Looking at Unschooling With Kerry McDonald

Too often, in everyday language, we equate education with schooling. We ask someone "How much education have you had?" and we expect them to tell us about the number of years they spent in school or their highest diploma. IX

I was never all that into high school, which I don't think is odd. Many teens aren't into school. It feels like too many constraints to learn things you don't care about, and decades later, I use little of that knowledge. So why on earth do we go to school, and what are the alternatives?

That's what Unschooled by Kerry McDonald is going to inform us. The goal of the book is to show us the benefits of child directed learning and how formal schooling inhibits the exact creativity and learning that kids will need as the move forward into a workforce where we don't even have names for the jobs that will exist1.

Craving Freedom

One of the main points that McDonald makes is that we crave freedom, and that school is not freedom. In fact, it's the exact opposite. School is all about learning what you're told, even if you're not interested in it 2. I found her arguments about craving freedom quite compelling since as a business owner it's the freedom to explore things I want to explore that keeps me interested in my work.

McDonald sites research that shows children 6 - 8 years of age increased school hours from 5 to seven when you compare 1981-82 vs 2002-033. These numbers don't include daycare, or other after school programs that she says are remarkably like school. Parents are more like to do "school stuffs", workbooks or other supplementary adult directed learning, than they have at any other time4.

Largely excluded from the authentic world in which they are designed to come of age, most schooled teens crave independence and autonomy. instead, they are treated like tots, with their daily movements and actions controlled by others. #177

When we looked at Kids These Days, we found that teens are less likely to even be allowed to go outside without parental supervision5. The only interaction they're allowed is via a screen.

Instead of this lack of freedom, McDonald says that we need to let teens get out in the real world with autonomy. We need to get them doing real things and trust them. McDonald cites a number of unschool centres that allow teens to head out into the city on their own, sometimes even with younger children. They've found that once you trust teens, behaviour problems pretty much evaporate. All that rebellion and "poor" behaviour comes down to a teen trying to find some form of freedom in a world in which they have none.

Freedom is not no responsibilities. You may choose your activity, but you still have a responsibility to your family and your community to clean up after your activities. You know, the same freedom adults have and aren't we supposed to be preparing kids for adulthood6?

So Who Excels at School?

So if school doesn't emphasize freedom, and true creativity in learning, what does it focus on? According to McDonald, school aims to build control and conformity in children at the expense of freedom, play, and creativity7.

Those who do well in the system are those who have adapted effectively to the schooling norm. They have been trained but not educated. #86

The entire foundation of conventional schooling rests on the belief that young people must spend most of their childhood passively absorbing specific content deemed by others to be important. It assumes that young people are incapable of choosing what to learn, when, and how, and that teachers are the only ones who can effectively impart knowledge. #38

If we concede this point for now, how does that prepare kids for the world ahead of them? How many jobs require self-managed education? My programming and writing career have been entirely self-managed. Late last year I read The Expertise Economy, which is all about how many big companies are enabling their employees to have a self-managed educational and career path. If you want to keep up with your career, you're going to have to educate yourself, sometimes off company time.

Is that what school is teaching kids to do?

What is Unschooling?

Now let's get to defining what Unschooling is. In McDonald's thinking, unschooling, is child directed learning assisted by attentive parents8. While this definition seems simple, it also reveals one of the big issues with unschooling as presented by McDonald, which I'll get to later.

Unschooling, is what everyone used to do before compulsory education. We relied on hired tutors and apprenticeships9. When I read this my first thought was that only the rich could hire tutors, and in some cases, they were the only ones that could afford to deal with any costs associated with apprenticeships. To this idea McDonald recommends reading The Myth of Common School, though I expect the high cost of the book will put off all but the most curious readers.

What about the Basics?

