Kevin Currie‐Knight comes back to the show to discuss different methods of homeschooling and how parents are handling the education of their children during the coronavirus pandemic. Many homeschooling families recognize that children learn when the children are guiding the learning, but that cannot happen when a school is sending home material. The more choice kids have in their learning, the better the learning outcomes.
What is the difference between homeschooling and un‐schooling? How has homeschooling changed since the 1830s? Should we force students to learn certain subjects or classics? Should students only be taught subjects that have value later in life?
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Kevin Currie‐Knight, a teaching assistant professor at East Carolina University’s College of Education. His newest book is Education in the Marketplace: An Intellectual History of Pro‐Market Libertarian Visions for Education in Twentieth Century America, which is the subject of a previous Free Thoughts. Today, however, in the midst of the corona pandemic, we are going to discuss home schooling. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Kevin.
00:33 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Thank you, Trevor, thank you, Aaron. It’s good to be back.
00:36 Trevor Burrus: So a lot of parents are at home with their kids all day. I know Aaron is and he’s got a houseful of kids right now, and they’re attempting to continue their education. So have we just sort of become a nation of homeschoolers in a two‐week period?
00:51 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, I’m definitely reluctant to consider what’s going on right now homeschooling. And I see a lot of people using that term. And I guess if you just look at the word homeschooling strictly speaking, it seems like that is what’s going on. Because people have their kids at home and they’re doing school at home, and I think that’s probably most people’s, who don’t know about homeschooling, most of their ideas of what homeschooling probably is. But my worry is that when you really look at literature on homeschooling and I guess its more arguably extreme form which is called un‐schooling, it’s really very different from replicating school at home. So my concern is that if we call this homeschooling, we’re potentially setting up I guess what I would call real homeschooling, which is the kind you do by choice, the family decides, it’s a decision that they make… That if we call this homeschooling, we’ll potentially do a little bit of damage to the idea of homeschooling.
01:51 Aaron Ross Powell: What’s the core differences?
01:53 Kevin Currie‐Knight: There are actually quite a few differences. The biggest difference, which is probably the most obvious one, is that homeschooling and un‐schooling again, the arguably more extreme form, are really educational decisions that a family makes. Sometimes it’s initiated by the kid, and sometimes it’s by the parent. The parent or the child says, “Hey, we don’t think school is really the best way to learn. We could probably do something at home instead.” And then the family talks about it and usually come to a decision and it’s usually a joint family decision. I think most homeschoolers that I’ve talked to and I’m familiar with, it’s every year, you kind of remake the decision, “Okay, do you wanna go back to… Do you wanna go to school this year?” “No.” “Okay, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.” And obviously, in this situation, COVID-19 sort of situation, parents didn’t really choose this, kids didn’t really choose this, everyone just kind of was thrust into the home because for safety reasons schools were shut down.
02:50 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And it looks like most districts are trying to replicate school from home, and it’s just. Nobody really chose to do it. And if there weren’t a virus going around that’s pretty concerning, I don’t think a lot of people would have their kids at home right now and maybe some kids wouldn’t choose to be home right now. So that’s the big difference.
03:08 Aaron Ross Powell: I’ll just add, I have been watching for the last week as trying to replicate school at home in this split format of material sent home for the kids to do. My kids got these extraordinarily thick staple bound packets of worksheets and so on with also conducting elementary school via Zoom, which God bless the first grade teachers of America trying to do first grade classroom management over Zoom. Because it is just, at least from the experience of watching my twins do it, it is almost entirely trying to figure out why different people can’t hear each other. And so diagnosing tech support with seven‐year‐olds and then also kids showing each other their pets.
03:53 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, yeah.
03:55 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I would say… I would say that teachers right now from what I’m familiar with are doing at least as much work if not more than they would have been doing if it were kind of standard business as usual. So absolutely, when you say bless the teachers… Yeah, they’re doing a lot of work right now.
04:11 Trevor Burrus: There’s something odd there too, because if you take this critique of the American education system about sort of the Prussian model and that it’s sort of factory‐based and there’s an efficiency thing there about having all the kids in one classroom and kind of a conveyor belt where you move up the grades and… But if you take them out of that physical environment, it’s very hard to even pretend that you could replicate the same thing, which is what they seem to be doing.
04:36 Kevin Currie‐Knight: That’s right, and that actually brings me to a second difference between what’s going on right now and what most homeschooling is. Although homeschooling varies widely, it really depends on what the family wants to do and depends… Different states have different regulations on it. But the second big difference is that most homeschooling families find themselves relatively to greater or lesser degrees free of the constraints of school as well. So in other words, there are studies that kind of show that most families who homeschool, when they start out homeschooling they’re really trying to replicate something that looks like school at home. So they’re really trying to, “We’re gonna get a curriculum. We’re gonna start at 8:00 AM, and we’re gonna end at 3:00 PM and we’re gonna do all the subjects everyday just like you would at school.”
05:23 Kevin Currie‐Knight: But what happens over time is that you gradually shed that idea, because a lot of homeschooling families report recognizing that their kids learn better when they’re just kind of learning on their own and they’re doing what they wanna do. And they also find that it really doesn’t take that much time to do a lot of the academic stuff. So there’s a really great documentary called Class Dismissed, and I believe it’s streaming for free right now during the COVID-19 thing. And it’s a documentary about a family in California who decided that they wanted to try homeschooling, and they basically went on that same exact trajectory. At first, they started by saying, “We’re gonna replicate school at home,” and the mother is trying to teach the kids all these lessons and at some point she’s flustered and the kids hate it. And the family realizes that wow, kids just learn better when they don’t have all of those curricular constraints, when you just let them follow their interests.
06:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So that said, a second big difference is that schools right now are trying to replicate school at home and all of the families have this expectation that we’re gonna keep apace as to where we should be in school, so we’re just gonna do the same curriculum, same pacing, but at home. And then families feel like, “Well, I can’t let my kid fall behind,” because they’re gonna be accountable for all of this stuff when they go back to school. Well, homeschooling families aren’t generally subject to those same constraints. They don’t have to worry about keeping apace because there’s usually not really such a thing as keeping apace or falling behind.
06:56 Trevor Burrus: Historically, how does homeschooling fit into the American education system? I think… I grew up in the ‘80s, I was a kid in the ‘80s, and seeing… At that time, it seemed like homeschool was, to quote a Buffy the Vampire Slayer line, “Just for freaky religious people.” Or it was a cliche that if you were homeschooling, you were probably like a Mennonite or something like this. But maybe that’s historically true, but how has it been historically and how has it changed even before the crisis?
07:25 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, well, homeschooling probably needless to say before the advent of the public schools in around about the 1830s or so, give or take, was a lot more common. It wasn’t… Not every family homeschooled, a lot of families did apprenticeships. The kids went to what are called Dame schools, which are just a person in the neighborhood would open up their house with a little bit of instruction. But a lot of families did homeschool. Especially in the South, where the geographic situation was that things were a lot more spread out so it was really hard to send your kids to school sometimes, so they would just learn at home almost by default.
08:03 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, so the rise of the public school kind of minimized home education a bit. Parents just wanted to send their kids to school if their taxes were already supporting it. So you saw a big diminution of that. And then like you said, or I guess maybe like Buffy the Vampire Slayer said, at some point homeschooling, it was really more of a religious thing. I don’t quite know the exact history of this. But probably I would say like ’60-‘70s, it became there was a lot of strong religious reaction to the schools. Particularly from Christian sects, from fundamentalist sects of schools are teaching really secular values, we wanna teach our kids religious values. And we believe in the family values anyway, so why don’t we keep the family together, have our kids at home.
08:55 Kevin Currie‐Knight: But really in the the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially with counter‐cultures on the left, you started to see a lot of criticisms of school from the left. So the criticisms were like, instead of schools are teaching too much secular values, it was schools are teaching too much corporate value or schools are teaching too much like kids to be consumers and we wanna teach our kids to be maybe self‐reliant. So you saw more advocacy of homeschooling “on the left.” And then folks like John Holt, who’s the founder of what’s called the unschooling movement came about, and he had really completely secular rationales for unschooling. The idea was that kids just learn better naturally, and naturally usually means at home, no forced curriculum. So a lot of parents who had no religious affiliations would also start homeschooling.
09:52 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And Kerry McDonald, who works with the Foundation for Economic Education, was on our podcast, my podcast, Learning by Living, a while ago and she said that I think in the last few years was the first time we have evidence to say that religion is not the number one reason people list for homeschooling anymore. It’s almost, it’s more secular than it is religious at this point and I think that she said that was in the last few years.
10:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there an economic distribution of homeschoolers? Because thinking about the way that parents… Jobs that parents have, I can see homeschooling happening at lower income families where maybe one of the people is out of work or where they’re in an area where they don’t have access to other schools. And I can see it happening among higher income families where they can get by on a single person’s income and so one person can stay home. But the kind of both parents have to work middle class, it would seem like this would be an awfully hard thing to do without dramatically changing your lifestyle. Do we see that kind of distribution or is it more widespread?
11:03 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I don’t know the direct data on that, but I’ll just allude to conversations I’ve had with someone who does know the data on that, Dr. Peter Gray, the author of the book Free to Learn. And in conversation with me, he suggested that the data that he knows about does suggest that you’re pretty much right, Aaron, that I think the stereotype of homeschoolers is well, you have to be middle class or rich to do that. And you’d have to be the kind of family that can live on one income and the assumption is that that income is pretty large. And generally what he says is, it’s actually kind of the opposite. So it’s mostly lower middle class. Again, I don’t know the exact numbers, but reporting from what he’s told me. But it’s also this really interesting mixture of lower middle class, but very educated. So you don’t see a lot of people who only have a high school diploma homeschooling or unschooling.
11:57 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Probably not because they’re not intelligent enough to do it, but probably because they lack the confidence that they could do it, because we live in a schooled world, and we’re kind of convinced culturally that the kids need expert teachers to be able to teach them. So mostly the people that have the confidence to say, “Well, I can make sure my kids get a good education,” are the people who have a decent amount of education. But yeah, they are the people who also live frugally, because you have to essentially be in a place where you’re willing to sacrifice one income.
12:28 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Although I will say that that may not be so much the case now as it was in decades past. Now we’re seeing that people working at… Work‐at‐home parents are much more of a thing than they would have been in the ‘70s or ‘80s, when you didn’t have all the technology. In fact, I’m actually interested to see from this whole experience where everyone is kind of forced to go virtual. I’m really interested to see if there are families out there who might come away from this experience saying, “I wanted to homeschool, but I wasn’t sure we’d be able to because I have a job that requires me to be in the office.” But I’m wondering if a lot of jobs now will start to realize that maybe working remotely isn’t as bad as we thought it might be. That maybe now that we’ve done it for a month or two, whatever, they might actually come to think that, “Hey, we don’t have to have our employees coming into work all the time.” So if families are all of a sudden given that sort of freedom, where they could have a work from home job when this is all over, I wonder if that will change any of the thoughts about homeschooling as a possibility.
13:35 Trevor Burrus: That’s an interesting question, a lot of people have been wondering that. But on this question, as you said, going back where… I just wanna clarify something. So homeschooling is a decision that is made as you said, not something that’s forced upon you, but even within the situation of people who have made the decision to be homeschoolers, is there a distinction between homeschooling and unschooling within those people?
