So it looks like my 15-year-old is officially a high-school dropout.
Halfway through ninth grade, emboldened perhaps by the taste of freedom that Covid-era remote learning had provided, he realized that the whole system was just too slow and inefficient for him, and was “Getting in the way of his work.” So as it looks now, he’ll probably never return to any sort of in-person schooling, and I will be surprised if he ever attends college.
Yes, he is technically “home schooling” and will still end up with a high school diploma of sorts, but in reality he is pretty much winging it. And needless to say, I have mixed feelings about this.
I’ll start with the worries and the negative stuff, because as a parent I of course want the best for my child. And when I look back on my own childhood, it feels like school was a fountain of formative experiences.
Sure, the education itself was slow and crappy – I was always craving more advanced material and more creative learning formats which just weren’t there in my small town high school. But isn’t enduring crappy and antiquated systems a critical part of getting ready to live in a modern society where things don’t always go your way? After all, the only way to renew a drivers license or a passport (or a medical license for that matter) is to dive head first into the ridiculousness and grin and bear it for the sake of the end goal.
And of course there were plenty of good parts: I had so many amazing experiences and friendships and adventures through high school and university. Beginner romances and heartbreaks, brushes with the law, late nights around the campfire, terrible minimum wage jobs at gas stations and convenience stores that I thought were amazing, all bathed in a swirling Marijuana-tinged soundtrack of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Soundgarten and Primus and Tool. Doing reverse snow donuts in my mom’s 1988 Dodge Caravan filled with eight friends and then getting out to dance crazily in the headlights to the Wayne’s World soundtrack blasting from the giant stereo system I had built into the minivan with my own 16-year-old hands.
How will my son grow up as a well-adjusted adult without the 2020s equivalent of such experiences?
But when I obsess over these thoughts, I know I am falling into the oldest of parenting traps: assuming I know what’s best for my child, and that his own desires and thoughts are not valid, even though he’s on the verge of adulthood himself. So I remind myself of the positive side of this situation:
The world of 2021 is a very different place from my equivalent perch in 1991. And my son happens to be sitting in an unusual but still promising (I hope) little corner of it.
Because of the Internet, and to be honest a damned large dose of privilege due to having two educated parents always available because we were retired before he was even born, he has been able to feed his thirst for knowledge with incredible efficiency. This is an advantage that is still not available to most people today, let alone to what people of my generation had to work with in 1989. So he has already gone beyond college level in the standard fields that they cover in school.
So of course he has noticed that the existing school system is not as efficient as his custom-crafted alternative. Like me, he feels frustration with many of our institutions. But it’s a frustration born of love and a desire to help out, rather than just a complainypants attitude and a desire to criticize. Public school for all is a great thing and a great idea.
But like everything in life, we can only improve by first acknowledging that we currently suck.
The first thing that little MM did upon retiring from formal schooling, is to create this entire 48 minute mini-documentary about the system he just left:
(click that link to get to get the full experience on YouTube itself and see the description, show notes and comments. I’ll include an embedded version below for lazier people
also, a hint for any YouTube creator you want to reward: their algorithm heavily recommends and promotes videos which people watch for longer. So, let it roll and enjoy the epic soundtrack!)
Seeing him work so hard on this production definitely helped ease my fears about whether or not he will grow up to be a contributing member of society. He spent about three months researching the US school system, writing himself a script, composing a 16-track orchestral music score which is timed to the second to align with the appropriate parts of the film, creating 3-D models and animations in Blender to illustrate the main points, running multiple high-end computers overnight, night after night to render the complex scenes in 4K resolution, turning my house into a miniature version of a Pixar animation studio.
Then he practiced up his reading, set up a bright professional recording studio in my basement, recruited me to help build a teleprompter, and narrated his own script into the camera. And finally brought it all back to the editing software to cut it all together, with pretty stunning results from my admittedly biased perspective as his Dad.
But equally important, the danged kid has a point: schools really could be a lot better.
And it could happen very quickly with just one main change as he explains in the documentary: switching from bland and repetitive teacher-led instruction, to extremely high quality videos instead. This would accelerate learning because the video content could be much more compelling than watching a human stand at the front of a room. But it would also free up the teachers to help individual students rather than just using their valuable time to repeat the same material, year after year.
Even better: most of these videos already exist. Through some sort of miracle, my son has chosen to invest the past five years of his free time seeking out astoundingly good YouTube channels, watching most of their back catalogs, and absorbing the contents of almost every episode.
I’m often shocked at his level of knowledge in so many fields, so I sat him down and interviewed him on his top recommendations in some of the key ones.
The list below is what we came up with. I’ve seen a lot of these myself, and I can vouch for their quality. If you’re looking for places to send your own hungry-brained child, or for things to watch together, check out the following list.
