55. Kerry McDonald

In this episode, Connor and Brittany sit down with the mother of four and author of the book, “Unschooled” to talk about the future of education in a post-pandemic world.




Here is the transcript of our conversation:


Connor: Hey Brittany.

Brittany: Hi Connor. So today we have a very special guest, the Senior Education Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, an adjunct scholar at Cato, and the author of a great book called Unschooled, Kerry McDonald, Welcome to the podcast.

Kerry: Oh, it’s great to be with you both. Thanks for having me.

Brittany: Of course. So tell us a little bit about you. I know you are a mother of four, but you are also an unschooler, which we’ve talked about a few times on this podcast. So could you tell us a little bit about what that is?

Kerry: Right, so the book, Unschooled Raising Curious, Well Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom was a book that published last year, in the Spring of 2019, but has become increasingly popular this year, of course, as so many families find themselves in the process of living and learning alongside each other during the pandemic. So really the general idea of unschooling that I talk about in the book is disentangling education from schooling. So thinking about schooling as one method of being educated, but realizing that there’s so much beyond that model of learning. And I think that that’s what families are starting to get glimpses of, even though they were forced into the situation last spring with over 55 million US K to 12 school children suddenly back at home, beginning around March, learning with their families, it was a difficult time for everyone. But I think that it’s also a testament to how families can come together, can sort of rally, and discover new things about each other. An interesting new study at Psychology Today that just came out last week found that a lot of children are much happier being out of school and that their mental health has improved since being home since the pandemic began. And in the same survey, the results showed that parents are seeing that their kids are incredibly capable of so many wonderful things. And so this time at home, although certainly difficult for all of us, has also I think been eye-opening for a lot.

Connor: Kerry, the families listening to this podcast, I think are very homeschool-friendly, but unschooling for many might seem a little odd. And imagine there are some kids listening to this podcast thinking, Unschooled, does that mean I don’t have to do any homework or do any school? And so we’re familiar with public school, we’re familiar with perhaps at-home public school, which was what happened to a lot of kids earlier this year where they still had to do everything their teachers were telling them. And they were still kind of public school students, they were just doing it at home. And then you have your more traditional home school, which you know has a curriculum and you’re still kind of walking through things. What is so unique about unschooling and why do you as a mom like that for your kids?

Kerry: Right. So again, unschooling is really thinking about separating education from schooling, including these school-at-home versions of education that you’ve mentioned. Certainly what I think most families encountered this spring as they were doing remote learning tied to their district’s curriculum. So unschooling really says, let’s challenge that whole idea. Let’s start with the premise that children are naturally curious that they have these drives to learn and discover, and that we wanna be able as parents to cultivate those interests and those drives and that curiosity. And the person who writes the forward to my unschooled book is Peter Gray, who’s a psychology professor at Boston College and a real proponent of self-directed education and unschooling. And one of the things that he says is that, again, children come into the world burning to learn. They have tremendous curiosity and creativity when they’re young, as any parent can appreciate the endless questions and always asking why.

And what Peter Gray says is that these natural drives for learning don’t just magically turn themselves off when a child hits age five or six, we turn them off with our coercive system of schooling. And so the idea with unschooling is let’s just not do that. Let’s not impose coercion on this process of human discovery and exploration. Let’s continue that process that gets exists in young children and just continue to support and facilitate that as children get older. And I think that that’s what we see in a lot of the data around children who learn without school, whether it’s unschooling or more of this kind of informal or eclectic versions of homeschooling that don’t simply replicate school at home, is that young people are just supported and pursuing their interests. And from that process, so much learning happens. I mean, these kids become, for example, voracious readers.

They love reading books that matter to them about topics that are interesting to them, and then they’ll continue to pursue that process. So becoming highly educated through this. Another point I like to make is that unschooling doesn’t mean that you’re not using a curriculum. So one of the great definitions that I include in the book, and the one that I really appreciate the most is a definition of unschooling by Carl Wheatley, who’s a professor at Cleveland State University who studies unschooling families. And one of the things that he says is unschooling families use little or no imposed adult-chosen curriculum.

Brittany: I Like that. And that’s cool.

Kerry: And allow children to really drive the learning process. So I think there’s a real difference between kind of an imposed curriculum that follows kind of a packaged version of what you should be learning in first grade, what you should be learning in second grade and so on. And really just cultivating the kind of characteristics around encouraging natural learning. And so you’ll find, for example, many unschooled children will take classes, community college classes, or they will as particularly as they get older, be really interested in certain topics and want to do kind of rigorous learning tied to the curriculum with assignments and tests and quizzes and homework and all of that. But the idea is that it’s much more driven by the child as opposed to imposed by adults.

