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Unschooling as a Cure for “Industrialized Education”—with Jeremy Stuart


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Does the modern educational system match the way humans have naturally evolved to learn? Or is it a mismatch, just like the modern industrial diet? I discuss the problems of "industrialized education" with filmmaker Jeremy Stuart—and how unschooling might be a solution.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode we cover:

06:30 The history of the modern education system
13:12 The “symptoms” of industrialized education
18:05 What the research says about education best practices
21:50 So what’s the alternative?
34:14 Some common misconceptions about homeschooling
47:00 What are some of the challenges of unschooling?
56:43 What surprised you when making your film?

Links We Discuss

Chris Kresser: Hey, everybody, it’s Chris Kresser. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week we’re going to do something a little bit different on the show. It may seem like today’s topic is a bit far afield for a show that’s dedicated to health and wellness, but I think by the end of the show you’ll agree that that’s not the case. We’re going to talk about industrialized education and the conventional schooling system and how that is just as much of a mismatch with the way that humans are naturally designed to learn as an industrialized diet and lifestyle is with the way that humans are naturally designed to eat and move and live.

To talk about these issues, I’m really excited to welcome Jeremy Stuart. Jeremy is the director and creator of the film Class Dismissed, which looks at unschooling and homeschooling and alternative—well, they’re alternative now, at least; they were the dominant paradigm for most of human history, but we’ll be talking more about that—models of education.

Jeremy’s involvement in the television and film industry has spanned over 25 years. As an editor, he has worked on hundreds of music videos, commercials, and corporate projects as well as award-winning documentaries and short films for clients such as Lucasfilm, Dolby Laboratories, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Yamaha, Virgin America, Sony, Dave Matthews Band, Acura, and GoPro.

Class Dismissed, his directorial debut, has been screened in seven countries and has received great acclaim in alternative education circles around the world. You can learn more about the film at ClassDismissedMovie.com.

Jeremy is also the proud father of an unschooled 11-year-old daughter, and that’s how I met Jeremy. We are in a group locally of parents who are interested in unschooling, parents and kids. Jeremy is just a fantastic guy, and the film Class Dismissed, we screened it at one of our meetings, and it was probably the best introduction to unschooling and the need to critically reevaluate the conventional industrial education system that I’ve ever come across. So I wanted to invite Jeremy onto the show so that we could talk about learning and education through an ancestral or evolutionary lens, because the way that we learn and how we go about educating our children is every bit as important—in terms of our long-term ability to thrive—as how we eat and exercise and sleep.

I’ve always taken a holistic view toward health and wellbeing, and this is an important topic to discuss, and it’s one that doesn’t get a lot of airplay. I haven’t heard a lot of intelligent, open discussion about these topics in the mainstream media, so I wanted to take the opportunity to do that here on the show. I know it’s a little different from what many of you expect from the show, but I hope you enjoy it and get a lot out of it.

OK, without further ado, let’s jump in and talk to Jeremy Stuart.

Chris Kresser: Jeremy, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for coming to join us.

Jeremy Stuart: Thank you for inviting me. I’m happy to be here.

Chris Kresser: A lot of my work is based on the recognition that there’s this fundamental mismatch between our genes and biology—for example, how we naturally eat, how we naturally move, sleep, how we live in close-knit tribal groups—and then our modern industrial environment. The hypothesis within the ancestral or evolutionary diet and lifestyle community is that that mismatch is really what’s driving the current epidemic of modern disease. But what I’m interested in talking to you about is another possible aspect of mismatch, which is between how humans naturally learn in our kind of wild-type environment, if you will, and the public, and even private, education system that we’ve ended up with. Is this a reasonable filter, to look at schools as a kind of industrialized education experience that is mismatched with what we’re naturally wired for in terms of learning?

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah, I think, very much so, especially with the current condition of industrialized education, with the overemphasis on testing and grading and measuring everybody constantly. I think it’s a huge disservice to children everywhere in terms of the way we naturally learn, and it also is not helping teachers in any way or shape or form either. Yeah, I think there many things about the whole notion of this kind of forced system of education that is very mismatched with how we should be evolving and learning together.

The History of the Modern Education System

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm. It seems like even from a kind of meta perspective the institutionalized education system starts out with this assumption, which is that kids need to be taught to learn.

Jeremy Stuart: Right. For those people who don’t know the history of public education, it started in 1837 with Horace Mann, who was actually nominated to be the first Secretary of Education of this country. He had returned to the US from a trip to Prussia in 1848, and he had noticed that they were implementing a lot of militaristic style of schooling that he felt would be good for this country, as we were entering the Industrial Revolution. So he quickly implemented that throughout the country and really pushed for that to happen, and in Massachusetts in 1852, they passed a compulsory attendance law, and that was kind of the beginning of what we call our industrial education system.

Chris Kresser: Right, because up until then, formal schooling was optional.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: It wasn’t something that every kid had to do. What was the reaction to that first attempt at compulsory schooling?

Jeremy Stuart: It was not looked upon very favorably at all because most people learned at home with their families.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: They were working on the farm or working in the family business and living and learning together in a natural way. Then along comes this legislation that says, “No, you have to go to school now.” There were instances of children being forcibly removed from their parents and taken to these schools. Of course, there was great opposition to this, but unfortunately it kind of won out, and by the turn of the century, everybody was being made to go to school, whether they wanted to or not, really.

Chris Kresser: Right. There are so many things that are interesting to me about this. One is that we often look at our current lifestyle, and because it’s so familiar to us, we assume that’s kind of always how things were. It’s hard for us to imagine anything different. I think it’s probably hard for many listeners out there to imagine a time where institutionalized education wasn’t the norm.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: Where most people were actually learning just in the context of their own life instead of going to this place called school, where they sat in chairs for the whole day and learned things that were really kind of removed from the context of their life, and yet this has really only been the norm for, it sounds like, about 150 years.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah, that’s true. Actually in the context of human history, school is what’s new. Homeschooling or other alternative ways of learning have been around much, much longer than that. But we’re very conditioned, as you said, to believe that the only way you can learn is to be taught in an institution called a school.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: And of course, that thought process carries no weight at all, especially now in this age of information. Perhaps in the Industrial Revolution that might have been true somewhat.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: And even when I was going to school in England, it was hard to get access to information. You had to get encyclopedias or go to the library or go to school and find people who knew about certain things. Now, of course, we can get information at the touch of a button on any device, so it sort of brings into question this whole idea of, well, what is the purpose, then, of having these institutions where you have to go and sit there to get the information for eight hours a day when you can simply find the information in a couple of seconds?

Chris Kresser: Absolutely. The other piece of that that’s interesting to me, just from a sociological perspective and historical perspective, is that writers like John Holt and others have argued that industrialized education was really a way of conditioning kids to fit into the new system of industrialized labor, kind of conditioning them to be cogs in the machine, really, rather than sort of the more craft-based, artisanal local economy that prevailed before then.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah, that’s very true. He had written about it, and also John Taylor Gatto has written about it a lot, who was a New York public school teacher for 30 years and then went on to write an amazing op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal about why he was quitting, because he no longer wanted to damage children.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Stuart: Going back to Horace Mann, who started all of this in 1852, he believed that school was a great equalizer and that values such as obedience to authority and promptness and attendance and organizing time according to bell ringing would actually help students prepare for future employment in the Industrial Age. The whole purpose of it was set up to train factory workers, to respond to bells, to respond to cues, to be told when to do something and how to do it and for how long so that they would become efficient worker bees in this Industrial Revolution. And of course, in Congress at the time, all the people that were supporting Mann’s vision were all the industrialists, the Carnegie Mellons.

Chris Kresser: Absolutely, the people who would benefit from that kind of labor force.

Jeremy Stuart: Exactly, families who were supporting this and pushing it through. That’s why this whole system kind of came into being in the first place.

Chris Kresser: Yeah. I wanted to at least touch on that because I think the history of institutionalized schooling in this country is not very well known. It’s certainly something I wasn’t taught in school!

Jeremy Stuart: Absolutely. It’s surprising that there are many teachers that don’t even know the history of why industrial schooling was set up.

Chris Kresser: Right. John Taylor Gatto, who was a teacher for 30 years, as you mentioned, I think one of the first kind of public forums where he voiced his criticism of the public schooling system was at his own speech that he gave when he was presented with an award for being the Teacher of the Year, isn’t that right? Something like that?

