How We Became Unschoolers

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by Kerry McDonald

When my husband and I first committed to homeschooling when my oldest was just two-years-old, I thought for sure that by the time she was five we would be following an age-appropriate, established curriculum–at least for certain subject areas–and would have time allocated each day for “teaching & learning.” In those early days, when I would talk to the homeschooling moms of older kids at homeschool park days or similar meet-ups, I thought those “unschooly” moms were a little “out there.” They were a bit too radical, I thought, just letting their kids do whatever they wanted, not requiring mastery in certain areas at certain times, not establishing expectations for academic performance. Radical.

And now here I am. Radical and out there. And loving every minute. (Ok, almost every minute.)

It wasn’t that I woke up one day and decided to become radical. It wasn’t that I was trying to make a point or hop on a bandwagon. It was that I actually saw my children learning, all on their own, following their own developing interests, without my instruction. I watched as their natural, innate childhood curiosity guided them to discover and explore and widen their imaginations. I watched as my oldest learned how to read, not because I sat with her to review letters and sounds and sight words, but because she was surrounded by literacy and was ready to read. I watched as she grew increasingly interested in mathematical concepts, not from using a math curriculum or reviewing math problems, but because she was surrounded by numeracy and wanted to know more about how numbers and patterns could be applied. I watched as she became increasingly interested in learning the piano, in practicing and experimenting, not because I told her to practice or because her piano teacher asked her to, but because she was excited about making music. I saw her doing things, learning things, mastering things that I would never have thought to teach her–and that maybe if I had taught her, might not have resulted in so much originality and skill.

I realized, through the fascinating process of watching my children learn, to trust them: to trust a child’s natural drive to know and create, to explore and synthesize. I realized that “unschooling” allows this natural learning to occur in many unanticipated and meaningful ways by allowing our children to show us the way: to reveal to us their passions, their gifts, and to constantly astound us with their capabilities when given the time and space to develop them naturally.

I learned that I am not my children’s teacher. I am their follower.


Kerry McDonald, M.Ed, lives and learns in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband and four never-been-schooled children. She blogs about natural learning, natural parenting, and natural living at City Kids Homeschooling.

Schools Can Create Stupidity


By Patrick Farenga

The teacher and author John Holt wrote this letter to Mothering magazine in Spring 1983 that neatly sums up an often unrecognized problem caused by universal compulsory schooling—too much schooling creates stupidity.

“When I (now 60) was little, nobody ever thought that children had to be TAUGHT colors and shapes. Nobody ever taught me colors and shapes. I figured them out, just as I figured out thousands of other things, by seeing what people did around me and hearing what they said about what they did, and maybe asking a question if I wanted to confirm one of my hunches.

Every year we get more and more deeply mired in the fundamentally false idea that learning is, must be, and can only be the result of teaching, in short, that ideas never get into children’s heads unless adults put them there. No more harmful and mistaken idea was ever invented. The fact, as all parents of young children can easily observe, is that children create learning out of experience and they do it in almost exactly the same way that the people we call “scientists” do it—by observing, wondering, theorizing, and experimenting (which may include asking questions) to test their theories.

The idea that, unless taught, a child might actually grow up not knowing squares from triangles or red from blue is so absurd that I hardly know what to say about it. But it is an astonishingly widespread idea.

I suppose I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life battling it. The worst thing about it is that after a while kids come to believe it themselves.”

Such attitudes about learning dominate education today: children won’t learn anything unless we teach it to them. Common Core, the latest checklist of “essential knowledge” for children, is full of concepts and facts that teachers need to implant in the minds of students, replacing the No Child Left Behind list, the Back to Basics list, and all the other curricular checklists we’ve insisted that students learn since we created compulsory schools about 150 years ago. This checklist approach to education has the effect of infantilizing children in our minds and public policies and reduces their agency in practice. John Holt observed this in his fifth-grade classrooms in the 1950s and 1960s, noting how the standard dynamics of the classroom made otherwise mature children act particularly cute and childish as a way to tease answers or favor out of a teacher, made other students into clever bluffers, and so on (see Holt’s How Children Fail for more). Holt eventually viewed his most important work as a teacher to be figuring out ways to integrate children back into adult society rather than giving them cleverly designed lessons in a classroom.

In Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Belknap Press, 2004) Prof. Steven Mintz notes the strong domestication effect of modern education upon youth and how childrearing today minimizes risk and freedom for children in favor of adult prediction and control that limits their social interactions: “Today, connections that linked the young to the world of adults have grown attenuated. The young spend most of their day in an adult-run institution, the school, or consuming a mass culture produced by adults, but have few ties to actual adults apart from their parents and teachers.”

Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, writes in the New York Times (July 5, 2014) how our style of schooling not only infantilizes our own children, but also children in other cultures when they are exposed to it:

 ”The turmoil of our teenagers is due entirely to societal practices that infantilize young people and isolate them from responsible adults, trapping them in the frivolous, media-controlled world of “teen culture.”  Anthropological research also demonstrates that when Western schooling and media enter cultures where teenagers are highly functional, they typically take on all the pathological characteristics of American teenagers within a decade.”

John McKnight writes and works extensively about communities and how they grow and thrive. He notes that before 150 years ago, no human social group—town, village, tribe, community—thought the best way to help young people grow into responsible adults was to isolate them (by law) from responsible adults for 13 years.

Separating the young from the old is one of the great mistakes of modern education; for centuries children were very often around adults and children of different ages and school, if they had it all, was seasonal. Universal compulsory schooling is a very recent development in human history, but we act as if it is inevitable and the best way to help children learn and grow. I agree wholeheartedly with these words by Professor Mintz in his conclusion to Huck’s Raft: “Above all, our society can provide the young with meaningful opportunities to contribute to their communities, and provide the young with adult mentoring relationships. Young Huck needs Jim as he and his little raft brave a raging Mississippi.”

It seems simple enough—let’s help children find mentors—yet in practice school has diminished our imaginations and actions to the point that most parents believe only professional teachers in professional buildings can help children learn meaningful things (namely, what is on the current education checklist). The origins of school are rooted in the industrial revolution and the checklist approach works well for mechanical processes—but people are not machines. There is plenty of research that shows our brains do not develop like computers, gaining more information as new codes are added to it by programmers, but are more like rain forests that are startlingly interconnected and work like ecosystems (“Brain forests” as Dr. Thomas Armstrong refers to them). Nonetheless, we continue to push school processes and workplace needs over child development and community, to marginalize parents and other adults from children’s education because they are not properly certified or trained by school.

Albert Einstein said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.” This is why we need alternatives to school: the very process of schooling teaches us—ingrains in us—the need to be taught by others. We need policies, ways, and means that promote individual intrinsic learning more and universal compulsory schooling less. Homeschooling or sending your child to an alternative public or private school are options that can let your child grow with more independence and responsibility than conventional school permits, but there are also smaller steps you can take to make children welcome in your community, such as:

  • Make sure your local park and other public spaces are child friendly (including your front yard). See Playborhood.
  • Support a recess period of free play for children during school hours.
  • Be welcoming of children and teenagers in your daily life rather than wary of them.
  • Fight daytime curfew laws that banish children from public spaces during business hours.
  • Support businesses and nonprofits that provide apprenticeships, internships, activities, and events for children outside of school.
  • Advocate for alternatives TO school for children, not just more school.

Pat Farenga is a writer and education activist who worked closely with the late author and teacher John Holt and continues his work today as the president of HoltGWS LLC. After Holt died, Pat published Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until 2001. (GWS was the nation’s first periodical about learning without going to school, started by Holt in 1977.) The Farengas unschooled their daughters, now ages 27, 24 and 21.Pat speaks as a homeschooling expert at education conferences around the world, as well as on commercial radio and television talk shows. His media appearances include The Today Show, Good Morning America, Voice of America, Geraldo, NPR’s Learning Matters, CNN’s Parenting Today, The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show, and Fox and Friends. 

Why We’re Not Going Back To School in the Fall

by Tracy Barsamian Ventola 

Last fall, we quit formal schooling. We stopped dragging our seven-year-old daughter—kicking and screaming—out of bed each morning. We no longer held our breath each afternoon as we drove up the school’s driveway, where the teacher would hand us a physically, emotionally, and spiritually depleted child. A child who held it together all day at school and unraveled as soon as she entered the sanctity of our minivan. That unraveling would take the form of tantrums—screaming, hitting, kicking, and punching at home. Somehow we’d survive the afternoon and early evening, only for our daughter to struggle to fall asleep for hours, tossing and turning in bed. And the torture would begin again the next morning when we’d wake her from a dead sleep and fight the battle required to get her to school by 8:20.

