Ep. 177: Big Ideas – “Unschooled” with Kerry McDonald

May 7, 2020

In this episode of our Big Ideas series, we sit down with Kerry McDonald to discuss her book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside of the Conventional Classroom.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m delighted to be joined by Kerry MacDonald. She’s a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and co-founder and CEO of unschool.school. She’s also the author of the book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside of the Conventional Classroom, which is the subject of our conversation today. Kerry, welcome to the podcast.

Kerry McDonald: Great to be here, Jason. Thanks.

Jason Bedrick: So, in this series we’re interviewing authors of a variety of different books and essays on education policy and practice. And we’ve already run one recently on classical education, which, though it comes in many forms, tends to be very methodical, very focused on a particular canon of knowledge with a very rich curriculum that the students follow. Unschooling, however, is a very different approach. So, what is unschooling?

Kerry McDonald: Well, unschooling, the way I define it in my book, is really this idea of disentangling education from schooling. So, recognizing that schooling and its various approaches and philosophies is one method of being educated. But there are a whole host of ways that humans can be educated. And it really hinges on this premise that humans are naturally curious that we have a drive for learning and for doing and for discovery. And that if we simply create environments that facilitate curiosity and creativity in children and help them to pursue their passions and talents, then that human curiosity and drive will lead young people to continue to learn and discover and do on through adulthood.

And my colleague, Peter Gray, who is a Boston College psychology professor and an advocate for self-directed education, wrote the forward to my Unschooled book. And he talks a lot about this sort of human curiosity and drive for learning. And what he says is that these drives don’t turn themselves off magically when a child hits five or six years old, we turn them off with a coercive system of schooling. And so the idea with unschooling and self-directed education more broadly is let’s just not turn off those drives. Let’s create the conditions that allow children and young people to drive their own education, supporting them, connecting them to resources, and helping them to really discover their true talents and passions.

Jason Bedrick: All right, so clearly education is not synonymous with schooling. This is a mistake that we often think, someone asks about your education, most people are likely to talk about, “Oh well I went to this type of school or I have this particular degree or I graduated from high school,” or something like that. But education is obviously a lot more than just what takes place in a formal classroom. And unschooling it seems is very much centered around, as you noted, this idea of self-directed education. Does that mean necessarily that it’s home schooling or can this also take place in a building with a bunch of other children led by somebody that’s, you might call a teacher, in an environment that we might call a school?

Kerry McDonald: That’s right. So, it does encompass both. And in fact in my book I really felt privileged to be able to share the stories of the individuals, families, organizations and unschooling alumni who have learned this way or who are creating spaces for others to learn this way. And so home schooling is certainly one avenue for self-directed education. I estimate that about 20 percent of the 2 million U.S. home schoolers take a self-directed or unschooled approach to learning. But I also spotlight many of these self-directed learning centers and unschooling types of schools like the Sudbury model of education for example, that really focus on creating spaces that facilitate self-directed education.

So, unschooling is not just learning at home as sort of a version of home schooling. It really takes place in all kinds of different locations, different models of learning centers and schools as well as other kinds of community-based programs.

Jason Bedrick: Now, would this encompass things like Waldorf or Montessori or is this different from those approaches?

Kerry McDonald: Yeah, that’s a really good question, because I think that a lot of the self-directed education is probably closest to something like Montessori education and this idea of child-driven, child-directed, but it’s slightly different in that even with Montessori, and particularly Waldorf education, there is still a curriculum. There is still an expectation of what young people will learn and do at certain stages. There’s a sequence in terms of things that a young person should be able to master before they move on to something else and unschooling and self-directed education doesn’t follow that. So, it sort of rejects the idea of an adult-imposed curriculum and instead allows the young person’s interests to really drive learning.

Jason Bedrick: So, obviously there’s no typical day in an unschooling environment, but could you walk us through an example of what an unschooling day might look like?

