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May 6, 2019

Unschooled – Author Kerry McDonald Q & A


Happy publication week to Kerry McDonald, author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom. To celebrate her new book, we asked Kerry McDonald a few questions about the changing trends of education and how she drew upon her own experiences and education during the writing process.


First things first: What does “unschooling” mean?

At its most basic level, unschooling means disentangling education from schooling—including school-at-home versions of homeschooling. It means embracing self-directed education that places the individual learner in charge of his/her education, guided by emerging interests and with the support of helpful facilitators and community resources. Unschooling is about prioritizing freedom over force in education, while ensuring that freedom is balanced by personal responsibility.

Unschooled offers your own personal parenting narrative in addition to research on self-directed education. What did you discover from your own experiences of homeschooling that you didn’t learn while studying education policy at Harvard?

My academic experiences prompted me to explore the idea of alternatives to school more broadly, but it wasn’t until I became a mom that I realized how powerful the philosophy of unschooling can be in practice. Watching my children pursue their passions outside of a conventional classroom, I am in awe of how and what they learn. Their unschooled education is much more immersive and authentic—and enjoyable—than my K–12 public schooling education. They are educated; I was schooled.

What would you say to the parents that may seem doubtful of unschooling or too scared to try it with their children?

Choosing an unconventional educational path is not easy, but it can be immensely rewarding for children and parents alike. To build community and confidence, I suggest connecting with local homeschooling/unschooling groups online or in person to gain support and encouragement and learn about available resources—including nearby classes and activities, self-directed learning centers, and other programs for unschoolers.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading Unschooled?

I truly hope that after reading Unschooled, parents will feel more empowered to pursue an unschooled education for their children and entrepreneurial educators will be inspired to build new alternatives to school to serve more families who are looking for learning opportunities beyond the conventional classroom.

How do you think education will change in the next five to ten years?

I think we are at a transformative moment in education, as both parents and educators are increasingly dissatisfied with a standardized, test-driven mass schooling model. This frustration has been simmering for quite some time, but today’s technological innovations along with the expanding homeschooling movement provide both the platform and the precedent for learning without schooling. Over the next decade, I predict that we will see many more alternatives to school reflecting a wide assortment of educational philosophies and approaches.

What five people—living, dead, fictional or nonfictional—would you have over for a dinner party and why?

Unschooling may seem like a new-age idea, but really its philosophical roots go back to the 17th century writings of John Locke, who was one of the first philosophers to champion the ideas of individual liberty and non-coercion that are so central to unschooling. Locke would take his spot at the head of the dinner table, with Homer Lane to his left. Lane and his followers split from the progressive education philosophy promoted by John Dewey in the early 20th century, elevating learner autonomy while celebrating freedom and responsibility. Next to Lane would be Ivan Illich whose 1970 book, Deschooling Society, imagined a world free of institutional schooling and other forms of social control. Illich inspired John Holt, the next dinner guest, who coined the term “unschooling” in 1977 to mean “taking children out of school.” John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year and author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, would take the final spot at the table, reinforcing the importance of moving away from coercive schooling toward freedom in education.


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