Unschooling

'Unschooling' Is the Ultimate Laissez-Faire Version of School Choice. But Can Your Kids Teach Themselves How To Read and Do Math?

Author Kerry McDonald explains why her kids flourish outside of conventional classrooms—and why yours might too.

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One of the most interesting and unconventional forms of school choice doesn't just reject traditional K-12 public and private classrooms but also rejects even homeschooling using conventional curricula. 

The "unschooling" movement is a radical departure from a conventional wisdom that says kids need structure and direction in order to learn. Proponents of unschooling—coined by educational theorist John Holt in the 1970s—even believe that kids are able to teach themselves how to read and do math and should be given as much room to wander and grow as they want.

It's a radical notion even for those of us who believe in robust school choice and grew up in a world where popular culture such as Pink Floyd's The Wall and movies such as The Breakfast Club, Heathers, and Mean Girls vilified schools as factories of oppression, conformity, and violence. 

Today's guest is Kerry McDonald, a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), a board member of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, and the author of the new book Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom. It's a fascinating read, filled with insights both from academic research and her experiences unschooling her own children. She talks with Nick Gillespie about the origins of the unschooling movement, its intellectual underpinnings, and why it's good for parents as well as children.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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  1. Yeah, right.

  2. School Choice?
    For the little people?
    Never!
    That’s why we have so many wise and well-indoctrinated socialist turds ruling over us.
    So we won’t make mistakes like thinking and making decisions for and by ourselves.
    Besides, just think of how many billions of dollars the state and local governments would miss out on if there was school choice.
    Oh, the horror.
    The horror!

  3. They can if you help them.
    Where is the line between helping and teaching?
    I think somewhere along the place where the kids natural curiosity leads them to want more information, and a parent leads them to understand reading can provide the information. But reading takes work and practice. Same thing with math. Then provide opportunities to learn more reading and math, sometimes called lessons. Then go out to a museum and put reading to use on the signs and exhibits, and math to work with admission fees, and food costs.
    Full disclosure: homeschooling is hard work, and a full time job. But the teacher to student ratio is excellent.

    1. Exactly. My mother taught me to read when I was about 4. She had bought a workbook that went through the usual stuff: word “families” like cat-hat-bat-bat, etc. She didn’t have to make me learn, I wanted to. But no book can teach someone to read on its own, since they can’t read the book if they can’t read at all. Could a book teach basic math skills on its own? Maybe, but I don’t think there are any books that try, since basic math and basic reading are usually taught at the same time. I was taught to add columns of multi-digit numbers by being given supermarket register receipts and being told to “check” their addition, after a very brief lesson on how to do so.

      1. cat-hat-bat-mat. Although I guess bat (the sporting equipment) and bat (the flying mammal) could work, if the words were acccompanied with pictures, which they may have been.

      2. Perhaps you grew up in the days when Geisel, Dr Seuss was how to learn to read. I did.

        Green eggs and ham uses only 50 words.

        One fish two fish.

        I am skeptical of this unschooling idea.

  4. But…but…they won’t learn to properly worship their betters in the governing class!

    1. And how can we be sure that they learn to be sufficiently woke?

  5. Most homeschooling IS unschooling, unless the parents choose to sit their kids at the kitchen table with textbooks all day. Most do not.

    The ideas behind unschooling are older than Holt, they go back to Maria Montessori. Her stuff may seem trendy and proggie now, but that’s just because it’s not mainstream.

    1. Montessori is not unschooling.

      It is far from homeschooling.

      I am married to a Montessori certified teacher. She does something else these days but I learned about it. Used to show up in her classroom. Totally amazing to me how you had 30 children in the 3-5 year range. All of them doing something productive.

  6. No, you cannot teach yourself to read. People spent hundreds of years trying to learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Couldn’t be done. Then they came across a tablet that had a language they had been taught, and figured it out.

    When we talk about kids who learn to read on their own, we’re never talking about people who didn’t learn the alphabet and the sounds letters make.

    Math, sure, they can figure it out if they’re smart enough. Which 99.something% of the population will not be.

    1. “No, you cannot teach yourself to read. People spent hundreds of years trying to learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Couldn’t be done”

      I dare say if they spoke Egyptian, and heard people speaking it every day around them, they would have had an easier time with the written language.

      Just a thought.

      1. They did speak Egyptian (presumably with terrible accents). Didn’t help.

        1. the point is, if you don’t know what an A is, what it sounds like, you’re screwed. There’s nowhere to go. Just symbols without context.