13:57 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, I don’t know the data on that. My…
14:01 Trevor Burrus: I don’t mean data, I mean conceptually. Is it conceptually distinct?
14:06 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Oh, sure. I know enough homeschoolers and unschoolers to know first of all, I’ll just say that my impression is that if there’s a religious motivation behind it, it’s probably more likely that that family is homeschooling than unschooling, although that probably doesn’t apply across the board, that’s just what I’ve seen. But there’s also a conceptual distinction in… Well, unschooling for those who don’t know, is the idea of having kids learn outside of school but not giving any sort of forced curriculum. So unschoolers have this… Have a belief that kids will learn the things they need to learn just kind of naturally by just learning stuff they’re interested in, going out into the world. At some point you come across things that you feel like you need to learn, you find a way to learn it, no coercion necessary. Whereas homeschoolers are much more likely to think, “Okay, yeah, but there are certain things my kid needs to know before they get into adulthood. And maybe they’re not gonna realize that they need to know it, so we’re going to do some sort of forced curriculum.”
15:06 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And there are interesting… I guess there is an interesting mix of families, I know a few of them. One of them’s been on our Learning by Living podcast, who mostly unschools, but has this little bit of curriculum that they get their kids to do either by force or by strong persuasion. Where… Usually it’s with math. I think people are concerned with, “Well, if I let my kid do whatever they wanna do and learn whatever they wanna learn,” which is unschooling, “How are they gonna learn some of the more complex math operations that they might need to know to get into college, or have a good career?” So they’re comfortable enough with unschooling to do that most of the time, but then there’s usually one or two things, one or two subject areas where they say, “We’re gonna present our children with this curriculum and we’re gonna in essence make them learn it.”
15:58 Trevor Burrus: It’s kind of weird, though, ’cause you have a line where you wrote in some of your notes about when was last time I used this, because I can’t remember the last time I used trigonometry and I can’t really think of a good reason to say that you have to learn trigonometry, except for this college thing that looms over the top of it.
16:16 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right. I’ve been thinking about a distinction that I wanna make in terms of curriculum. So to your point, one of the reasons I feel like we need to be cautious as folks in the homeschooling and unschooling community, as I myself am, about the advice that we give to parents who are going through this, we’ll call it crisis schooling or COVID schooling, I don’t know, I’ve heard people use that term. Is that what I wanna tell parents is if there’s something your kid is supposed to learn at home, think about how important is this going to be likely to my child’s future success? You might even think as a parent, is it something that I know, and if I don’t, did my life go worse because I didn’t know how to subtract fractions? And what I wanna tell parents, and really wish I could, is if it’s not something that seems really important for your child to know just for the quality of life, don’t stress it. They’ll be fine if they don’t know it.
17:11 Kevin Currie‐Knight: The problem I don’t give that… The reason I don’t give that advice is because I know that that’s not the reality that most parents and families right now are in. The reality that they’re in is, “But my kid has to know this because they will be graded on it. And there will be consequences if they don’t learn it. If they go back to school next year and they have this huge gap in their knowledge, what happens then?” So I guess that’s another difference between the current crisis schooling, we might call it, and unschooling or homeschooling is that I think for homeschooling and unschooling that’s great advice. Don’t stress it if it doesn’t really seem that valuable. But for most families right now, that’s just not the reality they’re in.
17:51 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So back to your point, Trevor, I’ve been thinking about this difference of… Okay, so let’s take any given curriculum thing, let’s… Subtracting fractions. Let’s take that. There’s a thing that… There’s a certain way that that can be valuable because it might be valuable in use. So we call it a use value. Is this something, a skill that you are going to use in your life? For some people, absolutely, subtracting fractions might be necessary. You might, let’s say, be cooking, and you need to double or half a recipe. Subtracting fractions is useful. I would call that use value. But there’s another kind of value for curriculum in schools that I would call something more like… I don’t wanna call it signalling value, but it’s almost like relative value. And that is learning to subtract fractions may not be useful in your life at all, except for the fact that you’re in a school that expects you to learn it and all of the other kids are learning it so if you don’t learn it, you miss out.
18:49 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So in some ways, that’s the kind of value that a lot of curriculum has in school. It doesn’t really have use to your life, but it has use to the fact that you’re in a school and you have to keep pace with everyone else.
18:58 Aaron Ross Powell: What about a potential third kind, which we might call discovery value, which is there’s a lot of stuff that we learn that prior to learning it, we don’t necessarily see the value in it. And after learning it, a lot of people might not continue to value it. But for quite a lot of us it turns into an aha moment. “I never knew I wanted to be an historian until I took that one amazing history class in middle school,” or, “Geometry got me really excited about math and that became the thing that I wanted to pursue.” I think a lot of us have that experience and it seems like one of the values of a wide curriculum, and not just simply following your interests in the moment, especially when you’re a kid and you’re not really thinking ahead much is that you’re not going to get that broader survey of the contents of human knowledge. And so you’re not gonna be aware of all of the different possibilities.
19:18 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. I can see that. That definitely happens. As an advocate of unschooling, ’cause I’m generally more and more convinced the more literature I see, I think that the difficulty with that isn’t that it can’t happen. It certainly does happen. I think the risk of false negatives are so high. And the risk and the idea of a positive is so… I don’t wanna say low but it’s gotta be lower than the false negatives, that I would question the wisdom of using that as a justification for curriculum. So the way I like to put it is that we know that there are people who go to prison and find in retrospect that that was the best thing that could have happened to them. You can find those stories online or wherever. Maybe they were addicted to drugs, and they feel like they would have just for sure gone down the path that would lead to their death, and they were sentenced and they were forced to get clean and they were forced to change their ways or whatever. We know that. In a way, that’s sort of like the discovery value of prison. But we’d be cautious to use that as a reason for locking everyone up. To say, “Well, if you get locked up, who knows, you might come to appreciate the fact that you were locked up.”
