EP 12: Kerry McDonald on Unschooling, Homeschooling and the New Paradigm of Learning

One of the best things that has come out of Covid in 2020 is a massive movement away from the standard education system and toward alternative learning. One of the thoughts leaders of this movement is Kerry McDonald, author of the book “Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom” (Chicago Review Press, 2019). Kerry talks about how unschooling is different from homeschooling and how to navigate these crazy times where regular school just isn’t the standard option. Is our education system wrong? Should education be standardized? Kerry shares her journey and thoughts on it all.

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“What I saw was a curious child who was able to pursue her own interests and develop her own talents without an institutional environment forcing her to do certain things at certain times.”-Kerry McDonald

The Brave Woman Podcast Episode 12

Kerry McDonald is a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a regular Forbes contributor. She is the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). She brings opinions and views on unschooling, homeschooling, and assesses the deficiencies of the current formal education system. 

Kerry shares her assessment of the deficiencies of the current formal education system and how unschooling is an alternative that has huge rewards for parents and the future of the next generation of children. 

Listen to Episode 12 as Kerry McDonald uncovers:

[3:27]Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom

  • Highlight the idea of learning without schooling or learning without what we would think of as kind of conventional education.
  • A lot of homeschoolers, who adopted this idea of unschooling or more of self-directed education focused on the principles of non-coercive and, self-determination.
  • John Holt, who is famous for coining the term of course, unschooling In 1977 in his newsletter growing without schooling, which was the first newsletter for homeschooling families. It was really the first time that families were able to connect kind of nationally, through this male-based newsletter system where they would send letters and notes and correspondence to John Holt and then connect with other families as well.
  • Homeschooling was illegal in many places and certainly more marginalized practice
  • Idea of unschooling, which defined really as taking parents, taking children out of school.
  • The 20th century, looking at kind of educational philosophy and the split between sort of the progressive educators who followed John Dewey and more of the libertarian educators, such as AAS, Neo, Paul Goodman And Yvan Elledge
  • The kind of pandemic homeschooling 


[9:58]What’s wrong with the school system today?

  • NPR reported also in July, in Nebraska homeschool applications were up 21% over the previous year. In Vermont up 75% over the previous year. In August, Gallup came up with a poll of parents finding that 10% of the parents said that they would be choosing independent homeschooling again, not remote schooling, not anything tied to a school or a district.
  • Many parents, teachers and students really frustrated by remote learning. 


[14:03]Unschooling Her Own Kids. 

  • Through the lens of economics really began to look at social problems and look at sort of the choices that families could make or could not make, in light of various government structures and government schooling was a particular. Glaring concern for her because so many children are required to attend an assigned district school and families, have very little choice.
  • To do an independent research project where she was able to shadow a homeschooling family that lived nearby.


[24:32]School System Today and The Alternative

  • Coercive education, that is the school system today and this alternative of unschooling Where you have freedom to pursue your passions, to, do  what you want to study.
  • Children need the formal education? 
  • We’re really taking away kids, passion, creativity, and freedom. 
  • Parents, make sure your children are highly literate and numerate and some it’s the responsibility of the parents to make sure their children are well-educated.
  • What unschooling is intended to be.


[28:16]The expectation in the U S that kindergarteners 

  • Learn to read for kindergarten children 
  • Pushing young children to learn to read because they have to be ready to take these standardized tests and because teachers really feel a lot of pressure to make sure that their children are ready for these standardized tests. It can create so much stress, and developmentally inappropriate expectations on these young children.
  • We end up labeling children as reading delayed when they’re simply just not developmentally ready and they will be, and they’ll get there. But we have a sort of arbitrary benchmark of five-year-olds reading. It’s impossible for every child to meet that benchmark.
  • With unschooling or these more unstructured and non-standardized approaches to education, parents can really provide so much of that freedom to children to learn in their own timetable.  
  • We develop on different timetables. One of the things that I say in the book too, we seem to accept this variety in development in early childhood. Like we don’t expect all kids to be walking at 12 months old. But somehow when it comes to intellectual development or academic development, we expect all five-year-olds to be reading and  it absolutely makes no sense.
  • Trusting the process and that we all have our own timelines. We also have our own gifts and strengths.
  • How that’s psychologically affecting a child of there something wrong with you because you’re unable to read at five or six years old.