Jeremy Stuart: That’s correct, yeah! He was nominated Teacher of the Year, I think, twice or maybe even three times by the state of New York.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: I think it was on the third one that he said, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Chris Kresser: He was the best of the best, and yet he still saw that the system was failing.

Jeremy Stuart: Yes.


Looking at the modern education system through the lens of ancestral evolution. Is it a mismatch?

The “Symptoms” of Industrialized Education

Chris Kresser: Yeah. So if we extend this metaphor of industrialized education, we know that when people follow an industrialized diet they develop all kinds of illnesses and chronic diseases, so what are some of the symptoms, perhaps, of industrialized education? You’ve made a film where you interviewed lots of people who were doing traditional… or we could say, maybe, modern education in a kind of conventional setting, and then you’ve talked to lots of parents who have unschooled or homeschooled their kids, and you’ve done that yourself. So what would you describe as the symptoms of industrialized education, and maybe what are some of the risks and complications for kids and parents in that system?

Jeremy Stuart: Well, I think the biggest one these days would be stress, both for parents and teachers and certainly for the kids, because there’s been so much emphasis placed on testing and grading and measurement and teaching to the test. It has put huge pressure on families to comply, teachers to comply, and kids, of course, face the brunt of all of this. There have been several other films made about this. Race to Nowhere is one. There’s another more recent one. I’m trying to think of the name of it. I can’t think of it right now, but anyway, there have been a number of films that have spoken specifically to this issue of the suicide rate in high schools increasing because the kids are feeling so much pressure and stress to do well on these tests that it’s just having really horrible effects on their well-being.

hen, of course, the whole homework issue, the fact that so many kids have hours of homework after they’ve completed a whole day in school, and they’re up until 2 in the morning, doing homework, so therefore, they’re not getting enough sleep. Therefore, they’re not focused when they’re at school, and then they’re not eating well.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: And then parents having to nag the kids to do the homework, and that creates stress within the family, so the family unit is suffering. The list is sort of endless, really. I think that we’re in a real crisis situation with this particular methodology.

Chris Kresser: Yeah. It’s interesting to me that what seems to be the response, as far as I can tell, is people recognize that it’s not working, but the response, instead of stepping back and critically evaluating the entire model, is to just do more of the same… harder!

Jeremy Stuart: Right!

Chris Kresser: For example, even though we have lots of research that’s showing that homework is not effective. It doesn’t improve kids learning ability, especially at a very early age. It seems like more testing, more homework, more college prep at an earlier age, to the point where kindergarteners… A parent just yesterday was telling me that a teacher told her that her kindergartener had fallen behind. My response was, “Behind what?!” What’s going on here? That’s one thing that stands out to me. That’s the definition of insanity, right? Doing more of the same thing and expecting a different result.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah, it’s totally dysfunctional, and you’re absolutely right. It seems to be, More testing, then. The school day needs to be longer, then. These measurements aren’t stacking up to our expectations, so let’s add on more layers of work and stress and homework to make those scores go up. As if somehow those scores are the measurement of what learning is.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: In fact, it’s completely the opposite. There’s been so much research done and available out there about other countries who have implemented things that are really effective.

Finland, for instance, is the big one that everybody looks at these days. In Finland, you don’t start school until you’re seven. And they also do not organize subjects into neat little packages or separate them out from each other. They’re very integrated.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: There’s also no homework at all, period, until you’re a teenager, and then it’s very minimal. And there’s also absolutely no testing until you’re a teenager, and then there’s only one test, one standardized test that all kids of teenage years take. They also get 75 minutes a day of recess, as opposed to 27 minutes in the US. Their school days are far shorter.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: There’s no measurement or grading for six years, and they spend 30 percent less on students than in the US, and they outrank 65 other countries in performance results. It blows my mind to read those statistics and then hear things like, Well, we need longer days, or, We need more testing, or,  We need more grading. It’s just completely the opposite direction of where we should be going.

What the Research Says about Education Best Practices

Chris Kresser: Yes. My listeners will be very familiar with the notion that our concurrent conventional medical paradigm is really out of touch with the research. Like, if you go to the doctor, you might be prescribed a treatment that is not really closely aligned with what the most current research says about what should be done in that situation. But I’ll tell you what, the gap between conventional medicine and the research literature is one-tenth of what the gap is between how education is practiced and what the research literature says about learning.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: It’s not even in the same ballpark. It’s admittedly not my area of expertise, but I have read quite a lot of research about education, and as an undergraduate, one of my majors was education, so I know a little bit about it. Correct me if I’m wrong, there are really no studies that support what we’re talking about as happening here, the idea that more testing, more homework at an earlier age is going to do anything but harm kids. I have not seen any studies that support those ideas.

Jeremy Stuart: Right, that’s very true. All the studies say the opposite. And then there’s some other really interesting research being done by people in this country, we were talking about Finland, but in this country—and elsewhere in the world, actually. Sir Ken Robinson gave an incredible TED Talk about how schools kill creativity. It’s one of the most viewed TED Talks in history, and he’s specifically talking about, again, I think, the idea of there’s so much emphasis on testing and measurement and grading that kids have forgotten how to be creative.

Chris Kresser: Yes.

Jeremy Stuart: And they’re losing their passion. They don’t even know what their passions are. I’m sure if you went to a high school or even a middle school and you pulled some kids out and said, “What are your passions? What really drives you? What are you really interested in?” many of them would have no idea at all.

Chris Kresser: Well, from my perspective, this is one of the most harmful things about institutionalized education, and Alfie Kohn talks about it a lot.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: The difference between extrinsic motivation when you’re forced to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do, and intrinsic motivation, which is motivation that comes from within, from you being in touch with your own desires and passions. The way our school system is set up is to reward extrinsically motivated activities. Like you said, every time the bell rings, you get up. It doesn’t matter how immersed you are in what you’re doing. The lesson is that when the bell rings, it’s time to put that down and go to the next thing.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: You’re told what to be interested in by what subjects are taught in school, and they’re separated into nice little chunks and not connected at all, so there’s really no place for someone’s passion or interest to unfold in an institutionalized schooling environment.

Jeremy Stuart: No, none at all. That also goes for the teachers, who are in the really unfortunate position of not being able to teach because mostly what they’re doing is classroom management, making sure people are where they’re supposed to be and sitting in their seats at the right times and being quiet and attentive. And then the other part of their job is basically teaching to the test, to make sure that the material that’s going to be on the test will be covered so that the kids can get good results and the school can get funding.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: That’s not teaching. That’s just management.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: So the whole system is really in a very sad state, I think, at the moment. We’re definitely moving in the wrong direction in terms of making any positive changes that will actually make any different.

So What’s the Alternative?

Chris Kresser: Yeah. That’s what’s alarming to me, and that’s one of the reasons I really wanted to have this discussion with you, because I think a lot of people are aware that there’s a problem, but they may not know exactly why. It’s kind of like something’s happening, you have some kind of pain or ache, but you don’t know why.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: Hopefully this conversation will help shed some light on that question for people.

And then, of course, the next question a lot of people are going to have is something along the lines of, “OK, well, let’s say I agree with you guys and there are these problems with the institutionalized schooling. What’s the alternative?” The way that homeschooling is portrayed in this country is, I think, intentionally as a sort of backwards thing that people only do if they don’t care about their kids or whether their kids are going to go to college or be successful or have a social life or anything like that.

On the other hand, there seems to be a growing and thriving community of people who have sought out alternatives and have made different choices, like yourself, and you, I think, have a unique perspective on this because you made this film. You talked to so many people who are either already doing it, have done it, or are considering doing it, and then you tracked that family who went from not doing it to fully doing it and everything that happened in between.

Tell us, just kind of first starting with the 30,000-foot view, what are some of the alternatives to industrialized education and maybe some of the differences between those alternatives.

Jeremy Stuart: Sure, yeah, that’s a big subject!

Chris Kresser: Yeah, just start with the meta view, and then we’ll dive down.

Jeremy Stuart: Obviously homeschooling has been around for a very long time, and as you said, the perceptions of homeschooling, I think, are very misguided in this country. It’s often portrayed in the popular media in a negative way, but actually statistically it’s the fastest growing form of education in the country today. It’s growing by about 15 percent a year. And of course, there are many, many, many ways to approach homeschooling. Homeschooling is just one word for it, and I don’t particularly like that terminology because when you hear the term “homeschooling” you think, OK, well, the kids are just going to be home all day, and they’re going to be doing school.

Chris Kresser: Right. They’re sitting at the kitchen table with all the same books and things that they had at school.

