The Cherrypicking Caveat

How should we interpret stories and research about self-directed and alternatively educated young people? Consider the following true story.

Talita Paolini trained and worked as a Montessori preschool teacher. She and her husband, Kenneth, encouraged her son and daughter to read early, which they both did, till one day her son announced: “I hate to read!” Talita listened patiently, encouraged him to keep trying, and continued taking him to the library; he soon discovered a detective series that sparked his love for reading and stories.

When it came time for their kids to go to school, Talita and her husband Kenneth recalled how dreadful some of their own time in school was, and “how sometimes ’good kids’ got sucked into the system and ended up in the ‘troubled’ category.” Their children were active learners, and they loved spending time together as a family. Talita and Kenneth had no “innate aversion to group schooling,” there just wasn’t a local school that they really liked. The state of Alaska offered a distance learning program, but they didn’t make it easy to enroll—so they ultimately decided to homeschool.

The family soon relocated to Montana, where the Paolini kids spent long hours climbing trees, painting themselves with mud, and watching geese and eagles near the Yellowstone River. They also followed a standard academic curriculum, not always happily, but the kids always chose it over going to school. Tatiana took an eclectic approach to homeschooling, combining “life-learning” with daily reading, writing, math practice, and lots of visits to the library.  They approached the middle school years with workbooks and home-brewed lessons; in high school both teens used a traditional, correspondence-based curriculum. Free to work at an accelerated pace, both kids received their accredited high school diploma close to their 15th birthdays.

Reflecting on this time as a homeschooler, their eldest child Chris wrote:

Homeschooling gave me the freedom to explore subjects that caught my interest, whether it was dinosaurs, Icelandic sagas, or Egyptian pyramids. It allowed me to work at my own pace and graduate from high school early, so I had a couple of years free to write before I had to make a decision about college. Being homeschooled gave me time to think, to daydream about adventures, to create the world of Alagaësia.

What’s Alagaësia? If you have to ask, then you haven’t read Eragon—or the other three books of the wildly popular “Inheritance Cycle.”

Christopher Paolini began devouring fantasy novels at age 10, started writing the first draft of his book Eragon at 14, and shortly after finishing his formal homeschooling, completed it. After seeing the manuscript, Talita and Kenneth decided to do everything they could to help Chris self-publish and promote the book. Eragon was eventually picked up by a major publisher, became a number-one children’s hardcover best-seller, and along with his subsequent books, earned Chris millions of dollars.

Homeschooling is amazing, isn’t it?

Forgive me, because I just committed the grave sin of cherrypicking. I selectively focused on a piece of evidence that supports my side of the story: in this case, the story of homeschooling leading to a successful worldly outcome.

Nor was this my first time committing this sin. I’ve done it many times before in my talks, books, and interviews—as have most of my friends in the alternative education movement, though we don’t like to admit it. But this is important, so let’s take a moment to discuss the elephant in the room.

On a certain level, everyone cherrypicks. It’s human nature to only pay attention to the arguments that confirm what we already believe: that’s confirmation bias. People everywhere do this with politics, religion, and anything else that feels important.

Yet we in the alternative education movement are particularly guilty of cherrypicking and confirmation bias—not because we’re disingenuous, but because we just don’t have good data. Alternative schools tend to enroll 10-100 total students and produce only a handful of graduates each year; small sample sizes make for poor statistics. Furthermore, such graduates are far from uniform; one may leave at age 16 to start college, another may return to conventional school at 14, and another will stay till age 18. These paths are so individualized that, much like homeschoolers and unschoolers, the samples size we’re really dealing with is “one.” Finally, unconventional approaches differ so wildly that talking about them as a single movement, to be analyzed in aggregate, just doesn’t make sense. Montessori isn’t the same thing as unschooling, experiential schools aren’t the same thing as Agile Learning Centers, and hybrid schools aren’t the same thing as homeschooling.

Another thing we fail to properly consider is family income, parental education level, and other factors that broadly correlate with academic performance and college admissions. In my first book, College Without High School, I shared the stories of alternatively-educated teenagers who got into 4-year universities. How did I know that it was those kids’ educational paths that got them into college and not their raw academic abilities or extensive family resources? I don’t know, because I didn’t gather that data.

You don’t need a background in statistics or social science to sniff out these flaws and contradictions. Every parent who visits an alternative school or walks around a homeschooling conference has likely experienced this creeping doubt: “Maybe this approach works for those kids, because of their unique personalities, aptitudes, and family backgrounds. But will it work for mine?“ These is a valid and important question.

As you venture farther afield from conventional education, you’re walking away from the world of precise numbers, large-scale studies, and tightly controlled research. It’s reassuring to know how your neighborhood public schools are ranked; state standardized tests tell you how kid is doing compared to their broad age cohort; and school administrators boast about new, research-backed teaching methods. Despite how easy it may be to recognize the pointlessness of such numbers—what good is a high test score if your kid feels dead inside?—they still gives many parents (especially those in data-driven professions) a sense of security.

It’s challenge to describe the outcomes of the alternative education world accurately and honestly. I believe that our generally poor data—especially for unschooling and radical alternative schools—creates a clear incentive to highlight the stories we like most, and that’s something we need to improve upon. In the big picture, this means: more professors and graduate students and professors focusing on these fields, more money for large-scale research, and more alternative schools using careful statistical methods to describe their students’ outcomes. (Listen my 2018 podcast interview with Peter Gray for specific guidance on what such research might look like.)

For people like me, who promote this kind of stuff, this means: carefully avoiding cherry-picking and over-generalizations about the effects of alternative educational paths. We need to recognize what we can prove and what we cannot. At the same time, we shouldn’t demur too much, because many conventional schools also fail to control for important variables when boasting about the performance of their graduates.

Finally, for parents this means: Stay on guard for anecdotes that seem too good to be true. It also means noticing your biases toward formal measurements and research. The world you’re entering doesn’t have much of it; how does that sit with you? How convincing do you find traditional education research in the first place? How much weight do you give formal studies vs. anecdotes vs. what your gut tells you about your kid? These are highly personal questions, and the best you can do is put every factor on the table.

If one decision should be eminently clear, it’s this: don’t choose an alternative educational path in an attempt to vault your kid into conventional success. Christopher Paolini didn’t write Eragon because his parents told him “you will become a professional author!” He wrote it because his parents gave him large degrees of freedom, and supported his goals and interests. (Also, because he undoubtedly enjoyed some mixture of preexisting talent, inclination, and family resources.) Talita and Kenneth Paolini kept faith in their non-traditional approach because it seemed to be a good idea, day by day and month by month. They enjoyed little formal evidence that homeschooling world “work” for their kids, just as you enjoy little such evidence today.

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Published December 20, 2019.




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