Kerry McDonald: Yeah, I think you’re right. There really is no sort of common day or typical day in an unschooling environment and probably in a home schooling environment for that matter. But with unschooling, it really focuses on the young person’s interests and what they’re particularly interested in that time. So, I can tell you a little bit about my four unschooled children that I do weave throughout the book. They attend a self-directed learning center a couple of days a week that’s here near Boston, Massachusetts where I am. They take various music classes that they’re interested in, they take classes at museums and at the library, they take martial arts classes, my two girls. My son does a lot of skateboarding, so it’s really just fitting classes and activities and programming around the young person’s interests.

Jason Bedrick: All right, but what if a kid just wants to spend all his time on video games or even they’re not just playing video games, but they’re doing something educational but they just don’t like math and so they might go their whole childhood without learning math or maybe not learning how to read? How do unschooling parents ensure that their children don’t grow up illiterate or innumerate?

Kerry McDonald: Right. I think that’s a really important question and I have sort of two responses. The first is that I always say that I think parents have the responsibility, and I say this in the book as well, to ensure that their children are highly literate and numerate. And I would say that that’s the case for parents, whether their children are homeschooled or unschooled or in school. I think that this is the parent’s obligation ultimately to ensure that their children are highly educated. And I would argue that through unschooling and self-directed education, there is really a much more robust learning, a more authentic and impactful learning occurring because it is so very tied to a young person’s interest and to connecting them to resources as opposed to imposing a top down curriculum where they may be memorizing and regurgitating information, but they’re not really learning it. It’s not really sticking.

And so, if you look at a lot of the unschooled young people that I highlight in the Unschooled book, you’ll find, for example, that they become passionate, voracious readers because they’re able to read things in early childhood that really sparked their interest and led them to want to learn more. And instead of being force-fed a particular curriculum or in many cases increasingly being expected to read at younger ages before they may be developmentally ready to do so, which can then have negative impact in terms of their ability to learn, to read and really love to read. So, if you think about what are the outcomes that we want in terms of an educated citizenry, I think a real ability and passion for reading and for knowing and for doing are sort of critical elements that all get facilitated and fostered through unschooling because of it’s focused on really meeting children where they are.

And the same thing with math. I think one of the things that we often find with math education is that a lot of people get turned off by math or they begin to internalize this idea that they’re somehow weak at math when, again, it could just be that they’re not at the right stage for learning math or the way it’s being taught to them is more of a command and control environment. And so they end up with an aversion to math that I think, again, with unschooled children you don’t really see, because there isn’t that sort of pressure cooker environment. And because math is presented in a much more playful, more authentic, more developmentally appropriate way.

It is important to note though that the definition that I like to use around unschooling is that, and it comes from Karl Wheatley, who is a professor at Cleveland State University and a researcher on unschooling. And he says, and I’m sort of paraphrasing, but he says that unschooled families are those with little or no formal adult-imposed curriculum. And so I think you do find, given that definition of unschooling, that there are many, many unschooling families that will use a little bit of a math curriculum. But the idea is that it’s not sort of this command and control approach and it’s not necessarily sort of forced math instruction in the sequential way that we would think occurs in conventional schools.

Jason Bedrick: So, that actually relates to the next question I was going to ask, which is that you say unschooling rejects the idea of adults imposing a curriculum, but you’re not saying that you reject curriculum entirely, right? So, you’re not entirely starting from scratch. You’re not just going to say, “Oh, well, there’s no need to build on the knowledge that was acquired by those who came before us.” Curriculum has a place, so the objection is primarily to imposing it, but you’ll still use it in certain circumstances.

Kerry McDonald: Well, I like to use the example of my older daughter, who’s 13, I mentioned that she and her younger sister take martial arts three times a week, something that they’ve been doing for several years now. And through her, my older daughter’s interest in martial arts, she became really interested in Korean language and culture and history because her martial arts is inspired from Korean culture. And from that she began exploring more about Korean and decided she wanted to take Korean language lessons. And so we, being unschool facilitators as her parents, connected her to some initial online language learning resources which whet her appetite and led her to say that this was something she was really interested in but she wanted something more rigorous.