Friends and family, with varying degrees of eloquence, warned my husband and me that we were shirking our parental responsibilities. Children must be socialized! Children must go to school! It was our responsibility as parents to endure this hellish lifestyle and get our kid to school, damn it! But the more that we thought about the situation, from our daughter’s perspective and that of our family as a whole, the more we questioned whether going to school (an institution created by the state) was in our child’s best interest? We wondered, what if we stopped imposing society’s rules on our child, who was so clearly suffering? What would happen if we listened to our daughter? She could not have sent us any clearer message: school was not working for her! And the transformation that would occur, as a result of withdrawing our daughter from school, would be more remarkable than we’d ever dared to imagine…

It was a slow process. It started over the summer, once school ended…but, by the end of the fall, our girl was back in her body. The hitting, kicking, and screaming all became things of the past! The tantrums stopped completely. Our home went from a war zone to a place of peace and quiet. The three-year-old little sister got back her big sister. The explosive big sister was replaced with a gentle girl who played kitties and puppies with her little sister. And the sleep! Our daughter who’d struggled with sleep for years began to easily drift to sleep at night. Replacing the stress of school with a slower pace and unstructured time was healing our seven-year-old.

Before deciding to homeschool, I conducted hundreds of hours of research, during which I met two homeschooling moms whose stories took my breath away.  Both moms had sons who, when in school, had experienced behavioral issues very similar to those of my daughter.  Both mothers vowed that homeschooling was the tantrum solution!  And so, I’d hoped—dreamed!—about the behavioral changes that would occur once we started homeschooling, but what I had not anticipated was how my daughter’s inner light—her natural curiosity and her joy of life and learning—would be rekindled by the slower pace, by the days tailored to her needs and interests.

At the beginning of the year, our girl was not interested in much. She wanted only to stay home. To play in the playroom. To lounge on the couch. To lie in bed, looking at books. I religiously planted seeds all fall. I littered books that might interest her around the house. I told her about new, exciting homeschool classes that were forming. I suggested homeschool park days and games days. Nothing sparked her interest. Nothing. This flat stance would continue through the fall, but in December the most amazing thing happened: the lights came back on! She was interested in everything: learning to read, to skate, to dance, to design and sew clothing, to bake her own recipes. You name it, it interested her! Enough time had passed. She had, in a sense, rebooted her feelings about learning…and about life in general.

Art is another way that we witnessed this huge shift in our daughter. Our girl has always been a talented artist, but once she started going to school every day, she all but stopped drawing. Now, as a homeschooler, most of her quiet time at home is spent with a pen and a sketch book in hand, perfecting some aspect of her drawing. She’s currently working on getting the fingers on figures to look just right.

A year ago, I experienced many sleepless nights, worrying about our decision to quit school. I was a Spanish teacher before becoming a mom. My mother was a classroom teacher before she became a mom. My father taught special education for over thirty years. I’d never considered homeschooling until faced with my older girl’s emotional and behavioral struggles. Now, a year later, I am so grateful for those tantrums! Our daughter’s outrageous behavior gave us the courage to homeschool. And homeschooling truly has changed everything. And so, this summer, I  sleep soundly knowing that we’re on the right path, knowing that we’re not going back to school in the fall.

Tracy Barsamian Ventola writes about her family’s adventures in unschooling on her website Off Kilter – Holistic Parenting for the Rest of Us ( Her blog focuses on alternative education, holistic health, and conscious parenting.  

Community Resource Centers: North Star

There are numerous ways in which people of all ages can grow and learn outside of school–developing their skills, pursuing their interests, and becoming happy, productive and useful members of society. Community Resource Centers dedicated to the needs and interests of self-directed learners are widespread and can enhance home-based learning. Today’s blog post highlights one such resource center, North Star, in Hadley, Mass. To learn more about resource centers near you, visit the Alternatives To School Community Resources page.

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by Kenneth Danford

David and his mother have driven more than an hour to visit North Star.  As I show them around the building, he is quiet.   When we sit down in the office, I take up my notes from the phone call I had with his mother, and say, “So, you are 15, just finishing 9th grade in public school?”  He says, cautiously, “Well, actually, I didn’t finish this year.”  I pause, wondering how he feels about this situation, and not sure if he isn’t a bit embarrassed and vulnerable to tell that to a stranger in a school-like office setting.  I just say, “Oh, what happened?”