Jeremy Stuart: Right, recreating school at the kitchen table. I’ve interviewed many people on the street about this, and I’ve asked them specifically what images come to mind when I mention this word, and that’s the image that comes to mind. Now, for some families, that works and that’s fine. If that works, then great. But for the majority of families that I’ve met and talked to, that only works for a short period of time, and then they soon realize that this is not the most effective way for them to have a relationship with each other and to learn anything, and they tend to get a bit more eclectic and perhaps do away with structured curriculum or trying to create school too much and lean more towards another form of homeschooling called unschooling. Basically another term for that would be life learning, kind of learning from experiences in life instead of following a curriculum, just trying to follow their children’s interests. Find out what they’re passionate about, what interests them, and then support them in that, help them find resources, point them in the right direction, give them the tools necessary for them to really explore what they’re interested in. And then, of course, their motivation is intrinsically driven, and learning is much more effective.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: Time and time again, I’ve talked to people that have said this, that when they sat down, for instance, and said, “OK, we’re going to homeschool. I’m going to sit here and teach you these math subjects through these worksheets.” The kids were like, “No, we’re not going to do that.”

Chris Kresser: Yeah. “No, you’re not.”

Jeremy Stuart: From my own personal experience, we tried that with our daughter. We said, “OK, we need to do some math. Let’s get some worksheets.” We thought it was a fun book and that it had fun little activities, and it always ended in tears and arguments, and it just never got anywhere.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: So we quickly abandoned that idea and realized that there are plenty of other ways that you can learn some basic math without having to sit and do worksheets.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: And so the unschooling approach is very much more looking at life in general and being involved in life at every level and finding learning opportunities within your everyday activities. The other thing that I’ve come across lately in traveling with my film and meeting lots of people is that there are more and more little collectives of people coming together in communities to create mini learning centers.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Stuart: I don’t want to use the word “school” because I just like to avoid “school” completely.

Chris Kresser: Some people call them “free schools.”

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah, democratic schools, free schools, learning centers. It can happen with three or four or five parents who are homeschooling, kind of getting together and pooling their resources and saying, “Let’s help each other out. Let’s kind of create some vision around this that we can support each other.” I think this is where community plays a really big role in all of this.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Stuart: I think the other thing about industrialized education is it’s damaging communities.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: There’s this sort of attitude that if you send your kids to school, you can kind of just wash your hands of all the responsibility for their education and assume that the school is giving everything that your child needs. That’s a very big assumption, and clearly it’s one that’s not working. Therefore, I think that sort of also breaks down the level of involvement with the community and family and people around you, whereas homeschooling and unschooling kind of forces you to seek that out.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: You need that to support each other. So I’ve been very excited to see—in the last year, especially—all kinds of little learning centers popping up all over the country. Some of them are very small, maybe four or five families. Some of them are really quite big. They’re doing amazing things, and they’re so different than the way a school would operate. I actually feature one of them in my film. They’ve been around for 10 years. On the surface, it looks like a school, but actually it’s not because the kids are choosing to be there, and also the kids are choosing what to learn and how long they want to spend learning it. The whole thing is driven by the interests of the children rather than some “educator” saying, “This is what you’re going to learn now.”

Chris Kresser: I really just want to keep coming back to that because I think that’s the crucial difference. Using your example with math, the way the school curriculum is set up, all the subjects are extracted and the learning is completely out of context from the child’s interests or life. Whereas, let’s say your kid gets interested in animals and decides to go spend a couple of days in the office of a veterinarian, and as part of that, they have to learn how to ring people up with a cash register, and so then they start learning math that way.

Jeremy Stuart: Exactly.

Chris Kresser: That’s going to happen so much more quickly and naturally, and they see the relevance of it immediately, and it’s directly related to something that they care about and are interested in.

Just for all the listeners, if you think of anytime that you’ve ever been engrossed in something or really passionate about something how much of a sponge you are for information on that subject.

For me, the thing that I love to do most is to learn, but it took me years to recover that passion after exiting the formal education system, and it took me years to actually determine what it is that I was most passionate about and interested in. That’s why I didn’t start doing this work until I was in my 30s, that I’m doing now, because it took me that long, actually, to recover!

Jeremy Stuart: You needed a recovery period.

Chris Kresser: Yeah, it was a long and painful period with lots of therapy. It was a difficult period to get back to it. That’s one thing that I think is a really crucial difference.

I think there are some other things that make unschooling or homeschooling stand out from conventional education, and one is there isn’t age segregation. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah, that’s an important one, and this sort of ties into a little bit with the whole socialization question, which is one of the big ones that comes up when you speak to people about homeschooling. They say, “Well, what about socialization?” Well, let’s get back to the first part of your question there—age segregation. When you go to school, generally speaking, you’re in a classroom with 20—or even as many as 30 now—people of more or less the same age within one year on either side, which is a very unnatural kind of thing. It’s not like that in the real world. I mean, you’re never going to be in a place in life where you’re only surrounded by people your same age, so that’s a very unnatural aspect of forcing people of the same age, putting them all together, like categorizing them my date of manufacture, and saying, “Only you guys are going to learn this particular subject now.” There’s lots of research to show that actually mixed-age learning is really, really powerful.

There’s some incredible research that’s been done by Sugata Mitra out of Newcastle University, I believe it is. He did this incredible experiment in India called the “Hole in the Wall” experiment—it’s been well documented online—where he took a computer and he put it in a hole in a wall in a slum in Delhi and just left it there. He turned it on, hooked it up to the internet, and walked away. The kids gathered around it. None of them spoke any English, and they were all ages—little ones, teenagers. They had never seen a computer, and none of them spoke English. He came back three months later and said, “Well, how’s it going?” and they said, “Well, we need a faster processor.”

Chris Kresser: Right!

Jeremy Stuart: “We need to play games better.” The older ones were teaching the little ones, and the little ones were teaching the older ones. They had taught themselves English, and they were googling things, they were playing online games, they were learning about things—all without any adult supervision whatsoever.

Chris Kresser: Yeah, and probably if there had been, it would have gone a lot worse.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah. He repeated this experiment in multiple places and got exactly the same results, and so he’s since gone on to establish what he calls “Schools in the Cloud,” and he’s building several of them in India. He got a big grant to do so, where it’s basically a glass-walled building, so you can see in and see out, it’s not walled off in any way, and the kids can come and go as they please. There are high-powered computers connected to the internet, and they can get online and learn whatever they want.

It’s kids of all ages, so the little ones often help the big ones out, and the big ones help the little ones. And when they really get stuck, they can go online and skype with retired teachers that Sugata Mitra calls “Grannies in the Cloud” and ask questions and get some help directly from these retired teachers who are basically sitting around with all this information and they’re not being utilized.

He calls this system “SOLE,” or self-organized learning environments. To me, that’s just so fascinating to read his research and to listen to him speak about it because basically these kids are teaching themselves and helping each other out. He calls it “minimally invasive education.”

Chris Kresser: That’s fantastic. Another perfect metaphor that extends to medicine and health. Most people will be familiar with the idea that in any kind of medical procedure you want to choose the least invasive path that you possibly can to get the greatest impact.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Some Common Misconceptions about Homeschooling

Chris Kresser: I think probably for some people who are listening this question might be percolating at this point, which is, “OK, this all sounds great, but there are lots of statistics that say that if you have a university education, you have more upward mobility, and a lot of colleges have certain criteria that they look for in terms of entrance, so I may be kind of philosophically on board with this, but I want my kid to go to college, so I can’t possibly unschool them or homeschool them.”

Jeremy Stuart: Right. That’s definitely another big barrier in some people’s minds to this notion, but here’s the interesting thing: Colleges now, including all the major ones—Stanford and Yale and Harvard—are actively seeking kids who were homeschooled or unschooled or who had an alternative type of education because what’s different about those kids is that they’re still interested in learning. They haven’t had that, as you said earlier in your experience, they haven’t had that sort of desire and passion to learn beaten out of them and then they have to recover and try to regain it. They’re interested in learning because they’re intrinsically motivated. Colleges are finally starting to realize this and are actively seeking out homeschooled and unschooled students.

In fact, I read a statistic that… and I may have the numbers slightly off here, but I think Stanford’s admission rate for homeschooled kids is 26 percent as opposed to 6 percent for traditionally schooled applicants.