Brittany: So I’m curious, cuz you have four kids of your own, and I think the age grade spans for, was it six to 13 I think we talked about?

Kerry: That’s right,

Brittany: Yes. So are there any two days that look the same for your kids as they’re doing unschooling? I mean, cuz there’s no set or adult-made curriculum as you said. Is there a typical routine or is it just every day is different?

Kerry: Well, one of the things that we encountered, certainly with the pandemic last spring is our lives were as disrupted as homeschoolers, just as school children’s lives were. And I think all families experience this disruption because frankly, my kids spend more of their time outside of our home than inside of their home. We live in Boston, Massachusetts, so we are taking advantage frequently of classes and programming and mentorship that is around the city, really immersed in the people, places, and things of our community. And so of course that was shut off for all of us throughout the country as a result of the shutdowns. So really every day is different because the kids are doing different classes, again, depending on their interests and their goals and what they want to accomplish. My oldest daughter, who’s 13, almost 14, she’s been, this is back to this example of a formal curriculum that’s chosen by the child.

She’s been really focused on her goal of speaking fluent Korean. So she’s been meeting three times a week with a native Korean, a native Korean speaker tutor at the library. And she’s been doing this for a couple of years now, and she has a very formal curriculum with, again, assignments and quizzes and homework, but it’s tied to her goal and her passions. And in that case, her interest in the Korean language really sprouted from her interest in martial arts, which was something else. She became interested in her younger years and is still very much interested in it. And that led to, again, this, let’s learn more about Korean history, culture, language, and so on. So it’s just a way of facilitating that interest. And then the role of the adult, of course, is really important because it’s about acknowledging these passions and interests and then connecting those with available community resources.

Connor: Kerry, a few years ago wrote a passion-driven education, which hits on the theme you’re talking about. So you’re speaking my language about how much more learning resonates with and sticks with children when they can learn the things that interest them when they have a personal interest in the subject, rather than being told by an adult, you have to learn this and it’s gonna be on a test. And then they always say, Well, why do I need to learn this? When am I gonna ever use this information? It’s always, Oh, trust me, someday you’ll need the quadratic equation. And so the passion-driven model is so much more, I think, authentic and interesting to a lot of kids. But let me ask you, as a mom who’s kind of been doing this, what do you say to the other parents out there who are a little nervous about unschooling? A lot of us grew up myself though. I homeschool my children, I’m a product of public schooling, and so is my wife. And a lot of parents kind of feel like there’s safety or comfort in the structure of curriculum that they need that guide or support to make sure their children are learning everything that they need to be learning or that they ought to know. How do you talk to those parents who maybe see some benefits of unschooling, but they’re worried to take that jump into the deep end, so to speak?

Kerry: Right. That’s a really good question. So I’ll start with one of the things that I say in the unschooled book first to me, I believe that it’s the responsibility of parents to ensure that their kids are highly educated, that they’re highly literate and numerate. And I think this holds true whether or not you’re a homeschooling parent or your children go to a conventional school. I think it’s up to the parents to elderly be responsible for making sure that children are highly educated. And so I would argue that with unschooling, that process of ensuring your children are highly educated just comes from a different place. It comes from what you’re saying, this idea of personal agency and noncoercion and a real love of learning that, again, young children naturally exude. And so it’s just continuing to nurture that love of learning through later childhood in adolescence.

So I think there’s tremendous learning that can happen. I think the other thing too is, and I try to do too, is to try not to be so dogmatic about it. You know, can incorporate these ideas around unschooling and self-directed education without feeling like you have to, for example, throw away all curriculum or not have some kind of structure to the day. A lot of unschooling families or families who had to identify as unschoolers would say, We do math every day. We have a math curriculum, or we use Khan Academy, which sorts the leader in online video learning, particularly in math that has just some tremendous resources. It’s all free. It’s used in schools across the country and by a lot of homeschoolers as well. So a lot of unschoolers will say the kids do Khan Academy a little bit every day for math and we have time for reading, for example, but maybe we’re not dictating what books need to be read at certain times. And then as children get older and I think hit the teen years, I think what a lot of unschooling families find is that’s the time that interests become a little more solidified. And so then you’ll be able to find some really great online resources, online literature classes, or honors biology or AP chemistry, and there are just tremendous resources both online and in communities when we are more able to be again connected to our communities that can facilitate this learning. So

Brittany: Switching gears a little bit, you wrote, I think it was maybe even a couple of articles about something called Pandemic Pods, which kind of sounds a little bit scary. It sounds like a sci-fi movie or something, but I would love for you to get into that a little bit and what the future is in the post-Pandemic world because a lot of schools don’t really know if they can come back or not. I know there are a lot of states where it’s up in the air. So what is a pandemic pod or what are pandemic pods?

