Why Does the Legacy School System Work the Way it Does?

Few Americans would argue our legacy school system is effective. Most of us are looking for something better for our kids. The current grade school through high school system gained popularity because of its effectiveness at training interchangeable parts within the British Imperial Empire. It did a great job at this, but the world has shifted holistically from imperialism to capitalism while schooling models have only updated iteratively.

We must stop retooling a factory designed to create interchangeable cogs and explore building a new factory—a factory optimized to foster individual strengths, independent thought, emotional control, and internal motivation.

The few schooling models that attempt to make any real change to the existing system mostly do so by keeping the bones of the current model while lowering the amount of structure given to kids, slightly tweaking the time they spend on a specific task, or adding basic training in engineering or emotional control to the curriculum.

Even the most successful of these alternate models—Montessori—was designed almost a hundred years ago based on a much smaller pool of data than that to which we now have access.

What if we rethought schooling from the ground up to prepare current and future generations for the world as it exists and prepare individuals to master both the world and themselves? What if we studied how kids learn and develop emotionally to custom build an evidence-based system using empirical findings and research rather than tradition?

What if we prepared kids to master the current world, and through that mastery, reshape it into something better?

Systematic research on genuinely novel—as opposed to iterative—educational systems is rare for an obvious reason: Collecting even a single data point can cost one person their childhood and a failed test can dramatically negatively affect someone's life. Fortunately, we can draw from natural experiments that stem from kids who grew up in unusual circumstances. One of these is the unschooling model.

The Unschooling Model

An Overview

The unschooling model presents an interesting, radical trend in education among some homeschooling families that provides fascinating insight into how kids act when not given educational direction.

The unschooling model asks how kids would develop educationally if almost everything we associate with school were stripped away: No tests; no set subjects; no schedule. Instead, unschooling lets students' study whatever interests them whenever they want.

While we think the unschooling model goes too far, it does act as an intriguing control and yields a valuable baseline. In the absence of any structure, what will unschooled kids actually learn by young adulthood and how prepared will they be for the world? Through answering these questions, we can better understand what structure is actually needed to teach kids.

The Effects of Unschooling

One study with 232 participants by Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College, found that around 83% of unschoolers go on to pursue some form of higher education, with 44% completing at least a bachelor's degree (these included degrees at an even range of colleges, ranging from Ivy League universities to state schools). This is markedly better than the general population, with 66.9% for men and 71.3% for women pursuing higher education after high school. Unschoolers furthermore beat the general population in terms of college completion, which currently sits at 36.7% for men and 38.3% for women. In fact, the average unschooling student starts taking college courses at the age of 16. Thus, it would seem that if we view unschooling as the default, the traditional school system slightly hurts rather than helps a child's ability to get into college and thrive once there.

While the above study did not account for participants' socioeconomic conditions, essentially doing nothing shouldn't even come close to achieving the same results of a long-standing education system, much less producing worse outcomes, regardless of demographic externalities. This is the most extensive study that currently exists, however we are conducting another with more controls. 

Academic Achievement

What effect does the absence of traditional educational structure have on children's and adolescents' academic achievement and learning? Here the results seem to closely match what we see from studies on homeschoolers and other less structured learning environments. While unschoolers come out ahead on average, they usually fall behind in math. (Out of fourteen peer-reviewed papers on homeschooling, eleven found students came out higher than average academically than non-homeschoolers.) In addition, unschoolers often develop problems with test anxiety, not knowing how to handle the judgment and time pressure associated with testing they encounter for the first time in college. Finally, a lack of socialization and feelings of social isolation appear to be major concerns for many unschooled children.

Student Satisfaction

What do the children think of these radical systems? Out of the 232 participants mentioned earlier, only three reported dissatisfaction with the experience and in all three of the cases the poor mental health of their primary caregiver was noted as the reason for this dissatisfaction (with religious extremism being cited as an additional issue in two of those cases). Contrast this 1% dissatisfaction rate with the 75% of kids dissatisfied with traditional schooling systems. Obviously, selection bias is at play here because it would be unethical to randomly assign families to an unschooling vs non-unschooling condition. However, this is not relevant in the creation of our schooling alternative because it will be subject to the same selection pressures and is not designed to replace the general education system for all families.

The László Polgár Case Study

Data in Case Studies

If the traditional schooling system has a largely negative effect on educational outcomes, are there any sources of data on radical educational structures that have proactively created a dramatic positive effect? Here we will need to turn to case studies, with that of László Polgár being one of the most informative as it involves “shot calling.” Were you to interview parents of the fastest kids in the world about how to make fast kids, you would likely get a just-so story, as someone will inevitably be one of the fastest people in the world. However, if a parent says they will train the fastest kid in the world and then ten years later this kid breaks world speed records, you know they likely had some influence on that outcome given how rare a claim like that is. László Polgár represents an example of this kind of "shot calling" and an example from which  we can glean some insight.

László Polgár

In the 1960s, László Polgár put out an ad looking for a wife to attempt to create genius children after extensively studying education and top achievers. He decided to focus on an area of education where he could achieve an objective measure of the outcome: Chess. Of his three daughters, the worst was the sixth best women in the world at chess; Polgár's two other daughters were the first best and second best—with one being considered the best female chess player in history. The day in 1989 when the 14-year-old Sofia Polgár beat several grand masters to record the best open tournament performance to date is known in chess history as “the Sack of Rome.”

While the effects of László Polgár’s educational method are somewhat mythologized, it appears the core difference was early exposure to experts in the field who engaged with them as equals. This small iteration on the educational process allowed for reliable production of individuals at the top end of a skill set in human history. A system designed to achieve something similar at scale for more practical skill sets can have world-changing impact.

Insights Gained From Polgár and Unschooling

What can we learn from these new and more extreme data sets about radical education alternatives that were not available when the last holistically new education systems were under development?

While unschooling appears to prejudice good results in terms of educational attainment and success in adulthood, its primary drawbacks are threefold:

  • Unschooling students may develop crippling test anxiety upon entering college and being forced to compete against other students who have been taking timed tests their entire lives.
  • The self-driven approach leads some to fall behind in math and other subjects in which they have little interest.
  • Unschooling can hurt students' social development and lead to feelings of isolation.

From László Polgár's case study, we learn:

  • Engagement with domain experts can supercharge a student's education.

The Collins Institute for the Gifted

The Collins Institute is designed to address shortcomings of the above models by creating a dynamic reward structure that, while still giving students control over their education process, ensures they don’t fall behind in any subject (incentives inflate when a student is behind on a subject and deflate when they are advanced) and enables students to engage with experts after proving their mastery. It also offers experience with timed testing environments in a manner that gives students control over when they engage with this aspect of the model.


If you pay someone to perform an action they previously enjoyed, completing that task will yield less joy. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that introducing an extrinsic motivation (like offering money or video games as a reward for tidying a room or reading) lowers motivation related to action people would otherwise take without compensation.

Researchers have yet to find a reliable way to increase or inspire intrinsic motivation related to subjects that students are not already intrinsically motivated to explore. Intrinsic motivation can be dampened, nudged, or kindled, but not reliably manifested.

The core failure of the traditional school system is that it neglects to recognize the power of letting intrinsic motivation fuel a student's education. The core failure of unschooling and other self directed models like Sudbury is that they neglect to recognize that almost no student is intrinsically motivated to learn every skill that’s needed to thrive in the adult world.

The Institute is designed to dynamically introduce extrinsic motivation only in areas where a student lacks intrinsic motivation. Simultaneously, the Institute rewards intrinsic motivation with more and deeper access to the things about which the student is passionate (e.g., through the mentor program).