 “Well, the work just seemed so pointless and boring.  I stopped doing it.  And then I just gave up.”   I heard a sense of defeat in that report, so I blurted out, “Congratulations!  I bet stopping going to school was probably the wisest thing you could have done.”  A tiny hint of a smile appeared at the corners of his mouth, and he looked at me to see if I was joking.  His mother exclaimed, “Well, you haven’t heard that one before!”

An hour-and-a-half conversation ensued.  Sure, David has struggled with depression, but he’s not seeing a therapist and he’s not on any medications.  Since he stopped going to school in May, he’s actually feeling happy. He has one major activity, martial arts (in which he is pursuing his black belt), and he has one active intellectual pursuit, psychology.  His mother, a social worker, confirms that David is much more alert and pleasant and thoughtful about his life since he stopped going to school in May.

In fact, his mother goes on to share the long version of David’s dismal school career, saying, “Every time a teacher told me, ‘I’m going to make sure I get through to your son,’ I knew we were in trouble.  I always wanted to tell them, ‘Stop trying so hard.’”

I laughed out loud.  “You’ve come to the right place for that!”  Seriously, North Star staff pay careful attention to our members, and one of our primary concerns is to build relationships with teens.  However, we do not try to “fix” or “change” teens, especially those who have no desire to be “fixed” or “changed.”

After I heard their full story, I began my description of North Star by asserting, “Everything I’m about to tell you and offer you are things you can do either with or without North Star.  You do not have to join us to embrace a self-directed lifestyle that will work.  Join us only if driving more than an hour a couple of times per week is going to improve your life.”

I then went on to describe our program:  our classes, our one-on-one meetings for personal interests and tutoring, our advisories for each member, and our goal for helping each member construct a routine and a life they want.  I explained that he could go to college if and when he wanted, starting right now.  I told him that obtaining a GED would satisfy every bureaucratic need he might encounter without a traditional high school diploma.  In short, I repeated over and over again in as many variations as I could manage to say:  “Your choice to not complete 9th grade has cost you nothing, and it never will.  You just seized a 3-year-and-two-month head start on your life.  You are a risk-taker, and you are entirely correct in assessing the value of staying in school.”

 Who else tells a semi-depressed kid who gave up on school prior to 9th grade finals that he has done the right thing for himself?  Most of the teens I meet at North Star are not depressed.  In each meeting, I find a different way to convey the truth that “School  is optional” that is relevant to their experience.

I don’t know for sure that David will join North Star, and if he doesn’t, his mother will never pay us a dime.  But watching his body posture and eye contact change during that meeting, hearing his mother’s support and appreciation for our message, witnessing her tears, and shaking his hand on the way out the door all made it a day well spent.

If you would like to find out how to tell teens that School is Optional, and that choosing to leave school for self-directed learning can be the best choice they ever make, please visit  or view my ted talk.  If you would like learn about the network of others we are working with to spread our model, visit the website of Liberated Learners.

Kenneth Danford is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, established in 1996.  In 2013, Kenneth co-founded Liberated Learners, an organization dedicated to spreading the North Star model.  Prior to his involvement with self-directed learning, Kenneth taught 8th grade U.S. History in the Prince George’s County, MD and Amherst, MA public schools.  He now lives in Montague, MA, and his family includes two teens who choose to attend public school.

Without a Diploma, Does the Scarecrow Have a Brain?


by Shannon Hayes


 It was less than a week after I’d defended my Ph.D. dissertation when I sat down at my computer to complete Cornell University’s online graduate placement questionnaire. Supposedly, upon answering each of the multiple-choice questions about my interests, experiences and coursework, the computer program would match me with any number of potential employers specifically in search of a Cornell grad with my unique skills and talents.

After two hours of carefully considering each response, I clicked “submit.”

Three days later I received my one and only career possibility.

After receiving a Masters degree and Ph.D. from Cornell University with a 3.9 G.P.A., where I had specialized in sustainable agriculture and community development, I was singularly qualified to apply for a job writing scripts for the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

This was one of many moments when I deeply questioned the value of higher education.

This story has come to my mind often in the past few weeks, as I’ve had the opportunity to meet with students from four different colleges, both public and private, along the East Coast. These scholars have run the gamut from barely literate (incredible!) to brilliantly committed to finding ways to heal the earth and rebuild a sustainable economy.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to speak to a younger population about the concepts of sustainability, I found myself deeply worried about all of them. The United States Department of Education reports that the price for public university tuition rose 42 percent between 2001 and 2011, and private schools jumped 31 percent. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 60 percent of college students are borrowing money each year to cover their tuition. I don’t think that figure includes the personal debts incurred by parents trying to help their kids pay these bills, or the drain on their savings that go toward college expenses.