          1. And hieroglyphs actually do have some amount of context, but couldn’t be deciphered.

    2. Your confidence is misplaced, as was mine when I shared your opinion 20 years ago. I used to be a teacher and homeschooler. I personally know several people who learned how to read without being taught the alphabet and letter sounds.

      https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201002/children-teach-themselves-read

  7. ‘Unschooling’ Is the Ultimate Laissez-Faire Version of School Choice. But Can Your Kids Teach Themselves How To Read and Do Math?

    From what I’ve seen the school system is pretty good at teaching un-reading and un-math, so sure, seems reasonable.

    1. Don’t forget un-socialization

  8. And if they never learn to read and write they’re perfectly set up to claim victimhood, and that’s what’s important.

  9. “It was not necessary to know much. So long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern. They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming-period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

    1984

  10. Proponents of unschooling—coined by educational theorist John Holt in the 1970s—even believe that kids are able to teach themselves how to read and do math and should be given as much room to wander and grow as they want.

    As long as they are still receiving actual parenting, what’s the problem? And if they aren’t receiving parenting then they’re no different than public school kids during most days of the week

  11. Harold Hill. “Think!”

  12. I’m glad they explicitly addressed the class issue in the podcast. Don’t think they really answered it though. Cuz it’s pretty obvious that any homeschooling/unschooling ‘liberty’ is completely irrelevant to single parent-who-works families (19% of kids) or two parents-who-both-work families (51% of kids) or any family that can’t afford or doesn’t know the rich array of resources that allows for a better unschooling outcome than say being babysat by the TV.

    As is the school choice decision when it is deliberately made the biggest possible choice (an entire year tuition equal to the entire amount a school system spends/kid, parent judges the curriculum/outcomes in splendid isolation, little/no feedback from neighbors or kids who went through it) to make it irrelevant to those parents who have no clue what next year’s ‘best’ education for their kid is.

    The more articles I read on this here, the more convinced I am that libertarians are on the wrong track with the ‘get govt out of all education’. Libertarian ideas about society are kinda like a hermits ideas about how to throw a party. Rather the solution IMO is to separate facilities/infrastructure from classroom/curriculum. There’s no reason why a Montessori system and dozens of other approaches can’t utilize the same PUBLIC space. Freedom/liberty is not about the elimination or privatization of public space. At least not to most people

    There is a huge implicit delusion here. The notion that coercion is the problem and the solution is merely eliminating the coercion.

    That’s all fine and dandy for rich parents who have all the resources to provide their kids with a rich learning environment

    1. “That’s all fine and dandy for rich parents who have all the resources to provide their kids with a rich learning environment”

      And do you think anything else matters? Or, has ever mattered?

    2. The function of government is to defend liberty, period.

      1. The function of foxes is to guard hen houses, period.

    3. Do you thinks it’s okay for the government to send kids to juvenile detention centers, or send their parents to jail, if kids skip too many classes? Because that’s currently the law in many places

      “The real fascists are the ones who want freedom from coercion” – you

    4. You might be right but it’s none of your business how someone else chooses to raise and educate their child.

    5. This is a common misconception. I’m not a libertarian and I homeschooled my son on a very limited income. Most homeschooling parents I knew lived paycheck to paycheck, but the joy and freedom homeschooling gave them made up for fewer trips to Disneyland.

    6. I am not sure that most libertarians believe the government should have NO role in public education. For those who want their kids to go to the kind of school which they went to, power to them. Schools run by the city, county, or state, are also part of “school choice.” Vouchers make nearly everything possible 🙂

      Now, as far as federal government involvement, well, I don’t see any benefits from that, at all.

      1. Vouchers make nearly everything possible

        Vouchers – the way they always seem to be structured – is one of those ‘libertarian’ ideas that makes my teeth itch. All the taxes, none of the positive externalities from them, and plenty of opportunities for trough-swilling and cronyism.

        Again – that’s where I get to splitting facilities/infrastructure from curriculum and pedagogy stuff.

        Facilities/infrastructure is the successor to probably the best (and certainly the most important) legislation ever – the Land Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787 which is how virtually all land – and later ‘states’ – west of the Appalachians was ultimately legally structured. Section 16 of each surveyed township would be set aside as public space for education (later states further west would add section 36). The rest of the land could be sold fee simple – but because that public space set-aside is part of the terms of the surveying itself, it is also part of the terms of that private sale of land as property. That public space is implicitly self-funded – in perpetuity – via a tax on all that land in the township. This is not a restriction of individual liberty. It is the creation of public space via the terms of sale of that land. And the role of good governance is for the township to decide, as a community, how to best develop that public space set-aside for its PUBLIC purpose. ‘Privatizing’ any of that spending decision (which is what vouchers become) is corruption of that public purpose. And I really do think that libertarians serve as useful idiots (best-case) when they advocate to diminish that public space in favor of de facto privatizing it.