21:13 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, I think we can use some experience. Some things may be… It’s like Shakespeare, a lot of people might be like, “Why would I ever need to learn Shakespeare?” If you’re homeschooling your kids right now, and say maybe we should teach them Shakespeare. Well, Shakespeare has a pretty good track record of having a high appreciation of people discovering that they love Shakespeare by being maybe forced to read it, and maybe a higher track record than say trigonometry in terms of enjoyment.
21:41 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, I mean maybe. I don’t know. I bet if we surveyed all the kids who went through school and were forced to read Shakespeare and survey them to figure out how many of you in retrospect developed an appreciation of Shakespeare, I would be shocked if the majority would say would say yes, would agree with that.
22:00 Trevor Burrus: True, but I think that a higher percentage… But yeah, you never know, but it’s an interesting thought.
22:04 Kevin Currie‐Knight: The other problem with that line of argument, at least in my view, is that you have this paradox. We’re saying on one hand, Shakespeare is valuable, and it’s so valuable that people will learn to appreciate its beauty once you are exposed to it. But then on the other hand we’re saying, and everyone should be forced to learn Shakespeare, and the paradox comes when you say, well, if it’s valuable, won’t people just keep stumbling across it just in their daily lives? If not, how valuable is it is? Its value must be really, really hidden from view if the justification is that it’s so valuable that everyone must be forced to learn it.
22:40 Trevor Burrus: It’s a good point.
22:41 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I think unschoolers, if you ask unschoolers, they’ll say exactly that. If Shakespeare is valuable and Shakespeare is just truly as beautiful as his champions say, we have nothing to worry about. If we leave people free, they’ll come to appreciate it. Or even unschooled kids will see that all these other people seem to love Shakespeare. “Wow, I’m really missing something.” And maybe they’ll pick it up too.
23:05 Trevor Burrus: Do unschooling parents… I can see them getting into some fairly heated discussions about the autonomy of their child and whether or not it’s okay to give them a textbook or suggest that kids read certain things or certainly require that they read anything or do anything whatsoever. I can see those being some pretty heated discussions amongst these people.
23:29 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, and unschoolers are a pretty heterogeneous group in terms of some of that. So I think generally speaking, most unschoolers don’t have a problem with exposing your kids to stuff, like presenting them with things and saying, “You might be interested in this. I know you’re interested in this other thing. Here’s something I came across, you might be interested in.” But of course you’d have to really careful because there’s this really gray area of when does influence become a subtle form of coercion. If I say… If I say, “Oh, you might be interested in this. Check this out, and if you don’t like it, I’ll withhold your allowance.”
24:07 Trevor Burrus: Or “I’m very disappointed in you.” Yes, yeah.
24:10 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Or, right. “I’ll just give you stern looks of approval and not really talk to you for the next week,” or whatever. You can see that that would become some type of coercion. So it’s not a black and white issue and you’re right, there are definitely disagreements between unschoolers. So some unschoolers are called radical unschoolers. And by that you mean really you don’t try to influence your kids in any way that could even remotely be construed as coercion, you trust that they’ll figure out certain things. Even to the point of, as soon as they’re old enough to prepare meals or whatever, you let them decide what they’re gonna eat, right? And…
24:43 Trevor Burrus: There’s not enough mac and cheese in the world for that.
24:48 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right. Well, the idea there is that at some point they’ll start to just feel like crap because they’re eating mac and cheese. And maybe that’s when you’re there to say, “Well, can I help you?”
24:58 Trevor Burrus: “Can we think about your choices?”
25:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right. But it’s really kid‐led. But then that’s a group of unschoolers that they’re called radical unschoolers because they probably don’t look like the majority of unschoolers. I think the majority of unschoolers say, yeah, it’s fine to expose your kids to stuff, for sure. And some unschoolers definitely recommend that you do that. You wanna show them what you’re up to, and what you appreciate, and you wanna expose them to the world and what other people appreciate. But you also wanna fall short of, in any sense, coercing them into doing something that they don’t really want to do.
25:37 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a sense in which, though, the parents should be, I guess, minimally qualified? All of this stuff would seem to depend on the parents being available to help the kids explore their interests, the parents being sufficiently knowledgeable to pursue that sort of stuff, there being a level of stability in which the kid is kind of free to run with his or her interests and so on. But I can see a worry that for a lot of households, maybe the best thing that can happen for the kid is to get out for the eight hours a day and be exposed to something else, to get into the safety of a public school, to be exposed to high‐functioning adults, and so on. And that it would be particularly bad for them to just be at home all the time.
26:08 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, at the risk of drawing another complete generalization, this will be a little bit over‐simplified, but when I’ve talked with unschooling parents and when I’ve read stories about how that family setup works, the parents usually find that it’s usually the younger ages where you’re spending a lot more time with the kids and you gradually find that the kids are just more and more self‐sufficient and you’re there as a resource and it’s more like you come to me when you need me. You just do your thing and you come to me when you need me. In fact, I’ve heard some unschooling parents joke about the misperception that people have of, “You must spend all your days with your kids.” They’re like, “Really? I barely even see my kids. They come to me when they need something.” So it’s like you’re there and you definitely wanna guide them and support them however you can. But I think it’s generally a misconception, especially with older unschooler kids, you assume that parents are spending a lot of time with their kids, but yeah, the kid wants separation, the parent wants separation. So it’s by no means neglect. But it certainly is not I’m kind of with my kid all day.
27:42 Trevor Burrus: I know it varies by state, so this would be somewhat of a generalization, but how is homeschooling regulated and should it be regulated?
