This episode explores the topic of expanding education choice to more families and why that matters for unschoolers and others who care about parental empowerment, education innovation, and diverse learning opportunities for young people.

Massachusetts led the way in compulsion, passing the first compulsory education law in 1642 and the first compulsory school attendance law in 1852. The story we are told is that 19th century compulsory schooling was to be the "great equalizer" and that force was required for the "public good." The reality is that the chief architect of the 1852 law homeschooled his own children, and the roots of compulsory schooling were deeply anti-immigrant.

Unschooling and... the numbers. Homeschooling numbers have risen dramatically in the last two decades— and unschooling numbers have spiked in just 4 years. Self-directed education is catching on, and unschooling learning centers (like those spotlighted in this week’s glowing Boston Globe article: will continue to make unschooling and self-directed education more accessible to more families.

In this episode, I share details from my recent keynote presentation at the New Hampshire School Administrators Association conference. The title of my keynote was “The Future of Education is Unschooling,” and I presented it to the more than 200 district superintendents, assistant superintendents, school principals, and other school leaders in attendance. In my breakout workshop that accompanied the keynote, over 25 participants talked about how they might be able to integrate unschooling principles and practices into their schools and classrooms, using two of the public “unschooling” schools I described as blueprints.

Is unschooling anti-intellectual? Some of its roots might be, but modern unschoolers know that Self-Directed Education can lead to much more intellectual rigor and academic mastery than conventional schooling and school-at-home educational approaches.


Bailey, Richard. A.S. Neill. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013: pp. 138-9.

Wheatley, Karl. F. “Unschooling: A growing oasis for development and democracy,” Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice 22, no. 2 (2009), 27-32. 





Every 40 to 50 years, it seems, there is a surge of interest in alternative education ideas. Beginning with John Dewey in the 1880s, followed by another spike in interest in the 1920s, and then the radical education reformers of the 1960s, we might wonder: Is this just the next iteration of alternative education ideas? Will today's unschooling and Self-Directed Education momentum fade in a few years, and be rekindled again during the next 50-year cycle? 

Four reasons lead me to believe the answer is no. The modern unschooling movement is here to stay, and to make a big impact on the broader educational landscape.

This episode describes how unschooling is the preferred education approach, not only to nurture our children's current interests, passions, and autonomy, but also to prepare them for the future of work.

In a world where the majority of children now entering elementary school will work in jobs that have yet to be invented--and when some of today's most in-demand careers and skillsets DID NOT EXIST five or 10 years ago--unschooling prepares young people for an ambigous, technology-fueled future by immersing them fully in the people, places, and things of the present.

Tomorrow's workers need to be able to distinguish themselves from robots. A standardized education only makes humans more similar to artificially intelligent machines. Unschooling creates the conditions to nurture children's natural curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, empathy, and entrepreneurship to set tomorrow's workers apart from their robot colleagues. 

World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs report (2016):

Fast Company article - "How to prepare your kids for jobs that don't exist yet":

Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018):

Changing Times of American Youth, 1981-2003, University of Michigan:



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In this episode, we explore the opposing ideas of freedom and coercion, from their philosophical roots to their modern societal manifestations to their influence on unschooling theory and practice.

Episode Notes:

Thomas Jefferson (1816): “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”[i]

 In 1817, Jefferson wrote: “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by forcible asportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.”[ii]


John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859):

 “An individual] cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.”

“Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.”

“It might leave to parents to obtain the education when and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children."

“A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another : and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aris tocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on . for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.”


Camp Stomping Ground - self-directed, overnight summer camp in NY


[i]Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Charles Yancy, January 6, 1816,

[ii]Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Andrew A. Lipscomb (The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), 423.

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Unschooling And…Its Origins

Kerry McDonald


Many people believe that unschooling began with John Holt. While it is most certainly true that John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in the late-1970s as part of his work in the emerging modern homeschooling movement, the philosophical roots of unschooling and Self-Directed Education go back centuries. This is not some new-age idea. 


John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

“For a child will learn three times as much when he is in tune, as he will with double the time and pains when he goes awkwardly or is dragg'd unwillingly to it.” 


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education (1762)

"Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things and everything degenerates in the hands of man.”


Sidney Hook (1971): “Only those unfamiliar with Dewey’s work can believe that he rejects the active role of the teacher in planning the classroom experience by properly organized subject matters.” - "John Dewey and His Betrayers." Change 3, no. 7: 26. 


Ronald Swartz, From Socrates to Summerhill and Beyond (2016)


A.S. Neill (Alexander Sutherland Neill), Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood (1960);

Freedom, Not License! (1966)


Paul Goodman, Compulsory Mis-education and the Community of Scholars (1964)


John Holt, How Children Fail (1964), How Children Learn (1967), Teach Your Own (1981)


Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1970)

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Unschooling and…Freedom

June 13, 2018


By Kerry McDonald


This inaugural episode focuses on unschooling and…freedom.


I am excited to launch this new podcast series that amplifies the ideas and practices of unschooling and Self-Directed Education using a broad array of topic launching pads. Unschooling can be connected to so many things in the past, present, and future! Let’s talk about some of them here!