And so I found a native Korean language tutor with whom she meets at the library three times a week and has been doing that for about a year and a half now with her goal of being fluent in Korean, wanting to travel and live in her later teen years in South Korea as part of an exchange program. And she uses a very formal Korean language curriculum with quizzes and homework. But the idea again is that this is self-directed. It is not that I said, “Now it’s time to learn a foreign language or now it’s time take out your Korean curriculum and your Korean homework.” It’s all being driven by her interests and passions.

And so, you’re absolutely right that unschooling doesn’t mean anti-curriculum. In fact, many unschoolers use very formal rigorous curriculum, just that it’s not this top down coercive model that we’re used to, again, in standard schooling.

Jason Bedrick: So, I think first, there’s something about unschooling I think is very unsettling for somebody who grew up in the typical American school system, right? You’re used to this system where all children that are a certain age are moving grade by grade. You’ve got grade one, grade two, grade three, there’s a sequence. Then at grade nine you start high school and unschooling sort of blows all that up. On the other hand, for those in the education reform movement, particularly the school choice wing of the education reform movement, I think there’s also something that’s very appealing. We talk all the time about we need an education system that’s geared toward the individual needs of individual children and unschooling seems to be entirely about that. Or we talk about, “Oh the problem with the Carnegie Unit, right?” That idea that all children who just happened to be born in the same year are expected to move at the same pace across all subjects.

So, if you have a child who she is advanced for her age in math, but she’s behind in reading or behind in science, we say, “Well, too bad, you’ve got to slow down in math because you got to stay with everybody else.” So, you might be bored. And while we’re just going to be forcing these scientific concepts down your throat, that you just might not be totally prepared for, you might be picking those up at a slower pace, well, too bad you’ve got to rush and keep up.” And so they end up bored in one subject, turned off in another subject. Here you have a system where they’re going at their own pace, they’re following their own interests, and so there is that joy of learning and it’s tailored to their particular needs.

So, there is something there I think that’s very, very appealing. But is this an approach you think that all schools should take or that all children should take? Or some kids but not others, because I think one objection would be, “Wow, this sounds great. It sounds like it would work for very highly motivated children.” But what about less motivated children or children that just haven’t developed sufficient self-discipline, maybe they need a more traditional classroom environment.

Kerry McDonald: Yeah, that’s a really good question, Jason. So, my overall priority is to expand educational choice and freedom and give parents many more options for their child’s education so that they can find the right path, the right place, the right approach, the right philosophy for their child and their family. So, I would never say that self-directed education is the way to go, is the only way to go. I think it’s one way and I think certainly works for our family and I try to highlight some of the reasons why I think it can be worthwhile, for many of the same reasons that you’ve just mentioned in terms of it being obviously highly individualized, focused on non-coercion, focused on a child’s interests and skills and talents and goals.

But I would never say that this is something that all schools should strive to do. Because I think, again, that the key is variety and choice and we should expand as many educational options to families as we can with as many philosophies and approaches to learning as possible.

Jason Bedrick: So, a lot of people in the education policy worlds, they want evidence, they want metrics. Do we have any evidence that the unschooling approach works better than what you might find in a typical American classroom?

Kerry McDonald: We have evidence certainly in different pockets. So, if we bundle unschoolers in with home-schoolers, we know that some of the available evidence for home-schoolers, so that home-schoolers typically do well in college and are often either at or above their peer groups in terms of test scores and outcome. In terms of democratic free schools and some of these other models that I highlight in the Unschooled book, there is also evidence that those young people grow up and have fulfilling and successful adult lives.

Unschooling specifically is under-researched. I’m hopeful that there will be more research in unschooling and self-directed education. But what is available, and probably the most widely cited study is done by Peter Gray, again, the professor at Boston College, and his colleague Gina Riley, who looked at grown unschoolers and found that they did very well in adulthood and in their adolescence, most of them, like other home-schoolers in particular, would take community college classes if they wanted to go on to the college track.

