Is Unschooling the Future of Education?

A conversation with unschooling expert Kerry McDonald
By Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza is a mom of two, an MBA, a beach lover, and a kid at heart. Here, diving into the challenges and opportunities of parenting in the modern age. Particularly interested in the many educational options available to families today, the renewed appreciation of simplicity in kids’ lives, the benefits of family travel, and the importance of family life in today’s society.
August 5, 2019 Updated: March 19, 2020

The new book, “Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom,” by Kerry McDonald—an author, senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, and advocate of the philosophy of education known as unschooling—takes aim at long-entrenched notions about schooling and looks to the future as to what McDonald believes education should look like.

The Epoch Times: What led you to become interested in alternatives to traditional schooling?

Kerry McDonald. (Courtesy of Kerry McDonald)

Kerry McDonald: I majored in economics in college, but grew increasingly interested in education—particularly the government monopoly characteristics of mass schooling that limit parental choice.

During my senior year of college, I did a research project that involved shadowing a homeschooling family who lived nearby. This was the late 1990s and homeschooling had just become legally recognized in all 50 states. I went to public schools and never knew anything about homeschooling or alternatives to school.

Walking into that homeschooling family’s kitchen for the first time, I was completely enchanted. It was such a warm and welcoming learning environment, and the child, who was about eight years old at the time, was curious and confident, articulate and talented. I learned about her authentic socialization in their larger community, connecting with people of all ages through shared interests and everyday interactions.

This was in stark contrast to a student-teaching practicum I was doing that same semester. There I experienced a local public elementary school with its forced socialization, command-and-control environment, age-segregated classrooms with a static handful of teachers, and disconnection from the larger world. I never realized this contrast, of course, because my childhood had been spent in public schools; but witnessing these two entirely different learning environments for the first time triggered my fascination with alternatives to mass schooling and education choice more broadly, and is what prompted me to attend graduate school in education policy at Harvard University.

The Epoch Times: You share on your website that you and your husband homeschool your four children. What inspired you to take that path and how has it benefited your family?

Ms. McDonald: After shadowing that homeschooling family when I was in college, the idea of homeschooling always stuck with me as a valuable education option. Once we became parents and were looking at education choices for our children, my husband and I felt that homeschooling was the ideal fit for our family. We live in Boston and have access to a wide array of homeschooling resources, universities, museums, libraries, mentors, and tutors, as well as a vibrant and diverse homeschooling community. Our kids also attend a part-time self-directed learning center for unschoolers and take a host of classes throughout the community that are tied to their interests. We really felt that sending our children to school would contract their learning, not expand it.

The Epoch Times: Much of your work focuses on unschooling. How do you define unschooling?

Ms. McDonald: I define unschooling as disentangling education from schooling, including school-at-home versions of homeschooling.

Schooling is one method of education, but it is not the only one and, I argue, not the best one for the realities of the Innovation Era. The term “unschooling” was coined in 1977 by John Holt, the bestselling author and teacher who helped usher in the modern homeschooling movement by connecting homeschooling families and fighting to legalize the homeschooling option. Holt defined unschooling as “taking children out of school.” Today, unschooling has come to mean an education approach focused on self-directed education tied to a child’s emerging interests and community immersion, rather than coercive schooling practices.

In “Unschooled,” I spotlight families and organizations that are incorporating unschooling principles, as well as unschooling alumni.

The Epoch Times: What do you feel are the greatest benefits to the approach of unschooling?

Ms. McDonald: Freedom.

Unschooling is all about moving from force to freedom in education by shifting away from coercive schooling practices, retaining childhood curiosity and creativity, and allowing young people to chart their own path in life, supported by adults and the resources of their community. It is about individual agency over institutional force. A key theme in “Unschooled” is describing how various individuals, families, and organizations balance freedom and responsibility through unschooling, an important and essential challenge for living in a free society. If we want young people to grow up to value freedom, we cannot expect that respect to emerge when they spend their childhood learning by force.

The Epoch Times: You’ve said that the conventional schooling model is inadequate to meet the needs of today’s students. Do you believe that schools can be reformed to meet those needs?

Ms. McDonald: Today’s conventional schooling model emerged in the mid-19th century under a centralized, standardized plan to mandate school attendance under a legal threat of force. The bells and buzzers, the age-segregated classrooms and top-down curriculum, the straight lines and hands raised for permission to use the bathroom were all imports from the Prussian model of education that fascinated 19th-century American school reformers.

These practices may have helped to train compliant factory workers for the Industrial Age, but they are completely inadequate for the needs of the Innovation Era. We don’t need robotic humans. What we need are original thinkers and entrepreneurial doers. Human ingenuity is what separates us from robots.

The good news is that we don’t need to teach children how to be creative and innovative. They already are! We simply need to stop crushing their human creativity through forced schooling.

The Epoch Times: What advice would you give parents who are concerned with the state of public schools? What steps can they take to consider alternatives for their children?

Ms. McDonald: I think parents are increasingly frustrated with one-size-fits-all compulsory mass schooling and they are looking for alternatives. Homeschooling is becoming more accessible to more families, including dual-working parent families and single parents, thanks to expanding resources for homeschoolers, local learning centers, co-ops, classes for homeschoolers, digital learning options, and community college programs.

Education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarship programs, are also beginning to extend to homeschoolers. Homeschooling is really the legal mechanism to put parents back in charge of their child’s education and connect their child’s needs and interests with available educational resources. Parents may have more schooling alternatives available to them than they may think, and homeschooling can be the gateway to these opportunities.

Unschooled Cover

The Epoch Times: Some parents may feel that public school is the only option for their children. What advice would you give such parents?

Ms. McDonald: For families whose only education option is an assigned district school, I would suggest giving children as much freedom as possible outside of school. Avoid scheduling structured extracurriculars and intensive summer programs and give children more freedom to play and explore and discover outside of school.

Also, reinforce to children that schooling does not define who they are. They are much, much more than a letter grade, or a test score, or a teacher’s impression. Encourage their emerging talents and gifts, originality and exuberance.

Parents can also support the expansion of education choice mechanisms, like ESAs, tax-credit scholarship programs, vouchers, virtual and charter schools, etc., to give more options to families beyond a mandatory school assignment.

The Epoch Times: What do you hope readers take away from your new book?

Ms. McDonald: I hope readers recognize that we need an educated citizenry, but we don’t need a schooled one. Visionary parents and entrepreneurial educators are seeking and building alternatives to school that expand freedom and choice. Disruptive innovation in education is already here.

Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza is a mom of two, an MBA, a beach lover, and a kid at heart. Here, diving into the challenges and opportunities of parenting in the modern age. Particularly interested in the many educational options available to families today, the renewed appreciation of simplicity in kids’ lives, the benefits of family travel, and the importance of family life in today’s society.