Kerry: So the term pandemic pod really just came on the seed a few weeks ago, I think even before the beginning of July. This term hadn’t existed. It’s really, I think a clever way of describing an in-home micro school or even a parent-led homeschool co-op. There are of course things that have existed for quite some time. It’s sort of a modern twist on this model. And so families are really approaching pandemic pods in a few different ways. Mainly what these pandemic pods do are gather together a small group of families and children to learn in a home. And this could be choosing one home or having parents rotate through their homes during the week. And it could be multi-age groups of children, or it could be one first-grade class, depending on who you can get into your pod. In some cases, these parents are taking turns facilitating a curriculum, whether it’s an independent curriculum or something tied to the school or the district, or they are hiring an educator or a college student to help facilitate that learning.

In some cases, as I mentioned, parents are deciding to opt out of conventional schooling This fall, we’re seeing homeschooling numbers skyrocket throughout the country as parents are really dissatisfied with back-to-school plans and so much uncertainty going into the fall. And so many of these families are deciding to disconnect entirely from the school, at least in the short term, and create these pandemic pods to piece together a curriculum and a learning experience. Other families are saying, our district is going all remote for the fall and we don’t want our kids sitting in their homes doing it as they did in the spring in front of the computer screen, doing the remote learning in an isolated way. We want them to get together with a small group of children or adolescents to be able to go through that remote learning experience safely, responsibly, but also socially.

Connor: Kerry, I wonder if you could talk about the history of unschooling. A few people think pandemic pods, as you say, that’s a new term. They might think that this approach is a radical and new departure from the traditional way of doing education. But Peter Gray, who you mentioned who wrote the forward to your book, I recommend his book Free to Learn all the time because it’s so powerful. And what he talks about in that book is his own research into a lot of the students who went to a particular school, I believe in Massachusetts called Sudbury School. started decades ago by a bunch of hippies, where the kids, it’s basically, I kind of call it institutionalized unschooling in the sense that it’s kind of free range kids with a little bit of structure of there’s a building and an organization and so forth, but the kids run the show, they hire and fire the teachers, they run the school government.

And a lot of people might look at that from the outside and say, This is crazy. Our kids are just gonna sit around and play video games all day long if there are no expectations or requirements. And yet here Peter Gray has done this research showing the kind of longitudinal studies, or in other words, long term, these kids went through it when they were younger and now they’re older, they have jobs. So Peter talked to them and said, Hey, what is your happiness and what’s your professional life like? Are you successful and looking back on your education, would you do it again or do it for your kids? And so what are your thoughts about that in the sense that unschooling, if anything like Sud Sudbury is something that people know, but you might argue that unschooling is the traditional way of education and human history. So what are your thoughts on this, not so much being a new radical thing versus maybe being a more natural or traditional thing?

Kerry: Thing? Right. So great questions. One of the things that I try to do in the unschooled book is just to show how diverse unschooling is. There are so many ways of approaching self-directed education, and I try to spotlight the families, organizations and unschooling alumni who have gone through this process or help other young people to go through this process of self-directed learning. So there is really a wide variety of approaches and practices that would fall under the unschooling umbrella from more of these hybrid models and kind of family-centered homeschooling that is more informal and more child-led to what you’re talking about in terms of the Sudbury Valley School and the larger kind of Sudbury democratic schools that have sprouted across the world since be beginning in the 1960s here in Massachusetts. So there’s really a tremendous variety. But the term unschooling was coined by John Holt back in 1977, and John Holt was an author, an educator, and a real pioneer in the modern homeschooling movement.

And he coined the term unschooling in the second issue of his Growing Without Schooling newsletter, which was the first newsletter for homeschooling families. I mean, there was really at the time, very little in the way of enabling homeschooling families across the country to connect with each other, to find each other. In many places, homeschooling was still very much illegal or not legally established. And so he really created this mechanism to connect families. And he defined unschooling as families taking children out of school. And I think the term has evolved over recent decades to be more focused on child-directed non-coercive learning. But its roots are really in the homeschooling movement and this idea of separating from conventional practices and this idea of conventional schooling. But in my book, I actually trace these ideas all the way back to the enlightenment and the ideas of noncoercion, self-determination per personal agency, and human flourishing that really began in earnest through the enlightenment and the following centuries. And then in the modern era, really the split between progressive education at the turn of the 20th century, kind of the John Dewey’s school and his acolytes, and then the folks who really wanted to take a much more role or path in facilitating a child’s development free from coercion.

