Education researcher suggests parents should try “unschooling” during coronavirus pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted and changed the education landscape, placing pressure on students, parents and schools to quickly adjust to the various levels and dimensions involved in emergency learning during a health care crisis.

But what if we took a step back and used this current moment as an opportunity to rethink how we teach children? According to Kerry McDonald, an education researcher, self-directed learning or “unschooling” is an approach she believes is worth exploring while kids are at home.

McDonald speaks more on this with the Reason Foundation’s Zach Weissmueller in the video below, highlighting strategies for parents feeling pressure during this time and how the COVID-19 crisis could shift the way students are taught.

Here are some takeaways from the interview.

“This may be a wonderful opportunity for children’s natural creativity and curiosity to reemerge”

While McDonald recognizes the importance of students spending a couple of hours a day engaging with the school-provided curriculum, she also encourages parents to take advantage of unstructured time that could reignite children’s natural drives for learning that sometimes get turned off under a standard schooling situation. For example, a reluctant reader may be more interested in reading if given the freedom to read about what he or she is interested in. Or, maybe it is reading as a family, which wasn’t previously possible when everyone was always on the go.

“Flip the narrative from ‘what learning isn’t occurring’ to ‘what learning will occur’”

The coronavirus pandemic experience will be something children look back on, and it will really shape their future and perspectives, according to McDonald. She points to the life of Isaac Newton, who was forced to learn from home as a college student in England when colleges shut down due to the bubonic plague. Away from professors and curriculum and typical assignments, Newton had freedom to explore and learn in a new way, and he turned the isolation into a “year of wonders”—which resulted in his revolutionary inventions and groundbreaking discoveries in calculus, motion, optics and gravitation.

“This period, as difficult as it is, could be incredibly productive if we allow young people to separate from a schooling mindset”

Separating the idea of learning from formal schooling, or unschooling, was championed by John Holt in the 1980s, and has since evolved to be associated with self-directed education. Whether children are in school or out of school, McDonald emphasizes the important role parents play in making sure their children are highly literate, numerate, and well-educated. But, she continues, there are ways parents can facilitate that strong education by allowing for a non-coercive learning environment that stimulates their interests and passions and reveals their gifts.

“We could be on the brink of an educational reset”

Just like Hurricane Katrina caused a huge education shift in New Orleans (the city went to nearly all charter schools), McDonald believes this crisis could also allow us to break up some bureaucracies and cause some real institutional shifts.