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Why Education and Schooling Are Not the Same Thing: An Interview with Zak Slayback

December 11–15, 2017   |   Vol. 132, Week 14

When you think of the word “education,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably a school or a classroom, right?

Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, hear speaker and entrepreneur Zak Slayback explain why education and schooling are actually very different things.

In this podcast, you’ll learn:

  • What the purpose of education is
  • Why Zak changed his mind about homeschooling
  • What the status quo bias is and how it affects the way we view education
  • Why it’s important for people to take control of their own education
  • The secret to getting the most out of education

“The purpose of education for anybody is to equip that person with the psychological, cognitive, physical, and philosophical, and spiritual tools to lead a fulfilled life.” — Zak Slayback

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When you think of the word “education,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably a school or a classroom, right? Well today on Homeschool Heartbeat, hear speaker and entrepreneur Zak Slayback explain why education and schooling are actually two very different things.

Mike Smith: My guest today is Zak Slayback. Zak is an entrepreneur in the field of education and professional development and he speaks regularly to teachers, homeschool groups, and businesses. He’s the author of a book called The End of School: Reclaiming Education From the Classroom. Zak, it’s great to have you with us today.

Zak Slayback: Hey Mike, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate the work that you guys do.

Mike: Well, thank you.

Education vs. schooling [0:42]

Mike: Zak, the central premise of your book, and that’s what we’re talking about here, is the idea that education and schooling are not the same thing. What do you mean by that?

Zak: So, what I mean by that is that a lot of people make this mistake that they think in order to be well educated, somebody has to go to school, and that education happens in a classroom, right? And I think homeschoolers are well aware of the fact [that] that’s not the case, but I go a step further and I even say that, often times, school runs counter to actually making a good education for people.

Mike: So, what would you say the purpose of education is, then?

Zak: The purpose of education for anybody is to equip that person with the psychological, cognitive, physical, and philosophical, and spiritual tools to lead a fulfilled life.

Mike: So, do you see that coming out of the public schools today?

Zak: I mean, I think you can look at the fact that depression among young people under the age of 30 is at its highest ever since that statistic has been collected, that shows you that that’s not happening.

Mike: So, the illiteracy rate is a little higher than it used to be?

Zak: Oh yeah. I remember reading in one of John Taylor Gatto’s books that the literacy rate was higher back before compulsory schooling. 

Making a U-turn [1:52]

Mike: Zak, I understand that you attended public school growing up (and I did too). What was your experience like and how did that lead you to write this book, The End of School?

Zak: You know, my public school was unremarkable. I had a relatively good, rural school district. The book is actually dedicated to two teachers I had who are what I call laissez-faire teachers—very hands-off. They let me pursue the things I wanted to pursue and learn about the things I wanted to pursue. But, you know, I find it funny because if you ever talk to people about their schools or their children’s schools, they’ll always tell you, “I think schools need to be reformed, but my kid goes to a good school,” or “I went to a good school.” And it’s kind like how people think about their congressmen. Congress’s approval rating is like 7%, but everyone likes their own congressman, so there’s something weird going on there.

Mike: So let’s ask you about how you first heard about homeschooling and what was your reaction to it?

Zak: You know, I think I had the interaction that most people have—they meet a homeschooler somewhere in their school district and I was like, “Okay, I think people should be allowed to do this, but it seems a bit odd to me.”

Mike: So, at some point, did you change your mind about homeschooling being odd?

Zak: Oh, absolutely! I had the opportunity to interact with a lot of homeschoolers over the last couple years through a number of the different things that I’ve built, and I found that they were on average much better socialized than a lot of the kids I was interacting with in traditional schools. They were much more fulfilled, much happier, they knew what they wanted to pursue. I had a total 180 on any of the preconceived notions I had.

Mike: Well, Zak, would you be surprised that we agree with you 100%?

Zak: Not exactly surprised, thankfully.

The status quo bias [3:29]

Mike: Zak, can you explain what the “status quo bias” is and how it can affect a person’s approach to education?

Zak: So, anytime you want to change anything or reform anything from a given status quo that’s already existing, the burden is almost always put on the person who wants to change things to prove what’s wrong with what we’re currently doing. And you see this with schooling. Over time, schooling and advocates of compulsory schooling—state compulsory schooling—co-opted the word education. If you ever want to say “Hey, maybe education doesn’t have to happen in the classroom,” you’re the one who has the bigger burden to over common. And that’s unfortunately the experience a lot of people have when they want to step outside the traditional school system.

Mike: Well, that’s true. So what are the most common arguments against homeschooling that you hear and how do you respond to them?