Chris Kresser: Wow. That’s dramatic.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah. It’s a big deal because I think what they’re finding is that, by the time kids get to college age, they’re done. They’re exhausted. They’ve been beaten down. They’re super stressed out. Probably many of them are only going to college because their parents tell them they have to go in order to get this particular career or job or society kind of expects it. There are a lot of people out there doing research around this, too, about whether having a college degree really is all it’s made up to be. I think that the general consensus is that that’s beginning to change.

For instance, Google and some of the big tech companies, they don’t even look at your resume. They don’t care where you went to college.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: I don’t know if this is true, but I heard someone mention that they knew someone who got an interview there. He handed over his resume, and they guy just put it in the trash and said, “Let’s talk about this problem that I have.” He presented some sort of problem, and the guy had to give him answers on how he would solve that.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: They’re more interested in that kind of thinking than what degree you have or MBA you have. It doesn’t make any difference at this point because it’s just a piece of paper and there are hundreds of thousands of applicants with MBAs. How do we sort them out and know which one is the best?

Chris Kresser: Absolutely. On a much smaller scale than Google, I have a lot of employees, and I don’t look at resumes. I maybe barely glance at them. We have an audition process that people go through when they apply, and then in the interviews I’m mostly interested in seeing how someone’s mind works and whether they’re able to learn effectively and take initiative and solve problems independently. It’s actually quite shocking to me—and this is kind of a thing that we talk about often within the company—how many people don’t get through the audition, even with stellar credentials. I think it’s something that’s probably going to be changing even more. It’s already changing, and it’s something that’s going to be changing.

Then, of course, the other question is, what kind of future do you want for your children? Do you want them to go to work for a big company that values that kind of resume experience? Certainly it’s a valid option. It’s one path, but there are many other paths that might be more rewarding for someone to take if they had that choice. If they were in touch with a way that they could pursue their own interests and support themselves financially, I wonder how many people would choose to work for a big company. Is that really someone’s passion, or is that something that comes from maybe just not being sure what else to do?

I don’t mean any judgment by that. I have worked for companies myself, and I know many people that work for companies and have really rewarding careers and they’re happy doing it, but I can’t help thinking about the history of industrialized education and tying that to this particular concern.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah, it’s a very good question. I think about that a lot myself, just from my own personal experience. I graduated high school and I was done. I had no intention of going to college, and everything I’ve done in my adult life, I’ve done because I chose to do it and because I was interested in learning about it. I wonder, too, that same question, if you took away that sort of societal pressure of you having to go to college to be successful, if you took that out of the equation, how the world would be different. Again, it comes down to, what is success? How do you define that?

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Stuart: Is success having a six-figure salary in a big corporation and working your way up the ladder? Or is success just being happy and joyful in your life and loving what you do? How do you define that? I think we have very narrow and limited visions and definitions of what that is in our society, and so everybody is sort of funneled into the same track, as if that’s the sort of golden ticket.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: And perhaps in a different time it was. In my father’s era, late ‘40s and ‘50s, then perhaps that did make sense. But we’re not living in that age. We’re living in an entirely different age. The thing is we don’t really know what the world is going to look like in two years.

Chris Kresser: No.

Jeremy Stuart: Or five years, so how can be preparing kids for careers that we don’t even know if they exist yet.

Chris Kresser: Exactly.

Jeremy Stuart: There are all kinds of things that are being constantly created in terms of work and ways to make an income that we don’t even know about.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm, so why not prepare them to learn and be as flexible and adaptable and as capable of learning new things as they come along as possible? And is traditional schooling really the way to do that?

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: I want to address one more fear that people often have about unschooling before we move on, which is that, “My child will fall behind.” I just want to use a story about this. A friend of ours also unschooled their daughter, and she didn’t learn to read until she was 10 years old. By the standards of conventional education, that’s alarmingly late, right? That’s like freak out, “Oh my god! This is unacceptable. What’s going to happen?!” But I’ll tell you what, she learned to read at 10, and by age 12 she was reading the same books I was reading. We lived in the same place, and she would ask me for book recommendations, and I would just tell her what I was reading at the time. I’m a voracious reader. I tend to read two or three books a week, and they’re not typically light books. They’re history, a lot of nonfiction. Even the fiction I read tends to be pretty thick, and she was just right there at 12 years old. So within two years, she had not only caught up, but leapfrogged everyone in her cohort. Now she’s in her early 20s, and she still reads voraciously and way more than any other kid her age that I know, because it came from intrinsic motivation, her own desire to learn to read when she was ready to read instead of being forced to read.

Jeremy Stuart: Right. Yeah, that’s a very important point. I’ve met many people like that too, particularly unschooled kids who didn’t read until 10 or even 12, and then suddenly they start reading because they have such desire to do so on their own that they’ll do anything to make it happen.

I heard a great story once. I was at a conference, and I attended a teen panel of unschoolers. These were all kids who had never been to traditional school. Many of them had never actually set foot in a school. There was one young man there, and he had enrolled to a university to study astrophysics!

Chris Kresser: Wow.

Jeremy Stuart: And someone said to him, “Obviously you’re interested in astrophysics.” That wasn’t the question. The question was, “Why would you enroll yourself in a college when you’ve never set foot in a school? What’s that like, and how did you manage to get in?” And he said, “Well, I realized that the only way to really study it to the degree that I wanted was at this particular institution, and so I applied, and when I applied, I realized I didn’t really know any math.” He said, “I went to my parents, and I was kind of upset. ‘Well, how come you never taught me any math?’ And they said, ‘Well, you weren’t interested.’” And he said, “Well, I need it now,” and they said, “Well, you know what to do.”

So he went to the library, and he got grade one math, then grade two, grade three, grade four, and so on. He spent three months just reading math books, and in three months he took the necessary examination to enter the college and got 92 percent on the test.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: So he learned 12 years of math in three months, because all he did was he knew that this was what he needed to do in order to get to his next goal in life, which was to study at this particular institution. And so he just sat down and put his mind to it and blotted out everything else and just said, “I’m going to do this,” and he did it!

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: I was blown away by that story. That’s amazing. When you’re really motivated and driven and you want to achieve something, then amazing things can happen.

Chris Kresser: Right. This reminds me a little bit of Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician who didn’t really have any formal training in mathematics. They just made a movie about him. I can’t remember what the movie is called [The Man Who Knew Infinity], but he just sent some of his scribbles, mathematical formulas in a journal to GH Hardy, who was one of the most famous mathematicians in the world at that time, a British mathematician. I was listening to an interview on NPR, and apparently we’re still figuring out some of this guy’s formulas. He lived in the early 1900s, and he predicted certain things related to math. Black holes hadn’t even been discovered, but some of his equations predicted how things would behave in black holes.

Jeremy Stuart: Wow.

Chris Kresser: That’s how brilliant this guy was, and he had no formal training in mathematics at all.

Then, of course, there are other examples of people who have achieved just incredible things. Christopher Paolini, for example, the author of Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr, which is a very popular fantasy novel series. He started writing those at the age of 15, I think.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: He was homeschooled. So it’s just important to remember if you take this path or if you’re worried about falling behind that part of a more organic approach to learning involves recognizing that it doesn’t happen at the same pace or look the same way for every different kid. One of the downsides of the conventional education system is that it doesn’t recognize that.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: I’m constantly going on and on about the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to diet and health, so why would we assume that there would be a one-size-fits-all approach to something like education?

Jeremy Stuart: Right. Then it comes back to the question of, falling behind according to whom?

Chris Kresser: Right. What standard?

Jeremy Stuart: Who are these mysterious people that are saying that you have to be able to read by the age of 5 or 6? Where is that coming from?

Chris Kresser: Yeah, all completely arbitrary standards that somebody created at some point.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

What Are Some of the Challenges of Unschooling?

Chris Kresser: As we’re starting to wrap up, I want to maybe make this a little more tangible for people, and since you’ve unschooled your daughter, maybe you could just talk a little bit about that personally, maybe starting with even what some of her days or years or weeks would look like, just so people have a clue what this means. Is she really just at home all day? What is she doing? Then maybe a little bit about some of the challenges that you face and how you approach those.

Jeremy Stuart: Sure. My daughter’s 11, and she’s never been to school at all. She’s home some of the time, and she’s out a lot of the time. She has a lot of passions and interests that my wife and I do our best to support and encourage. One of those is music. She likes to play piano and write songs. She’s a songwriter. She writes all her own lyrics and writes all her own tunes. When she was seven, she said, “I want to make an album.” So we found someone, a friend of mine, who has a recording studio, and she went in and recorded five songs and made a CD. This was where the math came in because then we had to figure out how much we were going to sell the CD for. So she went through that whole process and sold a bunch of CDs to her friends and at homeschool conferences and things. And since then, she’s been working on her second album. She likes to perform live at various open mic nights in the area where we live.