27:51 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So the states that have the strictest regulations tend to say… I believe they’ll usually have a stipulation of you need to choose between several state‐approved curriculums and you need to test every year. You need to basically do the same tests that any public school kid would do so that we can kinda make sure your kid is making adequate progress. And I guess that’s justified by the idea that rightly or wrongly, homeschoolers, they wanna protect against abuse. ‘Cause homeschooling could easily be a cover for neglect. So those states wanna make sure that kids are on a certain academic trajectory, and they’re making this kind of progress that a public school kid might be making, just at home.
28:39 Kevin Currie‐Knight: The states that are in the middle will do a little bit of that, will say something like your kid needs to submit to us a portfolio of things to show roughly that they’re on age level. So if a kid at age eight is supposed to be reading to this level, you have to give them some sort of notes that indicate that they can read at that level. Some states will even have people come in and just check up on you periodically, and maybe watch your kid read to see if they’re reading adequately or something like that. The states that are a bit more lax generally require that you register as a homeschooler and you take certain tests, but you don’t have to take them in the year that public school kids would have to take them. So if it’s a test for fifth grade, you don’t have to take that during your fifth grade year. Really, the state just wants records that your child’s doing something. It’s mostly probably for legal purposes. So it’s really all over the map.
29:40 Trevor Burrus: It seems like that would be very difficult in some of those higher regulating states to actually unschool your kid, because at some point you have to direct them to pass the test or meet the standard in some way.
29:52 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, and you know what those kids do? What they do is, they do what they wanna do for most of the year, and then they roll their eyes, and they say, “Okay, now it’s time to study for the test. I guess we gotta get this out of the way.” And then they do it, which is, I don’t wanna say that’s what public school kids do, but most public school kids aren’t very excited about the tests either. So it’s just something to get out of the way. So I know that… I don’t think a lot of the unschooled kids treat those tests as anything other than,“We gotta get this out of the way to please the state.”
30:20 Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s interesting too, ’cause no state bands homeschooling ’cause that would be unconstitutional. But some countries do. Germany is probably the most famous. And I’ve asked my German friends about this, and they’ve said… I was like, “Most Americans would think it’s astounding that homeschooling is banned in Germany,” and they say, “Most Germans think it’s astounding that it’s allowed in America. The idea that that’s allowed is crazy.” And of course, I think that law is a Nazi era law when it was passed.
30:49 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Oh, it might be, I don’t know. I did see an article recently about one of my friends who’s an advocate for self‐directed education, his name is Blake Boles, I guess moved to Germany for a bit. And it’s interesting ’cause he’s an advocate for self‐directed education but yet he’s living in this country where it’s illegal, and he just shared an article on social media about how all the parents in Germany are now essentially have their kids at home, which is illegal. But of course for an emergency situation, it’s not illegal. So they’re handling it, I guess, but it’s a shock to their system, because there’s just no one in Germany who was doing anything like that before this COVID-19 situation.
31:35 Aaron Ross Powell: What about socialization? One of the things that it seems you get from attending a school is being thrust in with a whole bunch of kids and learning to manage those sorts of relationships. And I know that it’s not like a homeschooler or an unschooler is cooped up in the house all the time, that they get together with other kids, and they can have small homeschooling meetups or they’re out and about with friends and so on. But a lot of our lives as we get jobs is working with a whole bunch of people that we didn’t immediately choose and figuring out how to get along and handle differences, and so on. And so are we, if we aren’t giving kids that experience growing up, are we limiting their ability to, say, function well in the job market?
32:27 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Well, so there’s an empirical answer to the question, and then there is kind of a philosophical answer to the question. And the empirical answer is, I completely forget the name of the study. It’s a recent study that goes through all of the literature on homeschoolers and how often they circulate with people, how often they’re civically engaged, how often they join clubs, things like that. And it just finds that there’s just no evidence that homeschoolers are any different in terms of the outcomes for socialization than public school kids. They join clubs, they go out every bit as much, they’re not reporting social anxiety levels that are any different than the general population. So that I think has probably been disproven, the idea that homeschoolers have a socialization deficit.
33:20 Kevin Currie‐Knight: But the philosophical answer to your question is simply to ask a question to the person who asks that question, which is how do you socialize in the world? And most people answer, “Well, what do you mean? I go out and I have a job and I talk to people there, and I go to the supermarket and I talk to people there and I joined clubs because I’m interested in those clubs and I socialize there.” And the answer is, “Well, that’s kind of how homeschoolers socialize too.” And then you can ask that person a further question, “When you socialize, do you check the person’s age before you socialize with them? So when you’re at work, do you say, ‘Well, I’m 43. How old are you? Oh, you’re 38, I can’t talk to you, you’re way below my level.’ ”
34:05 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Because in some ways you could say that that would be a peculiar form of socialization, but if you think about how public schools and just schools in general function, it’s something similar to that, right? You’re segregated largely by age for most of the day, your friends are sitting in the same room as you are potentially, but depending on how your class is structured, any interaction with them has to go through the teacher. So the teacher will tell you when you can socialize, when you can’t, and when you are free to socialize, it’s for very short amount of times, it’s for minutes between classes, it’s for 25–30 minutes at lunch. That’s a very interesting and constrained form of socialization. It’s not a bad form of socialization, but it’s arguably a different form.
34:51 Trevor Burrus: It’s one of the stranger things about school, which I think people don’t really think about because it’s so… We’re so used to the model. But where, when else in your life are you ever going to be like, “I’m hanging out with everyone my age,” essentially.