This data sprung to mind this week when one student asked me how I would make education more sustainable. Naturally, I think we need to find ways to lower the costs. But as I pondered his question, I realized there was more to the problem. The prevalent axiom that typically sends kids to school is the notion that they’ll earn more money with a college degree than they will with just a high school diploma. I have two concerns about this claim:

1.  This assumes that students are accepting conventional employment upon leaving school. I happen to believe that if we are to rebuild a sustainable society, then we need more people to step outside the parameters of conventional employment and instead begin small businesses that operate within a life-serving economy, where everyone is able to earn a living wage, where ecological resources are sustained, where community life is vibrant, and where relationships are easily nurtured.

If a student craves employment in the global economy, where an employer will not consider them to be intelligent and competent without a college degree, then perhaps the diploma is worth buying. But while intelligence and an ability to learn are required to be in business for oneself, a diploma is not. Obviously, this argument doesn’t carry to those folks who require professional certifications in order to be in practice, such as architects, doctors, nurses, school teachers, etc. But there are a lot of livelihoods in which professional certification isn’t necessary. And while some advanced training or an apprenticeship will likely be needed in order to hang out a shingle, a college diploma may not be. And if a college diploma comes with a debt package, it may hamper the graduate’s freedom to choose self-employment. That scares me. The next generation cannot help us to unravel the extractive economy and re-build a life-serving alternative if they are too indebted to avoid ecologically and socially extractive employment.

2. If college students “earn more” than non-college graduates, that also suggests that there is a bias in our society against those who choose to opt out of school. Some of the most intelligent, articulate, skilled and learned people I’ve come across on my life path have been drop-outs.  If I could make one generalization about all of the high-achieving drop outs I’ve met, it is that they saw their education as their own responsibility, and they took it upon themselves to learn. Most of them described the prescriptive academic process of acquiring a formal degree as stifling. If we are going to make education more sustainable, then we need to challenge the cultural myth that intelligence is determined by a diploma. It seems our nation truly believes that the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz was without a brain until he was handed a diploma.

Education, in itself, is free for the taking, if one is willing to do the work. It can be found in libraries, online, through apprenticeships, from mentors, and through community and family relationships. College is a great choice for some, but it is just one of many options for acquiring an education. Just because a person has not paid for a diploma does not mean they are un-educated. As long as our society continues to buy into the myth that the diploma bestows brains, then we are agreeing to externalize and commodify both learning and intelligence, two divinely awarded gifts bestowed on every human being at birth.

This is not to say that I am not appreciative of my own years at college. They gave me a start in life that I didn’t know how to invent on my own. But I’ve often reflected upon that time, wondering if I could have walked the same path of writing, thinking, entrepreneurship and farming, had I not earned four degrees (five, if you count high school). I think of Ben Hewitt, an accomplished writer, thinker and farmer in Vermont, who also happens to be a high school drop-out, leading a life very similar to my own.  And I can’t help but conclude that, yes, if I’d had a bit more imagination, I probably could have found a way. Truth be told, I was an unhappy scholar, but I was afraid to challenge convention enough to try an alternative route to learning. I envy Ben’s early recognition of his ability to self-teach and find a creative path.

But of course, maybe he envies me, since I’m uniquely qualified to write scripts for the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

This piece is taken from Shannon Hayes’ newest book of essays, Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled…and other adventures from the radical homemaking frontier, due out in August 2014.  Hayes  is the author of six books, including the best seller, Radical Homemakers.  She works with three generations of her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York, home schools her two daughters, and maintains a weekly blog

Children Teach Themselves To Read

Originally published on February 24, 2010 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn

0-101The general assumption in our culture is that children must be taught to read. Vast amounts of research go into trying to figure out the scientifically best way to do this. In the education stacks of any major university library you can find rows and rows of books and many journals devoted solely to the topic of how to teach reading. In education circles heated debates–dubbed “the reading wars”–have raged for decades between those who believe that most emphasis should be placed on teaching phonics and those who take what is called a “whole language” approach to reading instruction. Many controlled experiments have been conducted comparing one instruction method to another, with kindergartners and first graders as the guinea pigs. The phonics people say that their method has “won” in those experiments, and the whole language people say that the experiments were rigged.Continue Reading