with traditional education. Passion for learning and yet lack of motivation. Desire for adventure and adventure. Perhaps being a stubborn native aquarian. And yet, when things become challenging there are 3 mains reasons that keep me holding on to this path.
Education as it is today is preparing me for an outdated social and economic model
Education was institutionalised to attend the demands of an industrial society that requires workers to perform mechanical jobs and consumers to buy things they didn't need. Unfortunately not much has changed in the educational model, and although technological and social change are creating new demands and possibilities for the workforce, we still find it hard to think of any skill being more valuable than scoring high on the SAT. And this might be true in an outdated system, given that scoring high on tests it prepares us to thrive performing outdated jobs. But it is not true in the new economic and social models that are creating opportunity for a different type of work, and ultimately life.
'A know-mad is what I term a nomadic knowledge and innovation worker – that is, a creative, imaginative, and innovative person who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere' (Moravec, 2008)
I thus believe there are more important skills to learn if I want to thrive (create and live) in a different system. Skills that the older generation would call "intangible" and "uncertain", but which I call crucial for surviving in and making sense of a constantly changing world. Skills that allow me to be creative and innovative, to communicate effectively, collaborate and solve-problems. And skills that will not only prepare me for the opportunities of tomorrow, but also empower me to create that tomorrow. And for that, I believe, I don't need to be formatted but instead allowed to look at the world with fresh and eyes that can reinvent rather than reproduce.
Education should connect me with my the desire to learn and my purpose to live
Sharing and exchanging my story with countless people the last two years has reassured me of a hypothesis I had when starting this journey. So many of us feel disconnected from our work, our real needs, our purpose and ultimately ourselves. And I believe a major source of this is they way we are educated.
From our first day in school we are primed to accept a teacher's perspective as the ultimate truth and to never question whether what we learn is personally relevant to ourselves. Doing so would be exhausting, after all it would only lead to getting labeled as "difficult". Thus, from day one we learn to disconnect from our own drives and interests in order to mechanically absorb the 'right' type of knowledge. It seems reasonable that, without necessarily being aware of it, we carry this attitude to university, to work, to life, until we don't even remember what it is like to be genuinely interested anymore. Do we ever become aware of this? Probably when depression knocks on our door, many years gone by following a career, a lifestyle or a dream that we thought was ours. Yet after all these years hustling it might feel too late to make a major change and restart, so it is easier to distract and disconnect from oneself even more.
That being said, my intention with this project is to nib this cycle by the root and look for that inner lust I probably lost when I was told that only Maths, Sciences and History were suited for learning. Putting learning into that box means separating it from life, but isn't learning life itself? When we see learning as a means to an end, a means to getting a grade, getting a diploma, a means to getting a high-paid job, then we also see life as a means to an end. And isn't that the root of all suffering? To race around without knowing where in order to achieve something without knowing why? You can't live life as a means to an end, for there is no tangible meaning to be found, and that is what makes it meaningful.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
― Joseph Campbell
Education is my passion: its crocks are my frustrations and its possibilities are my drive
Finally, my last big why is my own background and the fascination I personally have always had with the field of education. Having attended a Brazilian and German education program simultaneously for 10 years, I grew up observing the differences between these systems and how they influenced not only my development as a student, but also as a person, shaping my beliefs, habits and atitudes towards life. This investigation went on during a gap year that followed my Abitur graduation in which I experienced different educational contexts while traveling.
By the end of that year I decided to study Education at Duke University. Both frustrated and intrigued by the fixation with reproducing "correct" information and scoring high on exams I found in myself and in my colleagues, I went on to research this topic. That was when I first started reading Paulo Freire and many other alternative education philosophers, which led to questions multiplying within me: 'Are these evaluations necessary in the first place? Do they measure learning precisely? Can we measure knowledge? What is knowledge? What is education? And above all, are there better possibilities?'.
I didn't have an answer for them, but I knew I wouldn't find one by sitting in that classroom. And I wouldn't understand or get over my own alienation unless I broke free from what had caused it in the first place.
And so the following sentence is the end of the last paper I handed out at the university: 'Now, however, I feel conflicted by my tendency to limit my intellectual enquiry to what I predict the teacher wants me to and the acknowledgement that this is no longer necessary. I am even facing a lack of motivation, given that I more and more recognise that I have been dedicating myself to mechanically reproduce the knowledge that was arbitrarily chosen by policy makers as the “essential” knowledge'.
And so I left. Nervous, scared and excited to look for the answers myself by exploring, experimenting and ultimately looking at this thing I came to understand as education from a distanced, radically different perspective.