That’s just one of her interests. She does Aikido. She does math. She’s learning to speak French online. She takes an online course with a native French speaker and a group of other people that call in from all over the world to practice French together.

Our days sometimes are structured and sometimes are not. There are classes that she takes because she wants to take them, so we sign her up for things that she’s really interested in. She did some science camps with a place called Quantum to learn some biology and chemistry. She enjoyed those very much. She also spends one afternoon a week at a working farm, where she is interacting with animals and learning about nature and going on hikes and making things and milking goats and all kinds of stuff like that, which she really, really loves.

It’s always changing, and this is the wonderful thing I like about this particular approach. You have to be flexible, and you have to be willing to shift and flow as things change because all of us are constantly seeking out new interests and finding things that sort of pique our interest. And as the parents of an unschooled child, it’s really important to pay attention to what your kid is doing. What is she into right now? And also to introduce new things.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Stuart: Like, she doesn’t really know much about this, so let’s maybe talk about that, or let’s go online and find something that might be interesting to her about it. Sometimes we find that it isn’t and she doesn’t want to know, and we’re like, “OK, that’s fine.”

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: And we just step away. Other times, she says, “Yeah, that’s kind of cool.” Like, let’s find out more about it. Let’s go and travel somewhere. Recently she’s been getting into Greek mythology. We just got back from a vacation in Europe, and when we got back, we were talking about how hard it was to come back because we were enjoying ourselves so much over there. And she said, “I want to go back to Europe,” and I said, “Well, where would you go?” She said, “Well, Greece, because I want to go to Athens.” So clearly this is a passion of hers.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: So as parents, for us, it’s very interesting to kind of watch that ebb and flow. There are frustrations sometimes. There are days when it seems like she’s doing nothing.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Stuart: Or reading all day. And it’s hard to not sort of jump in and say, “You should be doing something else. You’ve just been reading for the last six hours. Do something else. Let’s do some math or let’s do something else.” I have to always catch myself when I do that because I think most of what’s happening there is my own conditioning.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Jeremy Stuart: The way I was conditioned at school to think that if you’re not doing something “productive,” then you’re wasting time. I think there’s huge value in recognizing that and then stepping back from it and just allowing things to unfold. But it’s challenging as a parent, definitely.

Chris Kresser: Sure. I mean, we have our own conditioning to unwind there. We went through school where first period is English, second period is math, third period is science, so we have this idea that every day there should be an equal amount of learning on all these different subjects, which is not really how nature works, right? There are seasons, there are natural rhythms of coming and going, but I can imagine that that would be really difficult. As products of the conventional education system ourselves, even if we believe that in our hearts, there’s a lot to unwind there.

Jeremy Stuart: There is, and there’s a name for that—the deschooling process.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: As a parent of a homeschooled child or unschooled child, you have to really focus on deschooling yourself, meaning unraveling all of the conditioning that school implemented in you and forced into you about how learning should look—what it should look like, what it should be, and when and how. All of that you can throw out and get rid of, but it’s hard to get rid of. Sometimes it’s easier than other days. There are days when it seems to flow really well and other days where I still get anxious and think that she should be doing something else. Then I have to question, well, where’s that coming from?

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: Is that me? Is that my conditioning? I mean, what should should be doing? She’s enjoying herself doing what she’s doing, so who am I to step in and say it should be something else?!

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: And invariably, when I do step in and say it should be something else and we try it, it doesn’t work.

Chris Kresser: Right. Which is a hint!

Jeremy Stuart: A really big hint!

Chris Kresser: Yeah!

Jeremy Stuart: It’s like, “No, Dad. Back off. I was quite happy doing what I was doing.”

Chris Kresser: Yeah. And I imagine this is where community can be helpful, if you have a group of other people who are facing the same kind of challenges, just the ability to talk to them and share the experience and get some reflection of, “Oh, yeah, I went through that same thing, and this is what I found.”

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: Along those same lines, since you’ve been through this and you’re still going through it, I imagine there are some choices that you made early on that you might not make now, knowing what you know now. Does anything come to mind in that category?

Jeremy Stuart: You mean in terms of if we would have done anything differently?

Chris Kresser: Yeah, exactly.

Jeremy Stuart: That’s a good question. For the most part, it really works for us. I think both my wife and I worry sometimes. When that voice of conditioning really raises its head, we start to worry sometimes, “Are we doing the right thing? Should we do something different? How can we change something?” But the thing I like about that is that it’s incredibly active and alive to be engaged in that conversation as opposed to being passive. I mean, we could just as easily send our daughter to school and sort of assume that they’re going to take good care of everything, and we wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore, but the very act of having to look at it and think about it and constantly kind of reevaluate it, I find really engaging and active, and I think that’s a really good part of this.

We had to make some lifestyle choices. I tell people all the time that homeschooling and unschooling is not just an educational choice, it’s a lifestyle choice. We had to make changes in our personal lifestyle and work situations in order to make this happen, but those were choices that we were willingly able to make. We thought about them and said, “Yes, we’re going to do this because it just really makes sense for us.” I think a lot of people are afraid of doing that, like, “Well, we both have to work full time. How is this ever going to work?” I think that’s a whole other subject. You have to sort of look at, well, what are your priorities? Is it making good money and having the house and the boat on the weekends? Or can one of you work part time in order to be home to make this happen and facilitate this lifestyle?

There are definitely things that we had to do, and it’s tricky sometimes juggling it all. It’s definitely challenging. We don’t have the luxury of regular paychecks sometimes, and we’re both independently employed, and so there’s a lot to juggle there. But again, it’s all part of the whole experience of living together and learning together.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Jeremy Stuart: I think that our daughter learns a lot from witnessing us in those situations. When I’m working at home, for instance, she sees what I’m doing. We talk about what I’m doing, and she sees what that process is. And then when I’m at home and I’m not working, we have time to do things together. So all of it sort of blends together, really. Living and working and learning is all the same thing.

Chris Kresser: Right. That’s organic education for you!

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: If we were to think about what an analog, again, would be for people who are interested in an ancestral approach to nutrition and lifestyle, if we extend that out further, what would an ancestral approach to education be? This is it, where there’s no hard line between life and work and learning, because those are all part of just our experience as human beings.

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

What Surprised You When Making Your Film?

Chris Kresser: So, Jeremy, I want to finish up by talking a little bit more about your film, which I think is the best introduction to homeschooling and unschooling that I’ve ever seen.

Jeremy Stuart: Thank you.

Chris Kresser: You’re welcome. It’s an incredible film. We’re going to be unschooling Sylvie, our daughter, and for people in our life that we want to understand unschooling better as a choice—our parents, for example—your film is, I think, really helpful in just giving people a quick, but thorough introduction into this world and in an open-minded and balanced way.

I love how you used a family and their arc through the whole process as the through line for the film because it just made it so much more relatable and real. The family goes through almost this entire spectrum that we’ve talked about. They start off in a conventional school. They then do the around-the-kitchen-table version of homeschooling, with a curriculum, and then the kids lose interest in that. Even at some point, the kids decide to go back to school, right?

Jeremy Stuart: Right.

Chris Kresser: On their own choice, and the parents let them do that, and that doesn’t last very long because they’re like, “Oh, no way. Forget that.” And then they end up doing a more kind of unschooling approach. It was really interesting to watch that whole progression.

My question for you about the film is, what did you learn in the process of making that film—if anything—that surprised you or that you didn’t expect, where you came out of that experience differently than when you went into it?

Jeremy Stuart: That’s a good question. One of the things that surprised me in the course of making the film… it took four years, and I met countless families all over the country, in various different states, and what really was interesting to me is just how much variation there is in approaches to learning outside of a traditional classroom. I met people that were doing a more school-at-home approach and unschooling and radical unschooling and everything in between, and yet, somehow or other, it all worked for each of those families.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Jeremy Stuart: I was really touched by that and kind of moved by it because I realized that that’s the sort of essence of it. I tell new people who are interested in homeschooling and talk to me about it all the time that you can call it whatever you want to call it. The terminology is not important. What’s important is to find what really works for you and your particular family. Whether it’s more structured or whether it’s looser or more eclectic, it doesn’t matter, and you can label that in any way that you want. And of course, it may change and often does! Actually I should say it will change and evolve as your children grow and evolve and as you grow and evolve.