Flipping the Classroom:
As a context for all of this, you absolutely must know about Khan Academy first. This is a free video education in all major subjects, that is higher quality than most in-school lessons. Many teachers are already using this system to “flip the classroom”, and my own boy and I used Khan Academy to help him cover second through eighth grade math in only a month. That’s how efficient video learning can be!
Note: because we were so impressed and thankful, I also donated $9000 to Khan academy in 2016. That’s a great cause if you are looking for more places for your own philanthropy dollars.
Watch Sal Khan’s Ted talk here – and notice the special guest who joins him on stage at the end of it.
- Vsauce (which has grown to include Vsauce2 and Vsauce3)
- Physics Girl (fun to watch explorations of a wide range of real-world physics and science things)
- Thought Emporium (gene editing through both chemical methods and DNA 3-d printers! And art too)
- Scott Manley (a charming Scottish Astrophysist / Apple engineer with hundreds of great videos on the Kerbal Space Program simulation game, plus now detailed coverage on space and astrophysics)
- Anton Petrov – daily videos on new discoveries in science (and a fun look at current events from a science perspective too)
- Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell Short but intelligent summaries of all sorts of neat things, featuring a dynamic British narrator and fun cartoony graphics.
- Deep Dive – a relatively new but very promising channel with great big-issue science videos. We are hoping they put out more!
- Stratzenblitz75 Kerbal Space program videos with nice lessons on the science behind them (like orbital mechanics)
- Wendover Productions – neat explanations of wide-ranging things, (including transportation logistics!)
Inventions and Building Stuff
- Colin Furze – crazy, energetic, brilliant videos about building things like a home-made hoverbike, two story bicycle, giant mech robot suit.
- Simone Giertz – a super clever and witty engineer/builder, perhaps most famous for her DIY conversion of a Tesla model 3 into a badass mini pickup truck.
- Wintergatan – a hauntingly genius, gentle dude in Sweden who works on a beautiful “marble machine” musical instrument and so many other things. Awesome musician too!
- Mark Rober (a former Nasa engineer who now makes really fun videos about his complicated and whimsical inventions – best known for the “glitter bomb” anti-theft devices)
- Styropyro (guy who makes crazy powerful lasers, etc.)
Video creation, 3D Animation and Youtubing Strategy
- Lazy Tutorials (Ian Huber teaches you 3-D animation with Blender at the speed of thought). He also maintains the Default Cube channel.
- Blender Guru – personable, easy to watch in-depth blender tutorials
- CG Matter – fast, advanced Blender tutorials
- CG Geek – longer, more detailed Blender tutorials
- Captain Disillusion (video editing and special effects – this man puts a lot of work into each of his super-entertaining videos)
- Daniel Krafft – useful blender tips and tutorials
- Iridesium – tutorials on how to create movie-quality special effects in Blender
Coding and Artificial Intelligence
- Two Minute Papers (AI) – super smart guy summarizes academic papers in the Artificial Intelligence field in a really interesting and easy to understand way, with visual examples.
- Code Bullet (AI) – Software developer incorporates machine learning/AI into his own code and demonstrates the results in a wide variety of contexts.
- Carykh – AI and building some interesting apps including the famous “size of the universe” interactive
- Sebastian Lague – The Bob Ross of coding, this young gentleman walks us peacefully through a fun series of iterative improvements on a variety of advanced programming projects.
- CodeParade – great bits of coding, math, and graphics combined
- Vi Hart – the original “Mathemusician”, Vi’s soulfully brilliant explanations of math concepts are great for small kids and adults alike.
- Zach Star – math puzzles and other interesting stuff
- Numberphile – another fun math channel – sometimes with fun visuals and special guest experts.
History, English, Etc.
- Tom Scott – Linguistics and various travel and geography stories
- History of the Earth – the History Brothers cover multimillion year periods of our planet’s history
- Half as Interesting – light-hearted tidbids of English history and other things
- Andrew Huang – so clever, so energetic, so talented, and teaches you SO much about music! (his own songs are great too, as are his youtube buddies)
- Roomie Official – fun to watch, educational, and a ridiculously good and versatile singer.
- Davie504 – an amazing bass player, and fellow bass enthusiasts might learn a few things too.
- Adam Neely – fantastic music theory and neat analysis of existing stuff.
- AU5 – one of my favorite emerging electronic music artists, who also teaches you how to make the stuff in Ableton and related tools
So, What’s Next?
Like everything in life, I view this as an experiment. It might go well, but there will surely be some pitfalls and downsides as well. Neither of us is perfect and we make errors in judgement sometimes. But this feels right and promising right now, so we are running with it. We will learn from our mistakes and develop ourselves along the way, and make the most of it. Which is really a good plan for life itself.
Congratulations my not-so-little MM, I am proud of you and I wish you the best in this next crazy chapter!
I agree that the school system is really outdated and lacking in innovation. Using more videos, or at least providing the option, could be much more engaging. Looking forward to seeing what else your son ends up doing as a high school ‘drop out’.