[32:36]Labeling children

  • ADHD, young children, attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder and how misguided that is.
  • If something’s wrong with that child, that child isn’t ready to be in that classroom
  • The standardized education model. 
  • Carreer opportunities: Being an entrepreneur in this space of online learning and unschooling and homeschooling.


Power Quotes From the Show

Young People in School: Not as Rosy as We Saw

“Little kids might say they love school. They’re kind of hooked into that system and we go along for the ride as parents, but when we really step back and see what’s happening to young people in school, it’s not as rosy as we saw. And interestingly, certainly we had a mental health crisis for adolescents prior to the pandemic. It seems like at least on a large scale, that’s worsened as adolescents in particular are disconnected from their peers. So that is certainly a tragedy.”-Kerry McDonald 


Grateful for Disconnection from The Classroom

“One study came out by Peter Gray, who’s a psychology professor at Boston college who wrote the forward to my own school book. He and the organization he’s affiliated with let grow, came out with a study. Back in the early summer (of 2020), finding that kids were really missing their friends and missing their peer interaction. Parents and kids found that they, in many ways, we’re grateful for having that kind of disconnection from the classroom that they found. They were less stressed, that they were more independent and more autonomous.  And I think, again, one of the things I often recommend to families is that the more that you can give your children. The freedom to learn and not be so tied to a curriculum, the better it can be for your kids.”-Kerry McDonald 


Parents Responsibility with Good Quality Education

“Whether your children are in school or out of school, that it’s still the parents’ responsibility to make sure your children are getting a good quality education. I think it’s a lot of different ways to approach that. And the key with unschooling, which is really an umbrella term to focus much more on self directed learning and all kinds of ways. I talk about this kind of broad spectrum of approaches with unschooling, from, a version of homeschooling that provides much more freedom and autonomy to kids, to, five day a week, attendance at a learning center or for homeschoolers or a Sudbury type of thing, a school that values self-directed education.”-Kerry McDonald


Standardized Curriculum, Might not Work for Your Child

“It’s important that your children learn math, however you approach that. But there’s so many different resources, to use, whereas in a classroom, in a conventional school, you would have a standardized curriculum. It would say, this is what we’re doing, every week at this grade level, and there’ll be tests and quizzes to make sure that you’re doing that on track with your peers, and that might not work for your child.  Maybe Khan Academy, for example, isn’t great for your child, but maybe something like that. Prodigy math, which is a free, math video game-based math system that’s available online. Maybe your kids like that more and that’s their hook into math. It’s also particularly true with reading and you talked about kind of coercion and where we are with schooling.”-Kerry McDonald 


Add Your Own Flavor, Make it Happen 

“You’re not alone in thinking that standardized education might not be working well for a lot of kids or for your child. There’s others out there that are doing this and you don’t have to wait for a highway sign, to get the inspiration and the catalyst to make it happen. There’s so many people who have been doing this important work and you can add your own flavor to that process.”-Kerry McDonald  


Links from Today’s Show

Kerry McDonald | People 

Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom 


Liberated LearnersHome – Liberated Learners 


About Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald is a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a regular Forbes contributor. She is the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). Her articles have appeared at The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Newsweek, Real Clear Politics, Reason Magazine, Entrepreneur, Education Next, and the Journal of School Choice, among others. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and a Master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. Follow her writing at fee.org/kerry.


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EP 8: Dismantling the Patriarchy with a Mass Awakening

EP 7: Feminine Spirituality and the Rise of the Goddess

EP 6: Dare to Share Vulnerably

EP 5: Your Pussy is Not Dirty

EP 4: How I Launched My Book While Dead Broke

EP 3: How to Find Resiliency When in Fear and Uncertainty

EP 2: What it Means to be BRAVE

EP 1: A Heroine’s Journey: My Story


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