Often that meant that they were able to enter college with credits already under their belt, saving time and money and having greater clarity on what they wanted to do. And that they had no trouble adjusting to life in college and were able to form deep relationships, particularly with professors and others who had a real love of learning. And one of the most interesting facts or findings in the study of grown unschoolers that Peter Gray and Gina Riley did was they found that over half of the people surveyed, the grown unschoolers who were surveyed, were working as entrepreneurs in careers tied to interests that developed during childhood or adolescence. So, it really gives a sort of proof that if you allow people the freedom and autonomy to really pursue their passions and interests from a young age, often that can lead to adult careers and occupations that are linked to those passions and in some ways related to this entrepreneurship spirit or this idea that you’re really in charge, you have an agency around your life and your learning. So, I thought that was a really interesting finding.

Jason Bedrick: Now, if unschooling is so self-directed by the student, what’s the role of parents and teachers in unschooling?

Kerry McDonald: Yeah, I think adults play a really prominent role in unschooling and self-directed education, that this isn’t just a free for all. It’s not just kids going off and doing their own thing. It’s truly focused around connecting young people to various resources and opportunities. So, like I mentioned earlier with my older daughter and Korean language, it’s connecting her to available resources in the community and these could be real resources in terms of classes or programming or lectures or books or it could be digital. Increasingly there are so many online resources available for learning that that’s becoming even more of a possibility for really facilitating self-directed education for all of us really through this abundance of material that’s available now online.

So, it’s very important for adult facilitators in the self-directed education space to be introducing many of these opportunities and resources and also to connect those in the interests of the child with those resources.

Jason Bedrick: Now, this is one of the major arguments for education savings accounts, especially ESAs over traditional vouchers, right? Where a traditional voucher, it’s like a coupon you can redeem at a private school, but the ESA is a restricted use bank account you can use for a wide variety of educational goods and services. So, it’s about unbundling education. You can think of like a newspaper. We talked about unbundling the newspaper. The newspaper provides a variety of different services. One is it provides news, but it also has a classified section. It also has a section on automobiles. It also has a section on lifestyle. It has an opinion section. It has as a sports section. And we find that the internet has unbundled these services.

And so, you’ve got… The newspapers aren’t just competing with cnn.com, or a variety of news outlets online. They’re also competing with cars.com and they’re competing with match.com, right? So, the ESAs can allow you to unbundle education. You might do part of the day with a tutor, part of the day online learning, part of the day at a school of some kind. You can also purchase a bunch of home schooling materials that you could be using at home. It really would, I think, allow for a much greater amount of unschooling.

Kerry McDonald: Yeah, I really love the concept of unbundling education in so many ways, both in terms of funding and in terms of variety. And I think we see with unschooling self-directed education an alternative to school more broadly, we’re seeing a lot of education experimentation in this space. So, you see, for example, hybrid home schooling models popping up, especially in areas where there are education choice programs, where there are education savings accounts that provide more options to families for some of these blended learning models. So, you might have, in the case of hybrid home schooling, you might have programs where your child can go to a center or an in home micro school or some other kind of organization, a few hours a day or a few days a week. And then also take other classes in the community and other programming throughout one’s location. Or take advantage of online classes as well.

And I think that that’s really where we’re going. I’m hopeful that that is the future of education, that it is much more customized, that it is more focused on child interests and passions as well as families really being empowered to guide their children’s educational path. And I think you’re absolutely right that educational savings accounts and tax-credit scholarship programs and other kinds of education choice mechanisms are really an accelerator for that process.

Jason Bedrick: Now, your book is full of tips for parents who are considering unschooling. Do you want to share just a few tips for would be unschoolers who might be listening to the podcast?

Kerry McDonald: Yeah, I mean, I think the first tip is to really get connected with unschooling groups or home schooling groups in your community. Find out what’s available and, again, we have so many resources now at our fingertips online through community groups, through Facebook or online message boards, it’s much easier to get connected with people who are home-schooling or who are taking an unschooling or self-directed approach. And I’d say that that’s really the place to begin is find out what’s available in your location as well as nationally and globally that can help to get you on the beginning path toward figuring out what the right self-directed approach is for your child.