35:04 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. I was interviewed some time ago by a journalist in Raleigh who was doing a story about unschooling, and she also ended up going to several unschoolers’ houses who agreed to be interviewed, so unschooling families she showed up at. And I talked to her after that interview, I just called her up to see how things went. And one of the things she said is, “With every one of the kids I met, I mis‐age identified them.” And I said, “What do you mean by that?” She says, “I always guessed that they were older than they were.” “Well, why do you think that is?” And she’s like, “Well, the kids were just really mature for their age. They looked you in the face, they called you by your first name, they weren’t sheepish, they showed you around the house, the kids would always take me on a tour around the house.” And in general, what I’ve seen, and there’s surely variants, but in general, what I’ve seen is that’s the way unschooled kids are, because adults aren’t… You’re not socialized in a way where adults are these authority figures whom you have to please in order to get ahead.
36:06 Aaron Ross Powell: How much of that is selection bias of a sort, though, that the kids who are capable of behaving that way, so are mature beyond their years, thrive in this environment, and so keep doing it, whereas the parent who tries homeschooling and their kid is just a disaster says, “Okay, it’s time to send them back to the public schools.”
36:26 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, yeah, it may well be. And I don’t know if there’s any way to figure out whether it’s self‐selection, because by definition almost, unschooling is a self‐selected process. You have to take your kids out of, or take yourself out of the school, and if… There’s no such thing as unschooling by force, you can’t do a randomized study, “Okay, you 20 people chosen at random are gonna unschool.” If you could, we could figure out whether it was self‐selection bias, but I’m not sure there would be a way to really disentangle that variable.
36:58 Trevor Burrus: So in this crazy time where we said some people have always been homeschooling, some parents might be trying to figure out ways to better homeschool. Now, of course, the schools are requiring their own things, so we’re limited somewhat. But do you have any tips about how to do this, generally, how to do this better or worse?
37:19 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, I think there are some tips, but I’ll proceed with caution, because like we said at the beginning, what parents and families, the constraints they’re under right now are very far from ideal conditions for homeschooling or unschooling, and it’s not my intent to try to talk anyone into, “Well, now, you should unschool your kids,” or whatever, ’cause that’s not the reality that we’re in. But there are some tips that I think that homeschooling and unschooling can give.
37:44 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So I’ll speak in very broad strokes. The first is that studies in general, about education in general, as well as homeschooling and unschooling, show us that the more choice kids have in their learning, the better the learning outcomes. So there have been studies even in schools where people can select not what they’re learning, but how they’re gonna learn it, what resources they’re gonna use, or they can choose how they’re gonna demonstrate their knowledge. Are they gonna do it on a test or a paper or a presentation or a conversation? So even if you give students a small amount of choice, you generally get better learning outcomes. They’re more enthusiastic about their learning, they retain more, they retain better. And I know that from first‐hand experience when I stopped giving my students kind of mandatory tests and I allowed them to figure out how they wanted to demonstrate mastery of their learning, I just got better projects because kids were more excited.
38:39 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So the first bit of advice I’d give, is figure out, based on the constraints that you as a family are under and the expectations of your school district, figure out what levels of choice you can give your kids. It could be, “You don’t have to do this at a particular time. You can figure out what you wanna do in what order.” It could be, “I know the school sent home a textbook and videos that you’re supposed to use, but why don’t you figure out what resources you want to use? Maybe you can go out online and find websites you wanna use to learn from, or… ” So even small choices like that can make a world of difference. And of course, the fewer constraints on you set by the district, the more latitude you have for that sort of freedom.
39:20 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So, the second piece of advice that I would give is, as much as you can, try not to stress as much as you might be tempted to about, I have a lot of parents who are concerned about, “I wanna make sure my kid doesn’t fall behind. I wanna make sure that my kid learns this really well because each step of the process, they’re gonna have to go back to school and they’re gonna have to know all this stuff.” And unschooling and homeschooling literature really does tell us that kids will learn what they want to… What they need to learn when they figure out that they need to learn it, and it will usually happen kinda rapidly.
40:01 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So for instance Harriet Pattison did a book called, I think it’s called Rethinking Reading Instruction. It’s a dissertation that she did that was published as a book where she talks to homeschooling families and some of them use a little bit of curriculum, and some of them don’t. Some of them just wait for their kids to learn to read whenever they wanna learn to read. And what they generally find, and other studies have somewhat replicated this result, is that when kids decide they wanna learn to read for their own reasons, it’s usually, not always, usually a pretty fast process. We’re talking months between not reading much at all to reading a young adult novel. It’s not years, it’s months, and that’s because the kid is motivated and it’s like they live it, at that point that’s all they can think about, “I want to read this thing.” So as much as you can, if your child, if something slips through the cracks in terms of the curriculum, don’t beat yourself up over that. It will be fine. The ship will right itself at some point. They will learn it if they need to learn it, and if they get to a point where they really didn’t need to learn it, that’s fine too.
41:11 Aaron Ross Powell: I would just add, based on my own experience, before we moved out to DC, my wife taught at a quite prestigious private school for gifted kids in the Denver area, and the way that that school operated was each kid at the beginning of the year, or the semester, or the quarter, I can’t remember which, would kind of pick a topic that they were obsessed with, and this would run the gamut from… I’m obsessed with the history of Rome, to I’m obsessed with Pokemon. And then she would basically write a personalized curriculum around each of those topics for each kid. So if you’re obsessed with Pokemon we can maybe do math with counting them or figuring out other relations between the numbers of different kinds of Pokemon, and we can do reading projects about it, and we can look at the history of card games or video games, or so on. And it was a way that you could engage the kids in learning these hard skills of math and writing and so on, while building it around a topic that they were already predisposed to be super into. And because these were gifted kids, gifted kids get super, super obsessive about particular topics, and so it worked really well.
42:37 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. I would actually question whether… I think a lot of people will think that that’s more or less typical of gifted kids, and maybe less typical of non‐gifted kids. I would really question that. I would question whether those kids who just seemed to be just not doing very well in school if you… Those kids may be pretty obsessive too, and maybe the reason they’re doing miserable in school is because they’re not given that sort of freedom to learn what they want and apply it to their interests. I don’t know that for a fact, but that would be my suspicion.
