What is unschooling?

What is unschooling?

Unschooling has an undeserved bad rap. It sounds like a form of educational neglect, right?

That’s what I used to think.

Unschooling is actually a form of homeschooling in which parents act as educational facilitators, providing resources and encouraging their children to explore their interests. Unschoolers don’t use all-in-one, boxed curriculum or classroom-style learning. Rather, they embrace child-led, delight-directed activities as the most effective method for learning.

Unschoolers believe that when a child chooses a course of study that it will be more meaningful and useful to the child. When a child is excited about learning, he’ll learn much more quickly and effectively, plus he’ll internalize and retain what he learns.

The History of the Unschooling Approach to Education

The term ‘unschooling’ was coined by John Holt, and educator, during the 1970’s. What he meant by the term was that children will learn academics naturally, in the same manner they learn to walk and talk. He believed school as an institution was unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, the independent scientist in the child disappears.” – John Holt.

John Holt did not equate schooling with education, and he never said or meant that unschooled children were uneducated. Rather, he believed that children in the right environment would naturally educate themselves without external compulsion. He observed over and over in his own classroom that children are born learners and that they learn best when allowed to learn what they want to learn, how and when they want to learn it. 

Unschoolers learn through daily life experiences and social interactions. They believe that learning facts is less important than learning how to learn. Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston College, agrees with Holt’s ideologies, though he used the phrase self-directed education, which has fewer negative connotations than the term unschooling. He came to the conclusion:

“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.” – Peter Gray

This variety of unschooling typically applies only to the school side of life. Most unschoolers will have chores, bedtimes and other rules their parents expect them to follow, despite being in charge of their own education. Radical unschoolers take things further, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

What does unschooling look like?

Of course, unschooling looks different in each home. In some homes, parents of unschoolers provide resources, support and guidance to help their children make sense of their worlds. That might include sharing interesting books, with their children, providing interesting experiences, and helping them figure out how to meet their goals.

Other homes might look less structured to an outsider as parents provide complete academic freedom and encourage their kids to pursue their individual interests. But that doesn’t mean learning isn’t happening — just ask experts like John Holt and Peter Gray. Unschoolers vary in their degree of facilitation, from parents who completely involve themselves in their children’s educations, all the way to those who take a completely hands-off approach.

In an institutional setting, unschooling looks more like a Sudbury school or a free democratic school, where students only take classes they ask for and where homework is never assigned. In fact, nothing is assigned; kids choose what to pursue.

Peter Gray’s son attended (and loved) the original Sudbury school in Massachusetts, so Mr. Gray had the opportunity to study outcomes up close and personal. After years of investigation, he was impressed. 33% of graduates of Sudbury schools go on to work in science and technology, while approximately 13% of their graduates are self-employed, compared the a national average of 6-10%.

It’s hard to define success. How do you quantify it or measure it? But of the graduates Mr. Gray interviewed, 80% stated they were glad they had graduated from Sudbury Valley school, and I’d say that’s a good measure of success.


What is Radical Unschooling?

Radical unschooling extends the unschooling educational philosophy into all aspects of life, allowing complete freedom over decisions such as bedtimes, gaming and movies, and eating to the child. The philosophy rejects the distinction between educational and non-educational activities.

Radical unschoolers believe that children should be treated with the same respect afforded other adults in that they shouldn’t be coerced or forced into living their lives any particular way. Families with this philosophy argue that children who experience respect learn to show respect. They believe that children are born with inner wisdom and that parents only need to facilitate a connection with that inner wisdom. 

Instead of imposing rules or limits or schedules, radical unschoolers model living in a balanced and healthy way and trust their children to follow that example. They think of themselves as walking the path of life alongside their children, sharing experiences and information (parent to child as well as child to parent) and joyfully creating together.

They see parenting as a partnership instead of an authoritative relationship, which is why they believe children should have an equal say in whether to bathe or not and what to eat for dinner.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Unschooling?

The advantages and disadvantages of unschooling will vary from family to family, depending on kids learning styles, family dynamics and more. A friend of mine with 4 children — one of them autistic — unschools all of her children except her autistic son. Special needs kids often prefer to have more structure in their lives and suffer anxiety (and behavior problems) when they don’t.

But my friend appreciates that her other three children respond so well to unschooling, as it frees her up to work individually with her autistic son. Her other three are learning plenty, but are self-directed in their learning.

In my own homeschool, we only use math curriculum. We study other subjects, but kind of willy nilly. A little of this because we feel like it and tomorrow we want to learn about such and such. Any die-hard unschooler would call me a fraud if I tried to pass myself off as an unschooler.