I just saw this over and over and over again with the various people that I interacted with in the making of the film, and at the end of the day, it all just somehow comes together. It sort of blows me away that that’s possible, and I think that when you really trust that your children know how to learn and you instill that love of learning in them and encourage and support that, then amazing things happen. I saw that over and over again, and that was really a powerful experience for me… and very affirming, in my own experience with unschooling our daughter.

Chris Kresser: Absolutely.

Jeremy Stuart: Because, of course, there are doubts. I have doubts just like everyone else does, every good parent. And just to hear from all of these different families that were trying things in all kinds of different ways and sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, but somehow or other, it’s all kind of working, and it’s all just part of this amazing thing called life! That was just amazing to be a part of and to witness, so I think that’s probably the thing I came away with the most.

Chris Kresser: That’s inspiring and, I think, will help people to get their heads around this to some degree because everyone’s life looks different.

Jeremy Stuart: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: Some people have jobs where they can work at home. Other people don’t have that, and it’s important to understand that the whole point of this is that it’s not supposed to just look one way. It’s about education as part of life, and everyone’s life is different, so it makes sense that unschooling or homeschooling will look different for different families, based on how their life looks, and that’s totally OK and it’s even encouraged.

Jeremy Stuart: Absolutely. Yeah.

Chris Kresser: That’s one of the main differences.

Well, this has been really great, Jeremy. I know that people are going to get a lot out of this. I also know that people are going to want to learn more, and they’re going to have questions. Knowing my audience, they’re going to want to do their own research and find out more, so first of all, tell us where people can learn more about your film. All the resources you mentioned in our interview today, we’ll make sure to put links to them in the show notes on the website.

Jeremy Stuart: Great.

Chris Kresser: But then if you have any other resources that you would recommend, or conferences or anything like that, let me know if any come to mind right now, and we’ll add those too.

Jeremy Stuart: OK, thank you. Yeah, to find out more about the film, people can visit my website, which is ClassDismissedMovie.com. There’s the trailer for the film on there and then all the information about the film and screenings and various things. You can also purchase the film on DVD or rent it as a downloadable or rentable, streamable version. That’s a good place to start.

We also have a Facebook page, where we’re constantly posting articles about homeschooling and unschooling, not just about the film, but about things that I find online that are of interest to the subject, and that’s Facebook.com/ClassDismissedMovie, so I encourage people to sign up for our page.

Yeah, resources. I have hundreds of resources that I could send you.

Chris Kresser: OK. Well, we’ll start with the ones you mentioned. There’s also a conference that’s coming up, right? An annual conference?

Jeremy Stuart: In California, yes. Every year they have a big state conference, and I’m just pulling up the dates right now. It’s the HSC conference, the HomeSchool Association of California. This year it’s in San Francisco, and it starts on the 28th of July and goes through the 31st. I do encourage people who are interested in finding out more to attend that conference if they can. That’s actually where we started. We went when our daughter was two, just to kind of find out what this homeschooling thing was all about, and we were completely blown away.

Chris Kresser: Right. Yeah, we may be out of town, but if we’re in town, we’re definitely going to be there. I’m looking forward to that.

Jeremy Stuart: The website for that would be HSC.org.

Chris Kresser: Cool. Well, thank you so much again. This has been wonderful. We’ll let you know when the show is up, and maybe if you have a minute or two and a chance to respond to some of the comments, folks would appreciate that as well.

Jeremy Stuart: I’d be happy to, yeah. Thank, Chris.

Chris Kresser: All right. Definitely check out Jeremy’s film. We’ve watched it a couple of times now. Once we had a kind of screening at our house. It’s about a two-hour film, right?

Jeremy Stuart: It’s 90 minutes.

Chris Kresser: Yeah, 90 minutes, but it doesn’t seem like that. It’s really engaging and really illuminating, and there was a lot of spirited discussion afterwards. And then, like I said, I showed it to my parents and my wife’s parents, and they got a lot out of it as well.

Jeremy Stuart: That’s great.

Chris Kresser: I really recommend checking it out.

OK, that’s it for today, and we’ll see you next time, everybody.

  1. Can you teach someone to be curious? i.e. What can you do for a child that wants to do nothing but play video games and watch tv?

      • “Limit or remove those distractions.”

        I agree. Something neither the podcast nor the documentary Class Dismissed fleshed out much is that children have to be exposed to freedom within the right context. A lot of the parents interviewed in Class Dismissed made it seem like they can just leave their children alone all day and they become self-taught geniuses. But that will not work for children that have already learned to fill their free time with screen addiction or other unproductive distractions.

        Get your kids involved in whatever you’re doing. Make them help with chores. Make them accompany you on errands, and make them do as many of the associated actions as possible. If they complain and insist they’d rather stay home or sit around, don’t negotiate or cave; be firm, confident, assertive, and consistent. Think up engaging, fulfilling, affordable activities to put on the schedule. Find a way to network with other parents in the same boat to share ideas with. Turn off the TV; remove it from the house if necessary. Go all in. Good things will happen; but they don’t necessarily require zero effort, especially if your kids have built habits that aren’t ideal. If things aren’t flowing smoothly by and large, that might be the cosmos’s way of telling you that you’re not living in the moment yourself. Got to crack that nut before the youngsters will play along…otherwise, they’ll fight you the whole way.

        If you’ve seen Jeremy’s documentary, I think this was the mom Rachel’s biggest problem. She didn’t appear to have much of a robust life going on outside the home, and I got the sense she had not involved her children in the household duties to any degree of significance.

        I suspect Chris & Jeremy declined to go deep into this subtopic for the following reasons: (a) they didn’t have unlimited time at their disposal, and (b) they took for granted that most listeners already understood this stuff. Reason (a) is perfectly understandable. However, reason (b) represents questionable assumptions. I think a LOT of parents today could use more coaching on this particular subtopic. (I admit again that this rationale is merely my assumption for why this issue was not dissected further.)

    • There was an interesting Not To Self podcast episode where they talk about a new non-typical school: altschool.com

  2. Great episode! I’ve wondered when learning outside of school would intersect functional medicine- goes hand-in-hand with a healthy lifestyle. I’ve been listening to your podcast and guiding my children as they learn outside of school for years- great to see two important aspects of health and optimal living come together.

  3. Oh interesting podcast, and I have to play devil’s advocate here. I was homeschooled/unschooled and I absolutely hated it, and have spent a large chunk of my 20’s in therapy to overcome the insecurities and shame that developed as a result!

    I absolutely agree that there is huge room for improvement in western school systems and fostering creativity and room to play as children learn.

    However I think there are some things we must be very cautious of when approaching such topics.

    The first is the cost on the child of being *different* than the majority of their peers. A large sense of our identity comes from belonging to a culture. When you are raised as a child in a way that excludes you from the experiences that most of your peers have (such as exposure to pop culture, school camps, birthday parties, normal forays into dating, etc) this is incredibly isolating and can trigger a lot of shame. I received a lot of teasing once I started socialising with ‘normal’ kids as a teenager who found me socially awkward as I was so unaware of social conventions, and could not relate to most of what they would talk about. This experience was incredibly isolating and caused a lot of shame – to this day (as a 30 year old) I don’t feel ‘normal’ and constantly feel like an outsider. I also found unschooling incredibly stressful as I wanted to learn, but felt so alone in the process – it was completely up to me to try to figure things out and learn them. Then when as an adult I wanted to go to university I was so petrified about how to get there as I didn’t have a high school qualification that the whole process triggered severe anxiety and depression in me. I made it to university, but was so nervous at my first lecture that I was physically shaking with fear. Raising kids so far outside of the culture they have to live in is isolating and is asking a hell of a lot of the kid. I wish I didn’t have to go through that. There is an increasing movement of former homeschooled kids speaking out against it online – check out, for example, the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog.

    Secondly, I think we should not be too quick to dismiss the value of a formal education. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I come from a rural area with generally low levels of higher education, and most of the people I knew from there in my teens did not pursue higher education and are quite small minded – there is a lot of racism, xenophobia and fear. I certainly do not wish to lump in all ‘uneducated’ lower socio-economic groups as being like this – however I have just noticed that lower levels of education do seem to correlate to some small minded attitudes, and I think this is sad. I think the value of a broad education is that it opens your mind, introduces you to new people and worlds and forces you to rethink some of your world views. I think higher education should be encouraged for all, no matter what trade you go into. We should all be taught to think critically, rationally and respectfully.

