Bryan Caplan’s emergency homeschooling how-to guide

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Bryan Caplan offers his emergency homeschooling how-to guide:

The foremost question for any homeschooler is: What are you trying to accomplish? My answer is twofold:

1. Teach kids what they need to know to become self-supporting adults, even if it isn’t fun.

2. Give kids a happy childhood.

In pursuit of goal #1, I focus heavily on mathematics. Why? Because most good jobs in the modern world require strong math skills, and very few kids like math enough to learn it on their own. I also mandate reading and writing — but I don’t especially care what they read or what they write about. Indeed, the best route is if they read and write whatever excites them most.

In pursuit of goal #2, I give kids ample breaks, a long lunch (at cheap restaurants in healthy conditions), and plenty of outdoor time. If there’s any academic subject outside math, reading, and writing that they enjoy, I energetically support them. But I don’t burden them with any additional mandatory work — not even economics. I naturally encourage kids to consider the possibility that they might change their minds, but I don’t push.

My other goal, frankly, is to do my own job while my kids learn. Most emergency homeschoolers are probably in the same position. How are you supposed juggle your kids’ education and your job simultaneously? The answer: With calm but strict discipline. Specifically:

1. Create a tentative schedule and share it with your kids — then enforce it like clockwork. This means more initial effort for you, but will quickly pay for itself in both time and frustration.

2. On day one, run diagnostic tests to find out what your students already know. Assign tasks with a wide range of difficulties. Once you find the easiest thing they don’t know well, have them practice until they can do it well. Especially for young kids, don’t worry about completing a curriculum by a specific date. Just know your final destination and start marching. Tell your kids they’ll learn new tasks as soon as they master the material they’re doing. Drill, drill, drill.

3. If your kids have short attention spans, build more breaks into the schedule — but then enforce that schedule. If your kids need to run around, build that into the schedule too.

4. Build parental feedback time into your schedule, then require kids to hold their questions until the scheduled time. This is crucial if you want to get your own work done.

5. Start the day with the most boring material. For 95% of kids, that means math.

6. Reliably respond to misbehavior with calm but firm enforcement. Don’t express anger — but don’t feel sorry for them. There is great wisdom in the tautology that, “The rules are the rules.”

7. Don’t judge case-by-case; except in extreme circumstances (e.g. vomiting), remind off-task kids of the schedule and tell them to keep working. Don’t be afraid to use mild punishments to address misbehavior — but scrupulously enforce all the punishments you announce. It is better to turn a blind eye than to make idle threats.

8. Remember: The main cause of unhappiness is the disparity between what you expect and what happens. Similarly, the main cause of parent-child conflict is the disparity between what you expect and what your kids expect. Once your kids take their schedule for granted, they will feel better about the situation. Once everyone knows what to expect, conflict fades away… usually. Remember: If your own parental weakness makes you miserable, you will be unpleasant company for your kids. So think of the children — ultimately they too will suffer if you let them push your around!

9. Be open to constructive student feedback outside of learning time. During learning time, though, stick to the schedule.

10. Don’t tell kids that something is “fun” if they resent it. Just be honest and remind them that some boring work has a big long-run payoff. Before you tell them so, though, critically assess whether the boring task does in fact have a big long-run payoff. Sorry, mandatory musical instruction is absurd. If kids have to suffer, they should suffer for their own benefit — not your pride.


I bought almost all of the Humble Math workbooks, found out my kids’ current level, and set them to work. I can’t say they’re delighted, but at least they’re making good progress and look forward to the breaks. The reading and writing are easier sells. And at the end of the day during Activity period, we exercise outside, then learn about whatever’s on their minds. So far, contagious disease is a hot topic – we’ve studied smallpox, Spanish flu, and more – complete with graphic medical photos from the internet. Personally, I’d like to teach more economics, but I’ll wait until they’re more curious.

I haven’t looked at Humble Math, but I’ve been impressed by Beast Academy.


  1. Aretae says:

    As I said when Caplan posted it … I’m an unschooler, have been homeschooling other folks kids since ’94, and unschooled my 5 since 2000, and participated in the unschooling community around the country for that past 20 years.

    My claim: He overemphasizes the value proposition of academic learning. He overemphasizes it a lot.

    I’ve never met an unschooler who said: ooh, engineering is interesting, and was put off by having to learn the math, or programming.

    All the homeschooled kids of any flavor do very well at reading / writing. And they learn the math better than anyone else.

    I know of at least 3 distinct experiments where folks decided to teach math to a crowd of kids who actually wanted to learn. Not “my parents want me to,” but kids saying: “no, really, I want to learn math.”

    In all 3 cases, it took less than 50 contact hours over the course of a 6-9 months for every kid in the class to learn all of k-8 math, at a level most 9th graders aren’t ready for.

    I taught one of those experiments personally.

    His worry about prep is completely unfounded, in my (larger-than-his) experience.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Not every child is cut out to be a rocket scientist. Many can be accountants, and some would be better off taking shop.

    A child hating math is a warning sign. It may be that he is being taught badly, or it may be that he is not mathematically inclined. Try teaching him a different way. If that works, you can blame his former teachers. If it doesn’t, sign him up for shop.

    This is why I never un-ironically tell anyone to learn to code. The world doesn’t need any more bad coders.

    All math beyond arithmetic is a specialized job skill. For the next level, double entry bookkeeping is far more broadly useful than algebra. And algebra is of little use unless you go on to calculus.

    The people who know calculus will end up working for the people who know double entry bookkeeping, and wondering why.

  3. Huey Pierce Long, Jr. says:

    And both the people who know calculus should the people who know accounting will end up working for the people who go to the range after lunch.

  4. Mike in Boston says:

    All math beyond arithmetic is a specialized job skill.

    Mostly true I guess, but if you don’t have some basic-level statistical thinking and data analysis, like how the average and the median are two different things, boy are you ever going to get screwed over by smooth-tongued sharpies.

    Along those lines, Mrs. Mike in Boston, who is the homeschooling czarina around here, prefers the Challenge Math series by Ed Zaccaro (there are three levels, Primary Grade Challenge Math, Upper Elementary Challenge Math, and Challenge Math) to Humble Math.

    Zaccaro has a real-world motivation for each lesson and example. For percentages, it’s sale prices and comparing raises in salary. For simple trig, it’s needing to buy a ladder that will reach the top of a 100-foot building when set at such-and-such an angle. And for the statistical thinking I mentioned earlier, there’s the case of a classroom of kids all of whose families make under $30k a year, except for one whose dad makes $20 million on Wall Street– so someone calculates the average family income to claim that this is the rich classroom, which using the median would disprove.

    She was surprised to prefer Zaccaro’s books to Glenn Ellison’s Hard Math books, which have a good reputation and an MIT pedigree. Those books are certainly well done and not bad, but Ed Zaccaro’s material somehow just manages to engage the kids better.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    I used to tutor kids. Connecting math to real life applications made all the difference.

    Math is abstraction. But there is more than one kind of abstraction. There is the abstraction that engages with concrete reality, and there is abstraction that divorces itself from reality. The first type of abstraction is what intelligence is all about. The second… I don’t trust it, and I would never teach it to a child.

    I have an almost superstitious distrust of pure math. I’ve known people who get good at solving a particular type of puzzle but are no use at all when it comes to real life. I used to like puzzles when I was a kid, but then I sensed that I was wasting my brain. I looked around and it dawned on me that I was getting good at the wrong thing.

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