43:08 Trevor Burrus: So we talked a little bit about how this might affect things. Maybe there’ll be a different change of what school is. Again, the schools are trying to operate remotely so there’s not as much freedom there. But maybe some people will make this decision about homeschooling. And it’s kind of interesting because historically, there have been a couple of objections to homeschooling. One of them might be that it’s bad, I would say, the actual output is bad. And I think you’ve pointed out, and I think the studies show that that’s not true, of course, there’s self‐selection and stuff, but it’s not necessarily true.
43:41 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. So there are… I should pause right there, because there are four very small‐scale studies and I’ll stress that they’re very small‐scale studies. So there’s a study of Sudbury Valley School, which is a school that has no formal curriculum, it’s like unschoolers unschooling together, that was written by Peter Gray and a colleague in the 1980s. There’s a study of grown unschoolers by Gina Riley and Peter Gray that studies their life outcomes. Ken Danford has studied the alumni of the school that he runs, North Star Learning Center. And Jim Rietmulder has studied the alumni of the Circle School, which is the school that he runs. So two of these aren’t academic studies, Rietmulder’s and Danford’s aren’t, the other two are. And one of the things that’s really interesting is even though these studies are small, they’re small sample sizes and there’s only four of these studies, they really show that consistently, the four studies together, that the outcomes are no different than the general public. These kids go to college at the same rate as the general public, these kids get jobs where they can support themselves at the same rate as the general public.
44:47 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, there may be differences in gaps of knowledge. You might get kids who go into college who’ve never written a paper before, but when you interview them about what was that transition like, they’re like, “Oh, it was easy to figure out how to write a paper. I just asked for help.”
45:00 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s… I would suspect that to be true, but I’m thinking of enemies of homeschooling who would doubt such things or doubt that parents had the resources or knowledge to do it correctly.
45:10 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, and you can always… Right, and you could always say that this is a self‐selected sample and I don’t think there’s a way for us to show… You can’t randomize a trial. I kinda wish theoretically that you could randomize a trial because you could see. But you could also understand how denying someone a service would not only be potentially unethical, but it would also kind of defeat the purpose of unschooling. You can’t unschool by force. There’s something about forcing you to unschool that just seems very unschool‐like.
45:41 Trevor Burrus: Well, the second objection is what I find a little bit more interesting because I think that the first one is probably incorrect, but the second one is that even if homeschooling is better or as good as on some metric in terms of rates of college or whatever, it’s bad because it’s not… It atomizes us. It’s bad because it’s not putting us together into a social coherent whole to conquer the problems that humanity needs to conquer, whether it’s religious values, or global stewardship, or whatever, and that that fundamentally is why homeschooling should be either highly regulated or outright banned. And it’s really hard to combat that argument, because it’s actually objecting to the idea of decentralized schooling as opposed to the results.
46:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, it’s kind of a value judgment, but I guess the two responses that I would have is, first of all, I don’t mean this facetiously, how are the public schools doing in terms of not fracturing us, right, because we’re living, everyone’s saying, “Oh, my gosh, it’s the age of Trump. We need public common schools more than ever,” thinking but these kids have gone through the public common schools that didn’t seem to work to do what you want it to do. So it’s almost like, it’s not that homeschooling and unschooling doesn’t have the potential to atomize us, but it’s that there’s no good evidence to show that common schools or public schools don’t atomize us, that we get through that process, and we have this strong national spirit. I don’t know, maybe you know differently, but I don’t see that public schools have done that unifying job.
47:21 Aaron Ross Powell: How much have online resources changed the equation with all of this, and not just the internet makes it so that we can find material on basically any topic and you’ve got Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg and that kind of thing, but materials built specifically to take advantage of the mechanisms that that online learning can use. And so, by way of example, my fifth grade daughter, she had to sign up for classes for middle school next year and she decided she wanted to take Chinese. And during this quarantine and we’re all shut down, she decided to get a jump on it by downloaded Duolingo, and she has been obsessively Duolingo‐ing and learning, it feels to me like she’s learning quite a lot, and she’s pouring hours into it, because she gets to rack up these badges and it dings and it gives happy things in ways that you can’t get with traditional education. And it seems uniquely successful.
48:30 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, and then by the time you get into the class, you’ve learned most of what the class was presumed to teach you. Yeah, well, before I answer that, I wanna go back to the second response I had to Trevor’s question, but it’s related to your question. And the second answer I have in terms of, well, public schools would unify us. This may be just temperament, but I just feel like do we need to really be that unified, isn’t there a danger in kind of having this national identity that’s restrictive about you have to be this kind of person and know these kinds of things and feel this way about your country, isn’t that…
49:09 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So, I’m always cautious when I hear people talk about the national unity objection to homeschooling. I just think there’s a danger there. Maybe it’s my post‐modern temperament, but I feel like in some ways a fracturing might kinda be a decent thing or at least it wouldn’t be all that bad.
49:27 Trevor Burrus: Well, there’s another aspect too, I totally agree, but I think we always have to remember. I very much enjoyed school almost all the way throughout and I had a great time in terms of socialization, but some people are made absolutely miserable by school, a lot of people are. And if you want to talk about fracturing, that’s another thing we should look at. And I know people, you know, suicidal, they’ve been just absolutely miserable by the environment that they’re put in.
49:53 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, if the shape of school fits you, that’s great, go to school, for sure. I would never try to talk you out of that, but there are people who don’t really fit that shape very well or maybe don’t wanna be molded into that shape, and for those people, I just think it would be a shame to say the justification for forcing you into that shape is some sort of national unity, that we’re gonna pound you into. I just feel like that’s dangerous, but the way that connects, I think, to Aaron’s question, is that the internet in some ways, is really making it possible for people to be educated in this really decentralized way. So schools, it’s very centralized, there’s a curriculum, there’s this official body of knowledge that’s deemed official by curricular experts and then you learn from the teacher and the approved sources that school gives you.
