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Unschooling 101

Updated on May 2, 2007

What is Unschooling?

I was dying to know because all I've heard for the last several years is that we all need to become lifelong learners. So what's all this nonsense about UN-schooling?

The term unschooling was coined by John Holt, who founded the unschooling magazine Growing Without Schooling. It's a child-based way of educating a child that lets him choose, based on what he's interested in, what he studies. It's similar to a Montesorri education in this way. Proponents thinks it's a more natural way of learning and one that plays up a child's natural talents. Success rests upon a child's natural curiosity.

Unschooling advocates disagree with our current public school model and argue that one size does not fit all when it comes to educating our children. They also believe a school limits opportunities for students to experience hands-on learning.

What Do Unschooled Kids Do All Day?

Unschooling is really a form of homeschooling, but not in the way that a traditional classroom is recreated in the home. It is not curriculum based or teacher (or parent) directed. Unschooled students are masters of their own destiny. Kids may use a teacher or academic program if they choose, but what, where, and when they study is completely up to them. Parents are only in the equation as facilitators, helping kids to access resources and make their own educational plans. They may give advice, help the child create and be accountable for goals, and share interesting books and information, but other than that, it's up to the child. It's all about respecting the child's time and innate interests.

According to John Holt:

"...the anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don't know."

Unschooling and the Information Age

Unschooling focuses more on learning how to learn than memorizing a set of facts or knowledge that may or may not be useful in the future. In this way, the practice is totally in line with the encouragement to be ‘lifelong learner'. We are living in the information age. We have accumulated more knowledge than any human being could learn in a lifetime. Unschooling frees the student to decide what subject is worthy of his study based on his own inclination.

Socialization and Higher Education

Many people believe unschooled children run the risk of not being able to function in a social environment, but proponents believe the opposite. They think their kids are better able to manage social situations because they come in contact with a wider variety of people. That is, of course, if they get out of the house to do their unschool work.

If they want to attend college, unschoolers must provide a portfolio of work to be evaluated by the school's admission department.

Common Criticisms Of Unschooling

Opponents to unschooling believe kids will have gaps in essential education and that they will not learn to make friends and deal with the everyday conflict kids face at school. The diversity of people may be severely limited when children choose their own studies. Then there are those kids who are simply unmotivated. How will they be coerced to learn?

Parents are available to help, but most of us are not trained educational professionals, especially in multiple subjects. Unschooled kids lack access to field experts unless they are able to get private attention from those experts, which may or may not be possible. Additionally, many people believe in the value of learning to follow directions and developing a respect for authority, which many unschooled children will fail to learn.

Your child may thrive in an unschooled environment, but make sure you do your homework, so to speak. Unschooling is not an easy way out, and not a way for your child to escape social pressures at school. Also, you will want to check with your state officials to find out what the guidelines are to comply with the law in your state.


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  • profile image

    calculus-geometry 5 years ago

    From what I've observed over the years, it seems that wealthier families are more successful at home-schooling and unschooling than middle-class and poorer families. They can afford to hire tutors, have one parent stay at home full-time to teach their children, and give their children experiences that poorer families simply can't provide.

    I have read a lot home-schooling (and unschooling) literature and worked with home-schooling families. There's a lot of talk of unlimited possibilities and broadened horizons, but realistically, I've never seen families of more limited means achieve these ideals.

    That's not to say that poor parents make bad home educators, but I'm grateful our society provides free public education for children whose parents can't afford to stay home.

  • Joelle Synclair profile image

    Joelle Synclair 9 years ago

    Article nicely explained unschooling. I am a homeschooler but not an unschooler. Personally I enjoy structure but never fail to grant my children the freedom to learn and study independent interests.

  • profile image

    Ali (England) 9 years ago

    I have been homeschooling by daughter for 3 years now. She has passed 3 gcse's and is due to take 4 more this year. I truly believe that a love of spending time with your child and a shared interest in learning is all that is needed. A child who spends their day at school frightened, feeling inadequate and homesick will learn very little. It has been hard at times particularly as we have had to learn together but with the internet and librarys available it has never been easier to get information and digest it. You are only on this planet once make sure you have a nice time!!

  • Lela Davidson profile image

    Lela Davidson 9 years ago from Bentonville, Arkansas

    seamus - I think that acknowledgement is key: that every child and every family is different.

  • seamus profile image

    seamus 9 years ago

    I've homeschooled a preschooler so I'm not as experienced as a lot of people. However, my perception is that it might work for some and not for others. My gut tells me it'll work wonderfully for my daughter because of her innate curiosity and because she thrives without structure. We tried to put her into a preschool/daycare with a schedule and *that* was a disaster for us.

  • amy jane profile image

    amy jane 9 years ago from Connecticut

    As a former homeschool and unschooler, I can say from experience that unschooling, while it may work for some families, was absolute mayhem for us. It was a total disaster for my oldest daughter in so many ways because she thrives in a structured environment and found all the decisions that she was now allowed to make overwheleming. I read all the books on unschooling and the theory sounds wonderful. It is too good to be true, at least in our case.

    I no longer homeschool, but I do support it. It may not be right for my family, but I have seen it work beautifully for others.

  • Marye Audet profile image

    Marye Audet 9 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

    Wow..I don;t even know where to start. I have "unschooled" unceasingly since about 1989...Two of my children have graduated from homeschool/unschool and gone on to successful lives, one as a wife and mother and the other in the Air Force. One is an expert on marine biology, the other soloed a plane at age 15. Most colleges/universities do not require a portfolio, depending on the university and the state where the child graduated.

    I will be unschooling for another 14 years at least since my youngest child is 4. While I do not hold a degree of any type I will have over 30 years of schooling under my belt by that time. I have learned algebra with my children, college level meteorology, physics, japanese, and many other things that I might not have chosen to educate myself on if they had not had an interest in it.

    Unschooling is not for anyone. If a parent is blase about learning themselves their children will also not enjoy the process. Admittedly a child can achieve an excellent education in the public school system,a private school system or any of the homeschooling methods and philosophies. The important thing is to match up what works for you with what works for your child and be confident and consistant in it.

  • Woemwood profile image

    Woemwood 10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

    This kind of schooling has the hallmark of the selfish introveted and undisciplined society we live in. Why the world is in such a mess, is because children anywhere in the world are no longer taught how to interact with others, and how to display a measure of discipline, in every human affair. Today's teaching is based on self, and self gratificatrion, self promotion, and independance of everything around them.Eveybody talks about information technology, what does that mean??

    Information does not equal knowlege, neither does knowledge equal understanding, it would be better if they would send the teachers back to school first, and then start educating the children.

  • thecounterpunch profile image

    thecounterpunch 10 years ago

    I don't like the term. It's about fighting school. School by itself is neither good nor bad. What is bad is that school is more and more about quantity and less and less about quality.

    So all movements which are apparently against schooling (I made myself an article about one of them here ) must be considered in context.They would not exist if the schools weren't becoming worse.

    And the profound and hidden reason is here at the end of this interviewabout with the Rockefeller Foundation did want Women to work; yes it has to do with schooling ...