By Jane Mount/MindShift
By Jane Mount/MindShift

When Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski was dissecting a sheep’s heart during an eighth-grade science class, she had an epiphany that changed her life. “That heart told the story of anatomy and physiology!” she said.

Realizing that science is best communicated through stories, Cueva-Dabkoski, now just 19 years old, went on to explore beetles in China. She’s now at Johns Hopkins University, and continues to do research during breaks.

Cueva-Dabkoski is considered an “Extreme Learner,” a designation applied to just 12 individuals by the Institute for the Future, for her radical and gutsy approach to learning. Extreme Learners are self-directed, wide-ranging in their interests, comfortable with technology, and adept at building communities around their interests.

“Extreme learners aren’t so different from everybody else,” said Milton Chen, a fellow at the Institute for the Future and advocate for education reform. “We picked people who are extreme in their passion for learning.” They are also willing to go their own way when traditional educational institutions interfere with their pursuits.

Thomas Hunt, for example, another designated “extreme learner,” dropped out of high school when he was 14 to work on cancer research. Always interested in science, he found high school stultifying and needlessly time-consuming. Kids of varied interests were thrown together and taught in “the cookie-cutter method,” he said. After he left, Hunt found like-minded learners when he became one of 20 Thiel Fellows, formerly known as “20 Under 20,” which paid him $100,000 to drop out of school for two years and pursue his studies. “For some kids who have a vision of what they’re interested in, high school is not for them,” he said.

This was also true for Marc Roth, another extreme learner who dropped out of high school three times and never finished his community college education. (He earned his high school equivalency degree in three weeks.) Today, Roth is the founder of the Learning Shelter, a 90-day training program that teaches homeless people high-tech manufacturing skills. Roth is 40, and his improbable path to the Learning Shelter included delivering pizzas, programming and consulting in IT, sailing the seas on a cruise ship, and starting his own business. When that business collapsed, and Roth’s net worth fell from $21 million to nothing, he moved to San Francisco and lived in his car. When his car was broken into, Roth decamped to a homeless shelter for five months.

Roth reversed his fortune — and earned his bona fides as an Extreme Learner — when he was broke and living in the shelter.  He heard others talking about a nearby TechShop, and decided to scrape up the $59 membership fee and give it a try. TechShops are stand-alone buildings with staffs and million-dollar tools that train high-tech skills to anyone interested and able to afford the modest fee; set up with laser cutters and plastics labs, among other tools, they are meant to promote creativity and skill-development. Roth devoured the learning opportunities at the TechShop in San Francisco, starting with sewing and vinyl cutting, and within two months moved from pupil to teacher. “When I only had pennies to my name, I turned everything I had into education instead of comforts or niceties,” he said.


It’s the hunger for learning rather than raw intellect that distinguishes Extreme Learners from the gifted. Intensely motivated and harboring a breadth of interests, they also consider ignorance a temporary and reparable condition.

Lenore Edman, for example, who along with her husband designs and produces robotic kits for their company Evil Mad Scientist, is motivated by what she doesn’t know. “I’ve recognized that this is what makes me different: I may not know it, but I don’t see it has a barrier,” she said, reflecting the premise behind the growth mindset disposition. “The most extreme thing is not being afraid to learn new things,” she added.

In her work, Edman erases boundaries between math and food, electricity and paper crafts. Recently, she sewed what she called a “missile command skirt,” styled after a vintage video game, and built a “circuitry snack” out of candy. “It was a fun project because we got to eat the candy at the end,” she said. She’s most interested in what happens when different fields intersect, and looks for ways to take the tools of one field and apply them to another.

What’s the lesson here for schools? In short, standardization, repetition, and rigidity are deadly for the curious. “Nothing bores me more than seeing a list of redundant facts I have to memorize,” Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski said. Biology class dragged for Thomas Hunt, but the school turned him down when he tried to replace a few classes with work in a lab outside school. “High school is a big day care system,” Roth said.

Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski
Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski

But some schools have figured out how to engage their inquisitive students. Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski attended Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, an arts-based school that rewarded exploration and free choice. “We were given a ridiculous amount of time to read and explore,” she said, which allowed her to discover her genuine interests. The school also encouraged creativity through arts, which Cueva-Dabkoski credits with stimulating her enthusiasm for the Brazilian arts. Outside school, she joined an Afro-Brazilian dance troupe and taught dance to kids in Oakland.

“Of all the places in school, in art kids can create exactly what they want,” she said. And in a conflict between depth and breadth of learning, the school rewarded depth. Rather than memorize the dates and key figures in World War II, for example, students were encouraged to go deep on one particular person or event. Time, freedom, and space to make art crystalized for Cueva-Dabkoski, who is scurrying to publish her extracurricular research on beetles before the summer ends and Johns Hopkins beckons.

“If you put the pieces together, you see a movement,” Chen said. Along with MakerLabs, Maker Faires, and TechShops, all of which foster independent learning and creativity, Extreme Learners have indulged their intellectual passions in their own time and on their own terms. Formal educational institutions have little to do with it.

“The main takeaway for teachers is, give students more flexibility and choice over what they’re working on,” Milton Chen said. “Give kids the tools to identify their interests and gather information. And help them find like-minded people to work with.”