50:44 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And I think with homeschooling and unschooling there a lot more freedom. So John Taylor Gatto, who was the famed New York City public school teacher of the year who became kind of an unschooling advocate, he didn’t use the term unschooling, but he used the term open source education. And I used to hate that term, but when I thought about it, it makes really good sense. And his point was that education should be open source, you should be able to choose any source you want to choose to learn things, and if that means you wanna go to Khan Academy and learn things that way, that’s great, and if that means that you wanna use a textbook, that’s great, and if that means you wanna have a tutor or a teacher, that’s great.
51:23 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Ivan Illich is another person who had that idea in I think the early ‘70s when he wrote the book Deschooling Society, he kind of envisioned that. But I would say in terms of the internet changing the game of how learning happens or how learning can happen, I’m not ashamed or I guess I’m not afraid to say I think that’s the great shame of the school system that the school system still functions practically as if the internet either doesn’t exist or it’s just a really bad way for people to learn. The fact that we have these teachers who are central knowledge dispensers is really, really interesting.
52:04 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So Sal Khan, the creator of Khan Academy, had this book, I think, a few years ago called the One‐room Schoolhouse where he makes this really deceptive point in this book, he says, look, if we have technologies like Khan Academy and websites and videos, and stuff like that, we’re really getting to a point where it’s sort of absurd to say that everyone needs to learn at the same pace, because the reason we did that is because in earlier decades, in order to teach 30 kids in the same room, one teacher had to teach all of them. And the easiest way to do that is to have all of them go at the teacher’s pace.
52:41 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Well, we don’t need to learn from a centralized teacher anymore, we can learn from videos, and if one kid needs to repeat a video 15 times and another kid only needs to repeat it twice, why don’t you let the latter kid go ahead and why don’t you let the former kid take the time she needs to get that idea. The fact that schools haven’t really incorporated that logic yet, I see hopes that it will change, but the fact that it hasn’t changed yet is really what I consider a great shame of the education system.
53:15 Aaron Ross Powell: We’re recording this episode on April 2nd as much of the country and an increasing chunk of it is locked down, being told to stay at home, unless you need to go out for groceries or doctor’s appointments or so on, where countless parents have suddenly been thrust into even these kind of half measures of homeschooling, if we can call it that. And it’s tough times for everyone, it’s tough times for parents having to spend this much time with their kids. I saw there was a viral tweet where someone pointed out that if there is a pandemic baby boom it will be almost entirely first‐born children, which struck me, as someone who’s been in the house with three kids for multiple weeks, as probably being quite true. But is there a worry that there’s a similar sort of thing, that this will maybe put a lot of parents who might have considered homeschooling off of homeschooling, because this situation has been so non‐ideal? And I guess, more broadly, like what do you think the impact of what we’re going through now will be on future homeschooling movement?
54:31 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, sure, first I’ll say that, yes, I do think that there’s definitely the possibility and likelihood that this will sour a lot of people on the idea of homeschooling, and that that’s one of the reasons why I’m ridiculously cautious to call this homeschooling, or to go out there and say, “See, you’re all homeschooling your kids. Now, here’s my home schooling advice for you.” And I see some people doing that and I regard that as a bit unfortunate, because I think that will come back, ironically, to sour people on the idea because, “Wow, if this is homeschooling, I don’t wanna do this.” I don’t know, but I do think that families are gonna go different ways with this, depending on their family set‐up, how the kids and the parents get along with each other, what the environment is like, all of that. I think that there are gonna be some families who use this as a way to de‐school and to de‐school meaning to start to question how necessary the structures of school really are in their lives.
55:27 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Like when your kids went to school, you just assumed that your learning day starts at 8 o’clock, and it ends at 3 o’clock, and you assume that every learning day should have five subjects an hour and 15 minutes each or whatever that is. And I think that some families are gonna use this experience as a way to say, “Well, those structures actually don’t seem necessary for my kids to learn,” and they’re gonna maybe homeschool or they’re gonna maybe unschool next year, or at the very least, they’ll send their kids back to school with the idea that, well, maybe emphasizing school isn’t as necessary as I thought it was.
56:03 Kevin Currie‐Knight: But I think there are gonna be another group of families who do almost exactly the opposite. “Oh, my gosh, this was disastrous for us. This was… I, as a parent feel like I can’t possibly teach my kids the way I feel like my kids need to be taught, and my kids seem to be miserable because they can’t be with their friends, and the place they’re with their friends every day is school.” They’re gonna come out of this with a renewed appreciation for what school in their view does for them and their kids. Of course, I think there’s gonna be a third group of people, who are just gonna say, “Wow, I’m glad we’re back to normal,” and they’re just gonna resume normal life. Dad’s gonna go back to work, Mom’s gonna go back to work, kids are gonna go back to school. I just don’t know what proportion of our population is gonna do which one of those. I have no good sense of that right now.
56:53 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I would also say that. Just to reiterate, I have no real interest in using what’s going on now to kind of champion homeschooling or unschooling. I would simply say that for parents who are stressing right now, as I’m sure a lot of them are, maybe what looking at homeschooling or unschooling can do for you is at least give you a vision of one possibility, right? So this is one possibility. There are families who don’t send their kids to school and there are families who don’t even give their kids forced curriculum, and those kids generally turn out fine. But if you don’t like what you see in that possibility, I’m not gonna try to push you into that possibility, because in order for unschooling or homeschooling to work, everyone has to be on board. And if you don’t feel like that’s something you can get on board with, it may just be best for you to have your kids go back to school.
57:55 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.