        As for the particulars of pedagogy and curriculum and/or mandatory attendance or anything like that – yeah that is absolutely where libertarian ideas can be helpful cuz it is where individual liberty can also be infringed. But vouchers is the least intelligent means of funding that. By definition, vouchers based solely on whatever the town deems important to tax itself for that pedagogy stuff aren’t sufficient to pay the land rent for whatever space is required. So in fact it is not a way to provide an equal opportunity or equal public baseline for a child to learn regardless of their parentage.

        A far better way to provide the widest possible liberty for every child to learn is via an endowment – created by the rents collected when that public space is rented out to the 10,000 possible pedagogy/curriculum ideas that become ‘school choice’ in that public space. Parents/kids benefit privately from those choices – and the default should be that they are primary payors. Topped up by the endowment that funds what is chosen but can’t be afforded. But an endowment is obviously ‘managed/spent’ differently than privatized vouchers. If NONE of those 10,000 possible ideas is what a particular individual wants, then fine. But they are clearly on their own entirely for that.

        1. Just to give one example of the different approach. Montessori isn’t ‘unschooling’ but it’s close enough to ‘pretend’ for argument’s sake. In my city, there are three Montessori schools (two private facilities and one charter school).

          Best case, ‘school choice’ and ‘vouchers’ means 92,000 students compete for space at 3 separate facilities. That’s a market structure that benefits SCHOOLS more than the students – via essentially a publicly-funded oligopoly structure. If those schools are wildly successful, maybe they expand from 3, then to 4 then to 5 a decade or so down the road. Big fucking whoop.

          My system opens up ALL the existing 230 district schools to Montessori classes or groups. Along with every other ‘idea’. If a particular one succeeds or is popular, it can easily rent additional class space and grow quickly. If not, it doesn’t. Maybe it even fails in a particular location but succeeds in others. That market structure benefits students more than schools but allows for much faster growth of successful ideas. It’s actually more of a free market – even if the ‘rent’ stuff is still publicly-funded.

          I can’t see how anyone who understands markets can really prefer the former – unless their actual interest is to swill at the public trough.

          1. On edit – There might be 9 Montessori locations not three. Hard to know what may be pre-school or day-care type. Still a lot less than 230 ‘possible’ locations – which could also easily include pre-school and day-care.

        2. I like this idea of yours, as I’ve not heard it before. Though I’m skeptical that administrators will be able to or even want to accommodate a variety of schooling styles in a single building. I can’t imagine school administrators signing off on a Sudbury style in a place where “no-excuses” “high achievement” schooling is also taking place. But, who knows?

          I know that many other countries have been using vouchers for years, but I don’t know how much variety in pedagogy is allowed.

  13. Thaddeus Russell just released an excellent podcast in which he gives a similar talk to high schoolers. I have no idea who let him in there, but it was awesome.

    And as usual he is able to show how the authoritarians both left and right come together to inflict government on everyone.

  14. Yep,

    I should have kept that job as a NYC high school teacher and made Friday “unschooling day”. I could have started each Friday class by turning on Pink Floyd music and then going for a walk while the students work on their social skills. If I had done that, I would be close to qualifying for retirement by now.

  15. Speaking from experience, you can learn a lot on your own.

    With a little help from parents, you can learn to read. After that, the world is your oyster.

    1. “After that, the world is your oyster.”

      As long as your world doesn’t include MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, Harvard etc. I wonder if any of these colleges have accepted students who got by on parents’ help, without schools or teachers. If you are serious about quality education beyond grade school levels, a paid, professional teacher is essential.

  16. “I wonder if any of these colleges have accepted students who got by on parents’ help, without schools or teachers.”

    The two children of my second marriage were unschooled, first at a very small and unconventional private school and then at home. Classes at the school only happened if students asked a staff member for them, and the students controlled their own time.

    Our daughter went to Oberlin and then transferred to the University of Chicago, our son went to Chicago.

    “If you are serious about quality education beyond grade school levels, a paid, professional teacher is essential.”

    Nonsense. Our older child was about thirteen when they shifted from the school to home unschooling, her brother ten. Both of them ended up better educated than most of their contemporaries, probably including most of the ones who went to the schools you describe.

    One of things that bothered our daughter at Oberlin was that when a class was canceled, the other students were happy. They saw learning as a chore, not something they actually wanted to do. A natural result of the conventional school environment.

    I like to describe unschooling as throwing books at kids and seeing which ones stick. I’ve discussed the subject in the past on my blog.

    https://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/search?q=unschooling

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