Connor: That’s great. Certainly, there’s a lot of history involved with that, but I liked those aspirational words you used and connecting them to the enlightenment. Those are things I think that parents want for their children, things that children want for themselves when they think about their own learning environment and having the freedom to explore their innate curiosity. So it’s really, really exciting. I think despite all of the covid craziness that a lot of parents are really taking advantage of the opportunity, or perhaps some are feeling pushed into the opportunity to give their children this experience. So it’s gonna be fun, I think, to see a lot of the developments, and I think there’s a lot of good things to come. I know you’ve been writing a lot about it. We will link to a few of your articles for our interested listeners. Head to tuttletwins.com/podcast. We’ll also link to unschooled. You can find that on Amazon. And we’ll provide you a link as well in case it’s easier. Make sure you are subscribed. Thanks for joining. And Carrie, thanks for coming on. This is a great discussion.

Kerry: Oh, it was great to be with you.

Brittany: Thank you so much.

Connor: Oh, Brittany, I think that was a good discussion. Maybe some big terms there that some kids can do some homework about and all that enlightenment stuff. I think that provides some good fodder for some education. But frankly, even just picking up a copy of unschooled and parents reading it with their kids, learning about some of that history, I think would be really excellent. So as you think about it, I mean you’ve taught in a classroom before, a lot of people who are teachers and parents. Do you see unschooling really kind of taking off, or what are your thoughts on this overall kind of environment we’re in?

Brittany: Six months ago, I would’ve told you no, I would’ve said it’s a little bit too fringe that parents just think it’s a little too weird. But in a post-pandemic world, I think unschooling might be the answer to what we need right now. I think it’s what the kids want. I think it’s what the parents want. So yeah, I think that this could be the future of education.

Connor: So interesting, cuz a lot of people are suffering right now, but man, this seems like such a silver lining in a dark cloud to have so many families finally reconsidering the status quo of public schools and feeling like, you know what? I need to rescue my children and save them. Whether it’s because of masks a crazy curriculum or just a lot. In fact, we did a survey a little while back about our Tuttle Twins kind of customers and readers and overwhelmingly parents were saying, Yeah, I’m concerned about masks and that’s why I’m homeschooling. But I’ve also long been concerned with the curriculum. I’ve also long been concerned with the lack of educational freedom. Basically, these parents have had just standing issues with what’s been happening to their children, but perhaps for a variety of reasons they never felt pushed into doing anything different or biting the bullet and homeschooling.

And now as a result of covid, a lot of them are feeling like, okay, finally it’s time for us to do this. So I think it’s super exciting. I’m actually really intrigued to see what comes in the months ahead. Great topic. Of course. And I know a lot of parents are stressed out about it right now, but I think a book like Carries could be a lot of help. So make sure you go to tuttletwins.com/podcast, check out the show notes, get the book, and read some of Carrie’s articles. And Brittany, until next time, we’ll talk to you later.

Brittany: Talk to you next time

Interested in more content?

Check out our latest email…

George Washington: Global Provocateur

“Oh crap! That’s due tomorrow?!” – Thomas Jefferson, July 3, 1776 (probably) Happy 3rd of July! That imaginary quote always makes me laugh. In part because I’m a writer who knows a thing or two about deadlines sneaking up on you, but also because I like to think about the humanness of historical figures.  One of the things that history books get so wrong is that they present history as just a jumble of names and dates without giving kids any reason to care about the things they’re learning. They feel no attachment to the people or events, and often forget things the second they’re done taking the test.  You guys really seemed to like the story about John Adams writing to his wife, Abigail, and, as I suspected, many of you didn’t know that independence was actually declared on the 2nd of July; not the 4th! (I didn’t know

Read More »

From the trusted team behind the Tuttle Twins books, join us as we tackle current events, hot topics, and fun ideas to help your family find clarity in a world full of confusion.

Want More?

The Tuttle Twins children’s book series is read by hundreds of thousands of families across the country, and nearly a million books (in a dozen languages!) are teaching children like yours about the ideas of a free society.

Textbooks don’t teach this; schools don’t mention it.

It’s up to you—and our books can help. Check out the Tuttle Twins books to see if they’re a fit for your family!