“I Just Want to Learn Things, You Know?”

I recently had a 17-year-old attending an urban public high school (not in New York City) staying with me for a couple of days. I asked him how school was going. He said he was so bored he could hardly stand it. He said school was not relevant at all, and that all the teachers do is spend time taking cell phones away.

I asked him if he struggled at all in school. He said he did what he needed to do to get good grades, without indicating that it took a lot of effort. Then I asked him about college, and got this response:

“I’m done with school. I just want to learn things, you know?”

His eyes lit up as he detailed how, instead of college, he wanted to pick four or five things he loves to do and that he would build his own syllabus, spending time in each area—guitar, entrepreneurship and finance (he wants to run his own business one day), and another language were at the top of the list—on his own time from real experts. He could not conceive of a high school or college that could offer him this experience.

It reminded me that along with revamping the place, time, and ways that older youth learn, we need to think about how to rise above their skepticism, calcified by years of boredom and coursework that feels unchallenging and irrelevant.

But it also reminded me that we have an almost infinite untapped resource, the desire of so many youth to take charge of their own learning. What an amazingly powerful thing.

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About Saskia Traill

Saskia is TASC’s Vice President for Policy and Research. She leads our policy development and advocacy work, oversees independent evaluation of TASC initiatives and works with our team of TASC researchers investigating the most urgent questions in the field of expanded learning opportunities. She came to TASC and New York from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland.