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Many teens find school stifling, stressful and depressing. So why don't we reinvent it?

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Image: Flickr/Megan Skelly

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"Quietly, in the background, teens are dropping like flies."
This statement comes from one of the newest teens to join Compass, an articulate young woman we'll call Teagan. Teagan suggests that if parents were really willing to listen to young people, they would find that more kids than they think suffer from "complications from school," a list that might include mental illness, an inclination to vandalize, or simply not having a clue what their interests or passions are.

While school works for some, for many kids it's a stressful place to spend seven hours a day. And then it follows you home.

Why is school so taxing for kids? In Teagan's case, school sapped her energy to pursue her passions, which include film, art, reading, politics, nature or time with her family (yes, she actually said that). She was willing to play along during school hours and do what was required of her. She said this in an offhand way, and her choice of words struck me.

Her language implies that her participation in class did not stem from anything other than pleasing others. And when it came to homework, she is especially passionate. She asserts that her home time should be her own, and that homework had no point for her -- save to cause anxiety and take her away from the things she cared most about. Most poignantly, homework made her home feel like it was no longer a safe haven. She felt invaded.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we know that deep and powerful learning comes from intrinsic motivation. It is the ingredient that makes the learning stick.

The disconnect between traditional school and the post-internet world is only growing wider. While the current system feels comfortable to many parents, the fact is that we have a traditional system preparing young people for a future of non-traditional work. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 65 per cent of today's young people will end up holding jobs that don't even exist yet.

The Institute for the Future's list of the top 10 capabilities employers will be seeking includes such skills as sense making, social intelligence, and novel and adaptive thinking. Rather than memorizing any specific content, the most crucial skills are intrinsic motivation, vision, and creative and critical thinking.
Teagan wonders why the story: "Teens Deeply Dissatisfied and Adversely Affected By School" isn't on the front page of every newspaper. Could it be that the adult world has fallen asleep at the wheel on this one? Have we assumed that, because most of us followed this path, that it's the only legitimate means to become a successful adult?

Teens like Teagan are on to something. They are able to verbalize what many young people feel on a less conscious level. Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning is a haven for such young people.

The truth is that we expect things of young people that we as adults would not choose for ourselves. Ironically, schools are simply not structured around how we best learn. Research does not support age-segregated learning, time limits, discrete subjects, external rewards or learning not based on interest -- which is the way most schools are modeled.

Learning is something you do. It's developing habits of mind based on intrinsic motivation -- not something packaged and delivered before the age of 18. 

In truth, we do not trust that young people want to learn. What might happen if we gave them our trust?

Abby Karos is the co-founder and director of Compass Centre Centre for Self-Directed Learning ([email protected]). Compass is currently accepting applications for the 2016-17 academic year. 

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Image: Flickr/Megan Skelly

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