06/05/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

You Don't Need School for That

While I was researching my new book Don't Go Back to School, I spoke with over 100 independent learners, ranging from high school dropouts to folks with graduate degrees, all of whom have learned what they love and do outside of classrooms.

When I asked the (highly successful) high school dropouts if their educations and professional success had suffered by not going to college, they said mainly they had missed out on a common social experience. Things like "doing Jello shots" and "learning to do my own laundry." One very nerdy college dropout who is now an electrical engineer told me the main thing he learned in college was how to talk to girls.

Given the current crisis in American higher education, those are some pretty expensive Jello shots.

You won't be surprised when I tell you I have the utmost faith that anyone can figure out the washing machine on their own. But you might be when I tell you that it's possible to get a challenging, rigorous, satisfying, useful, respectable education outside of traditional school. That's because school doesn't have a monopoly on learning, and learning is what it's all about.

This is incredibly important now. School is broken and we all know it. The value -- in every sense -- of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt as they graduate into an economy with a shrinking middle class and dwindling opportunities for good jobs and social mobility. Even as it becomes clearer and clearer every day that degrees may not increase their likelihood of getting a job, people keep piling up debt in hopes that it will pay off -- in part because they may not know they have viable educational alternatives.

The fact is they do. More and more people are getting their educations outside of formal school by choice and by necessity. Over the past year and a half, I've researched the habits and methods of people who are finding ways to teach themselves and succeed in their careers without an academic stamp of approval. That's essential information for learners, educators, and tech entrepreneurs who are trying to solve educational problems--here's a few hints for you from 100 people who are making it work.

Learning outside of formal school isn't easy (neither is school if you're getting the most out of it). Since most of us grew up associating learning with traditional school, we may feel at sea without an established infrastructure for learning. Syllabi to show us an accepted path, teachers to help us through it, ways to get feedback on our progress, ready-made learning communities, a way to develop professional networks that help with careers later, and physical resources like equipment and libraries are pieces of infrastructure that school, in its best and most ideal form, provides. The problem is, most students don't encounter school in its best and most ideal form.

People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.

There are as many ways to do this as there are individual learners, but my research revealed four common themes shared by almost every successful form of learning outside of school. Taken together, they're an instructive portrait of the future of learning.

• Going it alone isn't effective. The majority of my interviewees stressed that their primary learning strategy is finding people to learn from and with. Independent learning is interdependent learning.

• You can prove yourself without credentials. For many professions, credentials aren't necessary, and the processes for getting credentials are changing. Independent learners' entire approach to education is a stellar job qualification: the ability to learn on the job.

• You'll probably have more fun. My interviewees reported that the most effective, satisfying learning happens outside of school.

• You learn better if you know why you are doing it. People who are happiest with their learning process and most effective at learning new things -- in any educational environment -- are people who are learning for the right reasons and who reflect on their own way of learning to figure out which processes and methods work best for them.

I'm not a reformer and I'm not here to fix school. I'm interested in a more revolutionary project to transform learning. All the energy and money reformers spend trying to fix school misses the real problem: we don't have good alternatives for people who want to learn without going to school, for people who don't learn well in school settings, or for those who can't afford it. We need to change that--school should be one among many options, rather than the only option. And learning that happens outside of school should be as respected as learning stamped with a degree.