    So there’s my two cents – if you are thinking of ‘unschooling’ your kids I beg you to consider what the cost will actually be to them, and to ask them along the way what they want.

    • Wow, Gemma! Your experience sounds just like mine and I was in schools all my life. I hated it and felt like I didn’t belong, and have always felt like a misfit since. I homeschool my kids in large part because I don’t ever want them to feel like I felt.

      I am so sorry you had to go through that as a homeschooler! My teens are already in early college and well adjusted. I wonder what the difference is here. Maybe it’s having a peer group and friends who are like oneself, or at least very respectful of differences? Or maybe its schooling toward independence like unschooling does?

    • Hi Gemma,

      I am so sorry you had a homeschooling experience that was socially isolating.

      Homeschooling does not always look like that at all. In fact, my kids, and 1000’s of others at Village Home (www.villagehome.org), experience a deep and rich social life. But even without a diverse and engaging community like Village Home to tap into, it is possible to homeschool without any social isolation. Research indicates that overall homeschooled kids are just as socially competent as traditionally-schooled kids. In fact, they out-perform their public-school peers in the categories of dealing with various ages and handling new social situations.

      It takes parental effort to get their kids involved in lots of community groups and organizations where they can meet peers and bond around common interests. Anything from scouting to soccer can serve as that platform. Perhaps your more rural environment made that a tougher proposition for your family. And, of course, there are homeschooling parents who are motivated to homeschool in order to separate their kids from some aspects of society, or to expose their children only to their personal religious or moral teachings, thereby rejecting others, but that is not why I and many other homeschool families are homeschooling.

      Personally, I was motived to homeschool my kids to EXPOSE them to the world more, not less. My personal opinion is that kids in school all day are part of another “separate” society and they don’t have time to relate to the real world because they are inside the walls of a school building most of the time. The society inside a school building isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not reality. My kids have all kinds of friends, of all ages, from all walks of life and navigate all kinds of social situations easily.

      My daughter, who completed her freshman year in college this spring did sense that she was “different” from her peers, but the differences weren’t painful for her — she just noticed it. She has made a lot of great friends her freshman year. She has more autonomy-expressed, so the notion of “getting to class on time” and “managing homework” were all a piece of cake for her. IMO, the biggest difference is that she went to college to LEARN — she isn’t burnt out like so many of her honors college colleagues, and I credit our non-traditional education path for that.

      Kudos to you for doing the hard work in counseling to heal hurts that you endured during your childhood. I wish you all the best!

      • I appreciate the perspective as well, Gemma. I can tell you, however, that I felt like I didn’t fit in for the overwhelming majority of my school days, even though I was dutifully enrolled in the industrialized schooling system from K-12 without a break. College was better, but not great. It took me a long time to mature my way into feeling socially normal.

        I think more than anything else, it is our parents’ conditioning of us as youngsters that determines our comfort in social settings. If children are not adequately exposed to the world and taught how to deal with different people (i.e. being grounded and confident, rather than mystified and intimidated), then they will struggle in this way. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion on the causality here, but I certainly do not believe consistent attendance in the traditional schooling system is an automatic fix for this.

  4. This was a fantastic podcast episode. I have been listening for about a year, and I think this the first time I have commented. Started listening to this one with some mild curiosity, and after about five minutes in, found it so fascinating I couldn’t turn it off.

    I can especially relate to the commentary on burnout after a 13-year grind in the schooling system. I was a curious, bright kid who always performed measurably above my peers in elementary and middle school. By high school, however, I started performing below my potential. I had the brain power to earn a 4.0, but I had far more Bs than As. I just wasn’t motivated, and not challenged in any fulfilling way. Really, the challenges had more to do with organizing work & meeting deadlines…processes I hadn’t developed or refined, because elementary & middle school work had always been such a breeze. And this was in the state’s top public school system. College was a very similar experience to high school. I came away with a 3.6 or so (again, below potential), but can’t say I really learned much. And by the end of that 17th consecutive year of school, I was absolutely burned out and ready to put my brain on pause for a while.

    Both of my parents worked in the public school system and had an unwavering allegiance thereto, so there was never any opportunity for alternative learning methods. The attitude was: your grades reflect your willingness to work hard, which reflects your internal character. Character deficiencies in this area were met with punishment. I’m sure that sounds familiar to a lot of people. That parental disposition may have kept me moving through school with presentable grades, but it definitely muted my curiosity & appreciation for learning.

    I have two children now, and I am excited to explore the possibilities of how I can enable them to learn without adhering to the sad, antiquated, ineffective model I described above.

    I also watched Class Dismissed upon the recommendation here. Good stuff. Great work, Chris & Jeremy.

  5. Hi Chris,

    What a wonderful topic for your show. You are spot on that educational mismatch gets short shrift compared to diet, exercise, stress, and sleep.

    I spoke on this topic at AHS a few years ago and published a paper in the Journal of Evolution and Health on the topic of how the human brain and mind develops in its natural (ancestral) environment, and how at odds our modern educational system is from that! The article link is http://jevohealth.com/journal/vol1/iss1/9.

    Looking forward to seeing you at AHS16 in August!

  6. I homeschooled my two kids (still homeschooling the younger one) and I loved this episode. It was encouraging. My husband thinks we failed because our 18 year old has no interest in college. He’s very intelligent and can learn and remember anything that he is interested in, but the key is that he has to be interested in order to learn. He did pass the GED and is now working on his passions; voice acting and comic book and script writing. He really doesn’t need college for what he wants to do so I’m ok with it. He was mostly unschooled because I learned pretty fast that traditional school wasn’t going to work for him. I just fed his interests and found an online math program that worked for his lack of interest.

    My 16 year old is a completely different story. She wants structure so she does Acellus and she just recently found her passions and is learning everything she can. She wants to attend college in Australia to learn environmental science.

    Homeschooling was a great way to teach each child according to their needs and passions and they never had to worry about not measuring up.

    Another resource I highly recommend is Free to Learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self reliant and better better students for life by Peter Gray.

  7. I homeschooled my three children over 18 years total, now ages 34, 33 and 29. Our oldest son served in Operation Storm in Iraq, now works at a local factory and he and his wife homeschool their three children. Our daughter is a mother of 5 children ages 10 and under and is also homeschooling their oldest 4 children. Youngest son didn’t read until he was 8 but by age 11 was reading books on fission and fusion. He built a Tesla Coil at age 15 and began building computers for family members. He is now a apprentice electrician.

    Homeschooling taught them to learn to learn. They didn’t learn to take tests on things that are irreverent to them but they learned to learn. Once they could read, they could learn anything. It wasn’t always easy but I would do it again in a heartbeat. My kids are worth it!

    I attended public school for 13 years and understand the stress and the hatred to learn is produced. This is why I chose homeschooling for my kids.

  8. This is excellent! I wish more Americans would wake up to the truth about our system of education. I homeschool/unschool because otherwise I would rarely get quality time with my children and they deserve a tailor-made education where they are free to pursue their individual talents and interests. One thing I know for sure- children are natural learners when it’s not forced upon them.

    • The point isn’t the lawsuit, but rather, that home schools don’t have any accountability in TX. Even Finland, the acme of enlightened kids’ ed., regularly tests kids to ensure that schools do their jobs.

  9. Hey! I find this topic very interesting, and it’s great you made an episode about it. It was very informative and inspiring, thank you! The only thing I wanted to note was that the information about Finnish school system is not quite correct. As a native Finn, I have been through Finnish school in the beginning of the 2000s and now in my 20s I have worked as a subsistute teacher, and also my mother is a teacher. Contrary to what was said on the show, Finnish children actually do get homework also in the earlier years, from age 7, and testing also starts on the first grade. Granted, the homework is not usually very time-consuming in the very first years but increases gradually. What’s probably more notable though, is that grading is usually rather informal in the first two or three years and often given only verbally or as points one got right of the total amount in a test. an Also, the subjects are not grouped all together but are actually separated, although in the first one or two years the sequence in which they flow into another and the schedule for each day is not usually so fixed and sometimes there is some overlap. From my understanding though, it is still regulated by law how much time is spent on each subject. Very recently, preschool was also made mandatory where it used to be voluntary, so children start at age 6 these days — this is a side note and it’s very understandable people in other countries might not be aware yet.