First, let’s get to a working definition of unschooling. The term Unschooling means different things to different people. It was coined in the late 1970s by the educator and social reformer, John Holt, who was among the early leaders of the modern homeschooling movement, helping to legalize and normalize homeschooling during the last two decades of the 20th century. Today, unschooling is a philosophy of education that dismisses conventional school and school-at-home approaches, and instead values a non-coercive, self-directed, interest-driven, adult-facilitated learning environment. 


The number of unschoolers has been growing steadily in the new millennium. It is hard to estimate exactly how many unschoolers there are. A 2016 article in USA Today suggested that about 10 percent of today’s nearly two million homeschoolers identify as unschoolers, but another 2016 article in the Christian Science Monitor suggested that up to half of today’s homeschoolers incorporate unschooling ideas and practices. New 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that 20% of homeschoolers either “always” or “mostly” use informal learning practices. So we can probably safely say that as few as 10 percent and as many as 50 percent of today’s homeschoolers are unschoolers. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.


In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of self-directed learning centers and unschooling schools—like the Sudbury model—sprouting across the United States and worldwide. Some of the children who attend these centers and schools are registered as homeschoolers; but many are not, and they may attend the center or school part-time or full-time. When we include the new and growing alternatives to school that emphasize Self-Directed Education, the number of unschoolers expands significantly.


In my forthcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, which is being published later this year by Chicago Review Press, I spotlight some of the unschooling families, as well as self-directed centers and unschooling schools, that put unschooling ideals into practice. I discovered a recurring theme while traveling around the country researching this book. Echoed in the stories and daily experiences of both unschooling parents and educators was an unrelenting faith in the power of freedom. It was this idea that young people should be freed from a coercive system of schooling and allowed to educate themselves, with the support and mentorship of adults, while following their own, distinct interests and goals, that motivated these parents and educators. This self-directed education looks nothing like schooling, although often young people will seek out instruction, participate in formal classes, and engage in what we would consider rigorous “academic” work. But they are choosing to do this, based on their own interests and goals. They have the freedom to choose what classes, if any, to take or not take. They have the freedom to explore, discover, and synthesize their world, driven by their innate human curiosity.


“Oh, but children can’t learn with that much freedom!” some skeptics may counter. “If they are given the freedom to direct their own learning they won’t learn anything. They will do nothing. And they certainly won’t seek out rigorous academics.”


But this simply isn’t true. When children know that they are fully in charge of directing their own education, with the guidance of adults—and when their natural learning instincts have not been extinguished by conventional schooling or have been rekindled after leaving it—they will learn and do remarkable things. My older daughter, Molly, whom you will hear from shortly, has been taking a very rigorous fiction writing class through, an online learning platform for kids. The class is taught by an award-winning fiction writer and incorporates live group discussion with her classmates around the world and ongoing writing expectations and feedback. It is quite a commitment! But it is something that she is passionate about, that she is driving! As an unschooling parent, I connected her to as a possible resource, as well as other local writing classes, and she found that this online class was the best fit for her writing goals. She writes all the time, enthusiastically prepares for her class, and connects with many of her classmates around the globe through Google hangouts. She also knows that if this course no longer meets her needs, she can leave. Like we adults who may take an adult education class or an online course that we may drop or discontinue if it doesn’t meet our expectations, so too unschooled children have the freedom to quit.


Unschooling is the ultimate expression of freedom in education. It places the child in charge of his or her own learning, while adults facilitate that learning, connect the child to broader community resources, and ensure that the child becomes highly literate and numerate. This is where freedom meets responsibility—and this was another primary theme of my book research. As the 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, wrote in The Constitution of Liberty: “Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.” Or as Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.” Providing the freedom in unschooling is often the easy part; demonstrating responsibility, as both children and adults in the unschooling relationship, is often much trickier. As I detail in the book, freedom and responsibility looks different for each unschooling family and organization. As an example, some parents and educators place screen time limits in their homes, centers or schools because they feel that it creates a better balance between freedom and responsibility; others don’t. For many, this particular issue is constantly changing and evolving. In fact, this topic could be a podcast episode all its own.


The larger point is that balancing freedom with responsibility is a critical component, not only of unschooling’s success for any individual family or organization, but also for the true potential of unschooling ideals to redefine education in the 21st century. Increasingly, parents and educators are challenging the idea that the best way to educate people for life in a free society is to compel them to spend most of their formative years learning by force. We must nurture in children their natural creativity, ingenuity, exuberance, and empathy--qualities deeply necessary for the innovation era as we try to distinguish our human advantage from those of robots. Unschooling is the model that will allow these qualities to flourish, and will serve as the antidote to our dominant schooling system that steadily destroys these qualities. For unschooling ideals and practices to firmly take root and grow to their greatest potential, we unschooling advocates must frequently highlight and reinforce the essential dance of freedom and responsibility, for unschoolers and for society as a whole.


If, as Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and if we want that world to be freer, then unschooling is the preferred pathway to a truly free society.

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