Zak: I tend to hear two different arguments that are really, really common. The one is, you know, “How will they be socialized?” Which I find really silly because, again, in my experience you occasionally run into the weird homeschooled kid, but you also really run into like the weird kid who went to the normal school, right? So you can’t compare it against some sort of perfect system where someone’s going to be perfectly socialized, whatever that’s supposed to mean. And I tend to find, on average, a lot of the homeschoolers I meet, as children and as young adults, are very, very well socialized because they’re not only interacting with people who are their same age. The idea that people should only interact with people their same age is so absurd and artificial—it’s mind-boggling to me that that’s what people think is normal.

And then the other really common one that I’ll run into, is that there’s like this certain set of things that everyone has to learn. You know, “Insert my pet subject here, how will they learn this?” And the reality is that most people learn really well as they need to learn. And again, [when] you compare this to the realistic alternative that’s on the table, you really can’t say that most schools are teaching people what they need to be taught.

Taking control of your education [5:20]

Mike: Zak, in your book, you mention the concept of de-schooling yourself.  What does that mean, and why is it a helpful mindset to have?

Zak: Yeah, I think that people through a dozen years of schooling—as some of my friends like to say, life in the United States a 13-year mandatory minimum, K through 12—and through those years, people learn to react to the world in certain ways, like there are certain incentives that you have to react to. Life is a test and you have to study for it and there are certain things you have to know before you’re allowed to do anything, you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom and all these ridiculous little things that the real world is nothing like. De-schooling is the process of taking that system, that mindset, breaking it apart, and seeing that the world is a much more complex place, there are a lot of ways to solve problems, and that fulfillment comes from more than just checking a box and getting a gold star.

Mike: Well Zak, that sounds like a great idea, but what are the benefits that you see from taking control of your own education?

Zak: You know, one of my heroes is the author John Taylor Gatto, and he has a section in one of his books where he says very well-schooled children tend to do well in life until the bottom falls out—they have a particularly nasty divorce, there’s corporate downsizing, something like that—and then they’ve no idea how to navigate the world. And this is exactly what you see when you see a lot of people, successful students, come out of college at 22, 23, 24 years old and they have a quarter-life crisis.

The benefit of taking control of your own education, besides the fact that you’re able to learn the things you actually need to learn, you don’t have to take a mandatory underwater basket-weaving course, is that it’s much easier for people who control their own education to craft meaning for themselves through their work because they understand that life is more than just getting gold stars. 

Know why [6:58]

Mike: Zak, we spent a lot of time this week talking about theoretical concepts, but we shouldn’t stop there. How can our listeners, both parents and children, translate the ideas we discussed into real world results and really make education work for them?

Zak: The thing I’d say more than anything else is: know what you’re trying to go for, especially as you get older, right, as children become young adults and as young adults try to pursue different types of education to achieve the things they want to do. Know what you’re going for, you know.

The people I’ve met who are the most unfulfilled or have the most problems with school—they don’t know why they’re in school, they don’t know why they’re in college, they don’t know why they’re pursuing a specific thing. This is one of the things that I think really made my personal feelings for homeschooling particularly strong: I tend to find more often homeschoolers have a better idea of what they’re trying to pursue. So, know you’re going for. As children get older and they become young adults, I’m a huge advocate of real-world education. Get out of the of the home or of the co-op, of wherever you’re doing your education and go work. Have the opportunity to apprentice under people—not just, you know, plumbers and electricians, and those are great jobs and people need to do those, but also go apprentice under people who are doing sales and marketing people who are community activists, all these other people. Get out there into the real world. Apply the things you learn, and get that real feedback loop.

Mike: Zak, what age do you think we could start thinking about sending our children out to do that real-world experience you’re talking about?

Zak: I mean, I really think the younger the better. There is an old story about Richard Branson and his mother taking him across London and him finding his way home on the subway without an escort when he was like 10. And your listeners are familiar with Lenore Skenazy, who was dubbed the worst mom in America for letting her kid do that. 

The younger the better. You know, push the envelope a little bit. I think at the very least they need to be doing something like that about the time they’re 13.

Mike: Well thank you, Zak. And I want to thank you very much for taking the time to join us this week as we discuss these foundational ideas. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and I know our listeners have enjoyed this time as well. Until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Zak SlaybackPhoto of Zak Slayback

Zak Slayback (@zslayback) is an author and entrepreneur in education and professional development. He is the author of The End of School: Reclaiming Education from the Classroom and of the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down. He writes at ZakSlayback.com and speaks regularly to teachers, homeschool groups, and businesses about how to make education serve students. He is currently writing How to Get Ahead When You Have Nothing to Offer, due out in early 2018.

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