But there have been periods throughout our homeschool where morning sickness knocked me flat on my back for months at a time. If you looked really closely at my homeschool over the last 17 years, you’d see gigantic swaths of nothing but self-directed learning from my kids and it was beautiful. And you’d also see that my oldest three are attending university on full scholarships.

That’s the biggest advantage of unschooling, if you ask me — it’s not a burden for mom to carry. Kids take ownership of their education, and who better to own an education than the recipient?

A disadvantage of unschooling is that it is still a lot of work. Facilitating learning might look like less work than teaching, but it’s still a lot of work. In some ways, inspiring your child to follow his interests is more work than forcing him to follow his interests.

My friend, Julie, has some advice for when unschooling doesn’t work.

Would Unschooling Work for My Family?

Ask yourself a few questions about your own educational philosophy. What are your long-term educational goals for your child?

Do you want your child to be prepared for college and ultimately a prestigious career?

Or would you like your child to choose an enjoyable career over a lucrative one?

Do you trust that your child is capable of teaching himself the skills he needs to function as an adult?

Are you confident that your child will choose to do hard things of his own volition without external compulsion?

Would you rather teach your child to operate successfully within existing bureaucratic structures or would you prefer he not?

Are you confident enough in this ideology to endure being viewed as odd, even by the untraditional (the rest of the homeschoolers)?

My Unschooling Experience

As a new homeschooler, I subscribed to the Classical method of homeschooling. I wanted to give my daughter the best education I could imagine, and I equated quality with rigor. I spent a small fortune purchasing enough curriculum and materials to drown a world class scholar, and we embarked on our homeschool journey.

At the time, I had four children under the age of five. We soon added another child and then another. My pregnancies were difficult and my health suffered. I couldn’t keep up with everything and school was the easiest thing to let fall by the wayside. My daughter loved reading and learning, so she conducted her own experiments and thought up her own opportunities, but our Latin curriculum collected dust in the corner.

By that point, I was “homeschooling” three children, ages 8, 7 and 5 with a preschooler, a toddler and an infant. The only school I could manage was about a half hour per day of math. Math has always been my favorite subject, and I was determined to instill a love for it in my own children.

I felt like a homeschool failure and I worried about the educational well-being of my children, but I had a hard time giving up my ideals. Classical homeschooling was my white whale and conquering it became my obsession.

We have a little farm with animals and an orchard which my children help with daily. I also constantly have a million construction projects going on because I’m a serial fixer upper. So my kids never lacked for interesting things to learn.

They helped me frame, plumb, electrify, drywall, mud/tape, paint and completely finish two basements. I could hand my 7-year-old son a light fixture or a toilet, confident in his ability to install it properly.

My kids excelled at their math, too. Math was a requirement, not a choice, but my kids loved all the math games we played, and they voluntarily went beyond what I assigned.

During my more ambitious moments (or days or months), we’d undertake writing, logic, foreign languages, physics experiments and other interesting things. I bought my children some coding classes at their request and we hired a fun Spanish teacher to come to our house and play games with them, but I just couldn’t make any of the other subjects stick.

It’s not like anyone was languishing around our house. But school was a far cry from the way I thought it should look — the way the Well-Trained mind authors (experts in the Classical method) said it should look. So I worried. I can’t tell you how many times I asked the hubs if we were doing the right thing.

I’d heard of unschooling and equated it with educational neglect, so it was pretty much the opposite end of town from where I wanted to live.

Despite having read some Holt and agreeing with him in theory, I didn’t imagine that kids would ever choose (given the choice between work and play) to do the hard work necessary to earn a good education.

We had two more children in the next few years, for a total of eight, and I was physically and mentally worn out. Finally, I was ready to stop pursuing my white whale — classical education. I was actually so worn out that I sought medical help and had to spend a lot of time intentionally doing very little to let my body heal from all the stress I’d heaped upon it.

That’s when I noticed something beautiful.

My kids would fight over who got to practice the piano after I’d sit down and play. A homeschool field trip to the symphony and a Q & A session with some musicians led to requests for instruments and lessons. When my husband wrote a book they all wanted to try their hand at writing.

A trip to a Scottish festival, watching the bagpipe bands compete and enjoying the culture led to a request for a set of bagpipes and a search for a teacher from one son and highland dancing lessons from another. An online article about graphene prompted two of my sons to build a graphene supercapacitor with which they won science fairs and scholarships.

My 12-year-old son read the only book on string theory he could find at our local library and begged me for more. When we planned a family trip to China, my children installed (with zero urging) Duolingo and started learning Chinese. They didn’t get all that far, but they knew a handful of phrases, thank you, and how to direct a taxi driver, count and order from a restaurant.