  10. Fun piece! Hope the film does great! We are homeschooling MDs of four kids. Love it! Definitely a lifestyle, though! Especially for the parent who ends up staying home most of the time! Although Jeremy describes some of the absolutely fantastic things his daughter does, if you don’t have the resources for that, no worries! You’ll find others in your community, in your time frame, and within your budget! The beauty of homeschooling is learning is everywhere!

  11. 20:00 is right on point.

    I’ve always been naturally intrinsically motivated to figure out the truth regardless of everyone always telling me to “leave it to the experts” that are extrinsically motivated to acquire degrees and materials.

    What if someone isn’t intrinsically motivated? Should they even be forced to learn intrinsically when they don’t have the internal mental energy to do so?

    I ask because the bigger question that isn’t being asked is how did “Industrialized Education” come to be in the first place? Maybe “Industrialized Education” is perfect for those that aren’t intrinsically motivated. The non thinkers. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions and expect everyone to be able to be intrinsically motivated.

    • The reason ” Industrialised Education” came to be is simple. Child labour was banned. In the majority of cases, both parents had to work which, particularly in the cities, left hordes of unsupervised children roaming the streets getting into mischief. As alluded to in the podcast, the ruling class decided that, as they were no longer allowed to exploit their labour, they would benefit from confining the unsupervised children in schools and training them to be useful factory workers. The children were/still are taught to unquestioningly obey authority, be punctual, meet arbitrarily imposed deadlines and are conditioned to tolerate endless hours of tedium. To motivate the parents to enforce school attendance, the carrot of teaching the children to read and write was dangled. At that time, illiteracy was the norm with only the elite being literate. Then, like now, parents wanted their children to have a chance at a better life than they did. Literacy was essential to achieving that aim. That is how and why schooling became industrialised and compulsory.

      As for some people lacking intrinsic motivation, I think you are conflating motivation with leadership. Whether a person is a leader or a follower does appear to be innate. Natural leaders will show tend to show initiative so can appear to be self-motivated. While natural followers are more likely to wait to be told what to do rather than take the initiative. It may appear that followers lack motivation. However once told what to do, followers often prove to be highly motivated to do what is asked of them. As for children, they have their natural leaders and followers as well. Unlike adults, children are still developing their concept of the big picture and are less adept at masking their disinterest in a particular topic or activity.

      For children, the only thing intrinsic to their motivation is their level of interest. A child’s limitless motivation to make sense of the world should not be confused with the child’s possible lack of motivation to learn what someone else wants them learn, when that someone else wants them to learn it. The first is inherent and easy to foster when home educating. Likewise, when a child is emotionally and psychologically ready, they are highly receptive to learning according to someone else’s priorities and do so very quickly. Because education is mass produced in schools, a lot of time is expended trying to motivate children to learn creating the impression that motivation and wanting to learn must be taught.

      Institutionalised schooling, of necessity, devalues the worth of anything learnt outside the school environment and inflates the value of what it teaches. If the child is fortunate enough to be interested in the narrow range of school sanctioned subjects or activities, they will be deemed to be highly motivated. However, if their interests lie elsewhere, they will be subjected to interminable hours of boredom. Some of these bored children rebel by acting out and disrupting the classroom. While others have their interest in the world around them slowly suffocated and learn to rely on the external motivation of classroom discipline to “learn” whatever is imposed on them. The truth that motivation to learn is intrinsic in all children is born out by their incessant need to explore, experiment and ask questions exhibited in the years before they enter school. Unfortunately, enduring endless years of schooling permanently mutes many children’s interest in learning and they inculcates that they lack motivation. This can become part of who they perceive themselves to be and as adults they act accordingly.

      We organically home educated our, now, 27 year old daughter until she decided to get a full-time job at 16. In my observation of her and the children in our diverse support group, I can honestly say that I am yet to meet a home educated child who failed to find things they were interested in. Children who were refugees from the schooling system frequently needed months to decompress from the experience before interest was sparked somewhere. But spark it always did. Some interests developed into passions, while others turned into hobbies or simply became part of the child’s personal kaleidoscope of experiences.

      The bottom line is that children given the opportunity, encouragement and support are highly motivated to learn. Unfortunately, it just might not be what the adults around them think they ought to be learning.

  12. Hi Chris,
    I was really excited to see this episode in my podcast feed. I’ve been listening to your show for a few years now and deeply appreciate the knowledge and skill you share with all of us.
    I grew up in a tiny cabin in central Wisconsin, where my parents moved with the express purpose of “unschooling” their children. WI was one of the few states that didn’t require standardized testing of any kind at the time. So, for the first 18 years of my life, I had complete freedom— as did my four sisters.
    At age 18 I decided I wanted to attend university… so I checked out a ton of books from the library, studied for the ACT, and ended up with a score almost equal to that of my all-star cousin who’d been in school his whole life 😀 I went to a very good private college, where I graduated summa cum laude. What Jeremy Stuart said is absolutely correct: when children are not crushed with years of militaristic schooling, they retain their desire to learn…. and then, when they apply that desire, they learn very quickly.
    Thank you for this extremely uplifting show. It makes me feel joyful to think that others are taking this approach, one which gave me the most wonderful childhood I could possibly imagine. Blessings all!

  13. My husband didn’t learn to read until he was 12 – and then he took off on Dostoevsky and non-fiction history like crazy. We were both homeschooled and plan to do alternative learning with our kids. I do love Maria Montessori’s work, and apply that a little with my 4 year old. But he learns so much just talking to adults about their work. Adults are usually pretty impressed with his curiosity and enthusiasm. It’s been very rewarding so far – we’re really excited to raise our kids, “learning through living”.

  14. I enjoyed this–I think about it all the time with my to-be 5th grader. There are some really amazing camps for unschoolers where they give workshops for each other on all sorts of topics. The counselors have great backgrounds for these kids and teach a lot of topics, as well. Not Back to School Camps (www.nbtsc.org)

  15. Chris, since you’re on this topic it sure would be nice if you could interview Dr. Amy Yasko about the functional medicine approach to learning disabilities.

  16. Thank you Chris and Jeremy! Lot of important points touched on here. I studied Kohn and Holt – great reading! I would also suggest Montessori to understand the child’s developmental needs. “Montessori: The Science behind the Genius” is packed with research which shows what children need in the preschool and elementary years. Dr. Montessori also observed high school age and developed a method for them.

    One reason we follow their interests is called “sensitive periods,” times when children are particularly capable of learning a particular skill or acquiring knowledge. Children’s interests always correspond to those periods. Their instinctual tendencies reveal their deep psychological needs.

    Montessori also said they need “darkroom time” where they just process, and that’s where respect for lazy days come in. Developing concentration is huge for their development, so we avoid interrupting their work or destroying their focus.

    My difficulty is that with 8 children and a chronic illness, it is hard to keep up with each of their interests. So I’ve had to enlist help, and compromise some things. Having a phlegmatic child who is not terribly self-motivated also throws a wrench in things! But I have three in early college now and doing really well, because they want to be there.

  17. We’re unschooling our 12-year-old son, who’s on the spectrum. He loved the social aspect of school but began having so much anxiety that we couldn’t get him there on time consistently enough to prevent truancy. That’s sad to me. It feels as if school districts have become more like a branch of law enforcement. Thankfully, I had homeschooled another one of my kids and knew that we had options. Last year he participated in a lot of activities, including one day a week at a local ranch and one morning a week at a local museum. His passion, though, is computer programming languages, which he’s quite fluent in. Out of this interest grew his desire to learn trig, even though his basic math skills aren’t up to snuff. So as the need to learn those skills arises, we teach him because he’s ready and motivated to learn them. He learns science everyday just because he’s curious and looks stuff up online. I do hope one day we have alternatives to traditional school, which everyone can afford and participate in that’s a sort of blend between the two ideas of traditional school and unschooling with no standardized testing until SATs. OK, maybe I’m a dreamer, but I hope someday the educational world will join us and provide this option. I would even be willing to sign an educational disclaimer! But I suspect that kids coming out of this ideal tax funded school would be as prepared for work and life as traditionally schooled kids, if not even more so. This was great, and I’ll check out the Facebook page.

  18. Thanks for sharing this info. The tides need to turn in “education.”

    I started out un-schooling my kids to their Dad’s strong distaste. “How will they get ahead in the world if they do not have what everyone else has for an education?” Funny… they would be better off.

    After several years of home school unschool they go to http://www.littleriverschool.org/ It is a great space for a balance in learning and unschooling themselves.

    We have another option in our very rural area (and lack of options 13 years ago): http://www.deeprootcenter.org/