What Makes an ‘Extreme Learner’? 24 February,2015Linda Flanagan

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  • Mark Mullin

    I like the concept – but precious little concern is shown for the hit and miss approach – being lucky enough to become a Thiel fellow, or land where $59 gives you the million dollar tooling to accomplish something – how many equivalent minds were lost because lady luck was not so kind? Having been a guy who bet on OOP when it was most certainly not cool (and I was already neglecting that college degree thing 🙂 ) I did get well enough positioned to write a book in 89 – but in the early ’80s I paid blood for that choice/perceived mistake. Valuing and empowering minds like these is indeed critical for any society that desires forward progress, however, the process is complex and maddening, like the people and skills involved. For anyone in a modern technology space, it is a never ending process, as every five years fundamentally represents an aggregate recycle of most of one’s technical knowledge. Telling teachers ‘oh be more flexible’ is a waste of time. The process lasts a lifetime. How long will those teachers be there ? As is often said, the best teachers do not teach you anything. They teach you to _learn_ anything. Trust me – I had some really good teachers – and I may have given some of them (hopefully temporary) drinking problems.
    The question is not ‘how do we change our systems, e.g. schools, to address this’ – It is ‘what do we need to replace our old systems with’.

  • Apple4321

    Watch all the videos and share your own extreme learning story on IFTF’s page:

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  • realistic4U

    The problem with giving students choices about their learning is that they may not do well in standardized tests.

    • Tinaina

      It’s the standardised tests that are part of the problem for ‘extreme learners’.

      • jax

        Some areas test too much, but all testing isn’t bad. Anyone who is smart enough to be an “extreme learner” should have the patience to sit through a few hours of filling in bubbles.

        • realistic4U

          The student’s described here, might focus deeply only one aspect of learning, and perhaps leave the others for later.He might study deeply about the French Revolution, but not so much about the Russian. He would do poorly on the test.

    • Brenda

      I would change it a bit: The problem with giving choices about their learning is that children may not become “standardized” enough to do well on tests. Tests are about adults, not the kids…it is such a loss of potential IMO.

      • realistic4U

        Good thought

    • Leslie Pasinski Drury

      Then don’t do standardized tests. Here in WA State, parents can opt out students from testing. What’s the point anyway? When I was in school I was an excellent student and had an insatiable curiosity. I read every moment I could. I still like to “know” things at age 59 and I challenge myself to learn new skills. Testing me right now would absolutely kill my motivation, as it does for many students in public schools. I think we should do away with grades and standardized tests and focus on letting students grow and learn at their own pace. Let them explore and be curious, help them to be excited about learning something new. School should not be a factory where we deposit kids and spit them out at the other end.

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  • Tinaina

    Nice story, but it realy makes me wonder what criteria the ‘Institute for the Future’ is using to determine whether someone’s an extreme learner. Is it the extensive curiosity and wanting to know? The world’s full of those. Is it the not-fitting-into-the-traditional-school-system or even drop-out factor, based on this same wanting to learn? I know quite a few people like that, and that’s only in my limited personal environment.
    Is it the amount of recognition and success that followed in the end? It seems like this is the most distinguishing characteristic in the case of the 12 people assigned by this institute.
    This particular criterium does not cover what seems the true sense of what the concept of extreme learning sounds like to me.

    • Tinaina

      Sorry for the typo…

  • jax

    I’m sorry, but saying that “memorization is a waste of time”, as one of the student (essentially) did, makes a mockery of this whole category that the article tries to construct. It’s great that she thinks a sheep’s heart tells a story, but it’s knowing what a valve does, what it’s called, how many there are, etc. is something that must be _memorized_. It’s one thing to say “memorization for the sake of memorization is silly” (I might argue), but it’s quite another to say _all_ memorization is silly, boring, or useless. And not particularly an attitude of someone who is curious or likes learning.

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  • Klein Samuel

    I’ll take the other side of this. First of all I am an extreme learner in that what I know as an adult for all intents and purposes came from self and very much hands on learning and while I did very well in k-12 education I struggled in College. The reason why, even though several people tried to give me this excuse and out clause, wasn’t that the education system was failing me, ultimately it was that I was too undisciplined (and too arrogant) to do the work to learn. If you consider the fact that many of these extreme learning types of programs are really at their core a form of entertainment (and only marginally education) its easy to see why they connect for many people (not just kids) where traditional education fails.

    This is a significantly more expensive way to try and educate people and while its popular to think it should be this way maybe a broader set of people, it simply doesn’t scale. Likewise, when you add the rest of the eduction process into this (you know that boring part about learning how the thing actually works, the math, the science, the memorization) you’ll find that the same lack of discipline that frequently lead to the learning problems with this group of people comes right back and they often turn off again. So if you want an expensive, non-scalable system that only teaches a candy-coated version of knowledge then this is it!

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  • Atlas Educational

    “In short, standardization, repetition, and rigidity are deadly for the curious.” wow….That has always been me.

  • Jade McKay

    Democratic schools and approaches are certainly an interesting theoretical approach. They can work well with kids who are engaged in learning, and academically capable. They also work well for students whose background at home prioritises education, and learning for learning’s sake.

    The issues are in trusting teachers to guide these students appropriately, and in the fact that not all students are equally motivated at young ages. But we have a responsibility to try to provide them with at least a basic education that will prepare them for further vocational or academic learning. Furthermore, the running of these program’s requires a significantly higher level of resource provision than most governments are willing to contemplate.

  • “LUCK” also plays a important role for “EXTREME LEARNERS”.

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  • HopewellKat

    “The main takeaway for teachers…” ??? Teachers, in most schools have little to no say in curriculum… That comes from test companies, institutes, foundations, superintendent organizations, cohorts, and too many other groups that don’t include teachers…

  • Sharon

    What is interesting is that you differentiate extreme learners FROM gifted individuals when in fact one of the most distinguishable traits of giftedness IS the “rage to learn” Giftedness is not about what a person knows or how much they have the potential to know – its about that internal innate insatiable drive to learn and master. What you are describing in “Extreme Learners” IS giftedness in action……


Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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