I watched my 16-year-old daughter choose to write a fully orchestrated, 10-minute symphony all by herself while she toyed with the idea of becoming a film score composer. I also watched her teach herself to play guitar, organ, piano, and flute all while studying violin with a fabulous teacher.

John Holt wasn’t wrong. Kids absolutely want to make sense of their worlds. You can’t stop them from learning things they think are necessary.

I actually feel a little blessed that I had no choice at times but to let my children choose what to learn and how, because I learned something I never would have learned had I been able to construct my vision of what a school should be.

I’m proud, now, to call myself an eclectic homeschooler with some unschooling tendencies.

But I still disagree with the ideology behind radical unschooling.

It sounds idyllic, like when Mama Bearenstain decides not to clean the house anymore, and then Papa Bearenstain and the cubs step up to clean it from top to bottom while Mama is gone to her gardening club meeting. Or when Marmee feels unappreciated and decides not to clean any more and after a few days the March girls step up and clean.

That wouldn’t happen in my house. We’d be knee deep in filth and sleeping with bedbugs before my family even noticed there was a problem.

By that time, you’ve got mold growing and mice chewing through electrical insulation and rotted joists under the bathtub that should have been re-caulked and all kinds of really huge problems.

Here’s the thing. I matter. And I consider it my job to teach my children that I matter.

It’s a proven fact that kids think the universe revolves around them. It’s not a delay or a defect, it’s a developmental stage. Until age 7, a child’s thoughts and communications are entirely egocentric. Children in this stage actually don’t have the ability to see situations from others’ persepectives, so empathy shouldn’t be expected from them.

They shouldn’t be punished for not caring about other people’s feelings, but they aren’t going to care about other people’s feelings. Around age 7 cognitive development develops to include logical thought, so children begin the process of becoming less egocentric. But it still takes effort and practice.

Love from a child toward a parent is different than love from a parent toward a child.

Sure, my kids love to cuddle in the mornings and read stories together and they love that I buy groceries and fix them yummy meals and wash their clothes. Okay, they probably don’t give a hoot about clean clothes. But they really like to eat.

You know what I need? A clean house. I need all my effort and money that went into new paint and furnishings and hardwood flooring to not get all messed up and ruined by kids dripping salsa on the couch and skate boarding through the great room. I realize that the destruction is not intentional, but it’s still destructive.

I matter and my needs matter. Why not limit the eating to the kitchen and skate boards to outside so nobodies needs are trampled?

The kids get yummy food and I get to keep my new couches stain-free and my floors nice for more than a year.

I’m all over letting children make choices that only affect their well-being, but when their choices affect others it’s time for some guidance — just because little kids aren’t developmentally able to consider others needs.

Self-regulation and impulse control take practice. I still struggle with doing things that lead to health (exercising) and not doing things that compromise health (eating sugar).

Respect? Yes. Total autonomy? No.

I consider it doing my kids a favor to teach them to self-regulate and respect the rights of others and consider others needs and understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them. I can do all of that while unschooling in the way that John Holt and Peter Gray advocate, but not in the way that radical unschoolers seem to advocate.

How do Unschoolers Turn Out?

I linked the research of Peter Gray below. Other than that there isn’t a ton of research. I can only offer anecdotal evidence based on my own limited experience.

My three oldest children all aced their college entrance tests and are currently attending university on full scholarships. My oldest will graduate in the next few months. What matters even more, though, is that each is excited about his/her life and pursuits and full of ideas for making it great.

One family of unschoolers in our homeschool co-op was not well-liked. Their boys were self-centered bullies (they actually hit other people regularly, from little girls to adults) and their mom refused to correct them. None of the other kids wanted to associate with them, and they only participated one year and then went elsewhere.

But I could describe a family of public schoolers in my neighborhood nearly the same way. In my opinion, the way kids turn out is more a product of parenting skills than educational methods, from public schoolers to homeschoolers to radical unschoolers.

Would you like to learn more about unschooling?

Peter Gray has written an interesting 4-part series of articles about different aspects of unschooling for Psychology Today:
A Survey of Grown Unschoolers: An Overview of Findings
A Survey of Grown Unschoolers II: Going on to College

A Survey of Grown Unschoolers III: Pursuing Careers
A Survey of Grown Unschoolers IV: What do Grown Unschoolers Think of Unschooling?
I think the most telling part of those articles is that the vast majority of unschoolers want to unschool their own children in their children.

Would you like to know more about the other homeschooling methods?

Click the links to learn more about each of the following Homeschool Methods:

Reggio Emilia Approach(also known as project-based homeschooling)
Charlotte Mason
Eclectic Homeschooling
Classical Method
Traditional Homeschooling
Unit Studies Approach

Check out this fun quiz to help you pinpoint your own homeschooling style!


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