Growing Up Jeub · Homeschooling

Homeschooling and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Stock photo of a stack of books on a table in front of a bookshelf.

I was homeschooled from Kindergarten through 12th grade. As someone who was homeschooled, I am limited to my own experience and perceptions. When I started high school through my community college last year, I was not even aware of what subjects I would need to study. However, my parents and other homeschool parents often told us that we were receiving a thorough, rigorous, and even superior education.

As a result, many of my fellow homeschool alumni believe that they had a good educational experience. The problem is that we are all limited to what we were exposed to, and many of us had little interaction with standard education. I didn’t even have any friends who went to public school. Because we did not experience traditional education, we who were homeschooled are susceptible to believing we know more than we actually do. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In a scholarly research paper about the Dunning-Kruger Effect called “Why the Unskilled Are Unaware: Further Explorations of (Absent) Self-Insight Among the Incompetent”, Ehrlinger et al. wrote, “People are typically overly optimistic when evaluating the quality of their performance on social and intellectual tasks. In particular, poor performers grossly overestimate their performances because their incompetence deprives them of the skills needed to recognize their deficits.”

While the Dunning-Kruger Effect was named after researchers who explored it scientifically, this phenomenon is an ancient concept. Simply put, it is impossible for someone to know what they don’t know. The book of Proverbs alludes to this idea when it says, “The way of a fool is wise in his own eyes.” Eastern philosophy combats the problem of overconfidence by approaching every mindful practice with the foundation of Shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind.

I technically graduated from high school over a decade ago, but only because of a loophole in the law. Most people I know who were homeschooled in Colorado had to keep records and take periodic assessments. My family was exempt from this. Colorado law states that “Each child shall be given a nationally standardized achievement test to evaluate the child’s academic progress, or a qualified person shall evaluate the child’s academic progress.” A “Qualified person” can include a teacher.

My dad taught high school English after earning his Bachelor’s in English. The thing is, English is just one of many subjects that are taught in regular school. He did not teach a wide range of subjects and stopped teaching in 1999. Nevertheless, it was enough to avoid oversight of any kind for us. My mom was not as highly educated but she did most of the homeschooling.

Here in the United States, K-12 education has various flaws that give parents reasons to pause. Safety from bullying, systemic oppression, state violence, and shootings is impossible to guarantee. I’m not writing this to attack parents who choose to homeschool. Instead, I’m asking them to inform themselves as much as possible before concluding that they are capable of providing a thorough education to their children.

My parents, and others like them, were confident about educating a large number of children. As a result, we are stunted in our knowledge. We don’t know the value of school. We don’t appreciate the variety of teachers with expertise in their fields of study. At school, students receive an education as an organized group effort of many educated people. When people talk about having teachers they liked or disliked, or teachers who had a major positive impact on their outlook on life, I can’t relate. I had two teachers: my parents.

Education is a complex subject that can take many years of study to understand. The nature of a formative education varies widely by region and culture. Higher education involves even more numerous specific branches of information. When homeschooled adults choose to homeschool their own kids, they are subject to an even more extreme level of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They are basing their knowledge on having been homeschooled themselves. Homeschooled children of homeschooled parents cannot be objective about education. This limitation gives them a false sense of confidence.