Schools say they value difference, diversity, and individuality; the reality is that they don't. they can't. Childhood energy and enthusiasm are incompatible with schoolstuffs. Reading later than the established curriculum norms dictate is unacceptable and grounds for intervention. 10

Another core argument against school in the way it's normally does is the reliance on the Bell curve for expected progress. The Bell curve would say that between the ages of 6 and 8 you should be reading. If you're too far behind that, you're labelled with a developmental difficulty even though reading ability and reading age is not a reliable proxy for intelligence11. The research McDonald cites shows that as long as you're reading by 14, there is no long term difference in your success.

Unfortunately for school, this doesn't work because by grade 4 and 5 you need to read your worksheets on your own and do the work. If you can't do that, you fall outside the norm and get extra educational plans to "help bring you up to speed".

We homeschooled for the first few years of my oldest daughter's education and the biggest sticking point for us was math. Many of the resources we read say that they still did worksheets for math and reading. But McDonald would say, just cut any thought of adult lead education at all12. Your kid will learn when they're ready and likely not for the reasons you think they should.

Okay but "socialization"

Another argument for school is "socialization", but McDonald takes exception to this. She finds the assumption that socialization means you can hang out with same age peers as laughable13. I don't only hang out with people that are heading to their 40th birthday. My friends range in age from 20 - 65, but no kid is given this breadth in regular interactions.

McDonald says that at school, we're mostly socializing kids towards following rules14. True socialization comes when kids are comfortable interacting with individuals of many ages in different situations.

A Few Issues with the Book

The biggest issue I had with McDonald's ideas around unschooling, is the time investment it would take for a parent to follow this method of education. My wife and I both work. Neither of us can afford to take a random day off when our kid decides it's time to investigate some topic as McDonald suggests we do to educate our children. She tells one story of a child getting interested in chemical bonds15, along with all the trips that the parents took to the library and science experience, and I have no idea how we'd ever do that with a kid, let along with three that all have differing interests.

In fact, this question of how a working parent would ever fit the time requirement into their day was one I hoped would be answered within the first few pages of reading. While McDonald cites a bunch of resources for unschoolers in big cities, like makerspaces and other unschool specific programs, none of those exist near me. None of them exist within a 40 minute drive. I continued to feel like that would be the case for most parents, and the alternative is having work that lets you drop everything when your kid is interested in something and wants to learn.

She's also quite sweet on technology being an enabler for learning, though admits that most online resources are basically school but in video format16. Unfortunately, when we looked at The Revenge of Analog, we saw that lots of ed-tech is basically a flop.

She also suggest adventure parks, and other resources like that, which strikes me as sad because we need "sanctioned" places with staff for kids to be able to play like kids have for decades17. I know that when we let my oldest daughter cross the street to her school to play at the park, we're more concerned about some other adult calling some government service to say we're not being good parents because we let her sit on a swing unsupervised.

Should You Read Unschooled by Kerry McDonald

So, should you read this book? While I love the ideas about Unschooling, and think that most of my adult life has basically been an unschooled life, I fail to see how I could bring my kids home from school and embrace this way of learning. At least if I want to keep having food on the table that is purchased with money my wife and I learn.

If you're looking for a read on Unschooling, it's a good one. If you're looking for a path to get it going in your house where two parents work, I'm not sure that this is going to be the book for you.

Purchase Unschooled on Amazon

Photo by: kylethale


  1. Page 222 ↩︎

  2. Page 2 ↩︎

  3. Page 68 ↩︎

  4. On my long term list for research down this line of thought is PlayDHD ↩︎

  5. Kids These Days page 184 ↩︎

  6. Page 61 ↩︎

  7. Page 80 ↩︎

  8. Page 26 ↩︎

  9. Page 6 ↩︎

  10. Page 94 ↩︎

  11. Page 96 ↩︎

  12. Page 30 ↩︎

  13. Page 166 ↩︎

  14. Page 13 ↩︎

  15. Page 29 ↩︎

  16. Around page 120 - 130 ↩︎

  17. There is an interesting article about a school that does no rules recess that I kept thinking of. ↩︎