So, starting there and then really just discovering what your child’s interests and needs are. And I think one of the things I talk about in the book is this process of de-schooling. So, often if you have a young person who has been in a conventional schooling environment for a number of years, there can be a bit of a transition process where they have to really de-school and move away from the conditioning that they may have been experiencing while in school, of being trained and tested and sort of this top down approach to learning and reconnect with those natural human drives for curiosity and discovery.

So, it can take a little bit of time to reignite that natural human curiosity. And I think we want to give sort of patience and time for that to happen. Letting young people decompress from being told what to do, what to learn, what to think for so long and then really coming back to those drives for exploration and knowledge.

Jason Bedrick: If anybody listening to the podcast is interested, I do highly recommend that you pick up this book, Unschooled. Kerry, you recently had a Facebook post about a reader who contacted you about their experience with your book, if you wanted to share that anecdote.

Kerry McDonald: Yeah. I mean, one of the most special parts of being an author and a writer is hearing from people reading what you’ve written. And it was so wonderful the other day to get an email from a father who said, “I picked up your book at the library last summer.” And again, I’m sort of paraphrasing, but he said, “I picked up your book at the library and wasn’t really interested in home schooling.” In fact, he said, “Home schooling, I was sure was not my cup of tea.” But he was curious about trends in education. And he said he read it in less than a week and it sparked numerous conversations with his wife and his son. They made some changes to their lifestyle and ultimately decided to unschool. And I think the most powerful part of the email was when he said, and this I’ll quote, he says, “I don’t believe in fate, but finding your book was the closest I’ve come to experiencing it.” And it was such a powerful statement. Yeah.

Jason Bedrick: That’s got to be very rewarding as an author to have somebody say that. Now, again, if you’re interested in unschooling, pick up the book, but what else would you recommend in terms of resources for listeners?

Kerry McDonald: Yeah, well, you can check out my new website, unschool.school, which is a marketplace of alternatives to schools, connecting educators, parents and learners. So, that will be a good resource. I’d also recommend the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, where I’m a board member, that also tries to expand particularly self-directed education, make self-directed education more accessible to more families. That is a great resource. And there are some message boards there to connect with. And then, yeah, pick up my book and there’s a bunch of resources and other books to read and other websites to visit through there.

Jason Bedrick: I know you’re, before we close, you’re also involved in a new entrepreneurial endeavor to expand affordable private alternatives to school for more families. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Kerry McDonald: Right. So, that is this unschool.school marketplace platform. And as EdChoice has found, right, you have over 80 percent of young people in an assigned district school, but less than a third of their parents prefer that they are there. So, there’s this enormous choice gap in American education. And what we’re trying to do with unschool.school is to close that choice gap by activating these underutilized educators, particularly baby boomers, who have tremendous knowledge and expertise to share, and link those educators with available spaces and communities and learners and families to create affordable full-time alternative to school in communities around the country.

Jason Bedrick: Well, we wish you the best of luck in these endeavors. I think especially in areas like Arizona and Florida and North Carolina that have education savings accounts. We’ll see in the coming years, increasing interest in self-directed education, especially as the funding model allows for greater freedom and flexibility to customize your child’s education.

Kerry McDonald: I think that’s right. Yeah. I think we absolutely have to be focused on legislative efforts and funding efforts to, again, like you said, unbundle education to put parents back in charge of their child’s education, to empower parents to chart the educational path their child that’s right for their family and that particular child. And then I think also then encouraging this education entrepreneurship, education experimentation will just lead to so many more alternatives to school. So, many more innovative learning programs that can only be a win for families and learners.

Jason Bedrick: Absolutely. Our guest today has been Kerry McDonald, senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and co-founder and CEO of unschool.school. She’s the author of the book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside of the Conventional Classroom. Kerry, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Kerry McDonald: It was great to be here. Thanks, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice and don’t forget to sign up for our emails and our website edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.