What is Unschooling?

Unschooling: it’s a point of eager discussion in the homeschooling world, garnering enthusiastic support from some and concerned skepticism from others. In fact, the term “unschooling” itself is a topic of debate, with certain groups ascribing it one definition while others ascribe it another.

Regardless, many parents are curious about it, about what it means as an educational philosophy, and about whether it really is as effective a schooling option as many claim. To that end, let’s take a look at the reality of unschooling:

Unschooling is often called “child-led learning.” As this name suggests, unschooling allows children to follow their own interests at their own pace, without direction from adults. In this sense, parents act less as teachers and more as facilitators, watching to see what the children are interested in, and then providing the environment, resources, and opportunities to explore those interests.

Skeptics wonder how anything ever gets learned at all through this approach. Don’t children need an adult to constantly tell them what to do? On the contrary, adult unschoolers tend to exhibit a strong sense of self-direction and motivation, and are fully capable of setting goals and then finding the resources to achieve those goals. There are plenty of examples of unschoolers who have gone on to succeed in college and life in general.

The History of Unschooling

Unschooling is most closely associated with a man named John Holt, who coined the term in 1977. Holt was a classroom teacher who later rose to prominence by writing books about the shortcomings of the traditional education system, such as How Children Fail and Learning All the Time.

He founded the magazine Growing Without Schooling, which became very popular in the homeschooling community. Holt has since passed on, but his organization Holt Associates and the website HoltGWS.com are still in operation under the direction of Patrick Ferenga.

Unschooling later inspired Sandra Dodd, educational writer and speaker, to take the concept even further and create the philosophy known as “Radical Unschooling.” Radical Unschooling families adhere to the “child-led” approach not just in the realm of education, but in every facet of life.

Unschooling Practicalities

To the uninitiated, unschooling may appear to be merely unused free time. To an unschooling family, however, the simplest daily tasks are an opportunity for learning. When children help to cook in the kitchen, for example, they learn practical reading skills (from the recipe), math skills (by using fractions to measure ingredients), and chemistry (understanding what changes happen to the food when heat is applied, etc.).

The unschooling philosophy is built on the premise that children are naturally curious, intelligent, and eager to learn, and unschooling parents trust this premise. If a child is daydreaming, then, rather than scolding him for wasting time, the parent trusts him, knowing that the daydreaming may be the precursor to a focused creative project like a painting or a novel. Unguided doodling may evolve into a comic book or a blueprint, and so on.

Unschooling parents are not neglecting or uninvolved. Quite the opposite, in fact. Unschooling parents use a number of strategies to maximize their child’s education.

Some of these strategies include:

Provide a wide range of resources: Unschooling parents don’t dictate what their children learn at any given time, but they do provide resources which encourage curiosity, exploration, and self-directed learning. An unschooling family’s house will typically be filled with books, games, art supplies, musical instruments, etc., so the child has many possible directions to explore. Most importantly, the parents listen to their children about their interests, and foster growth in those fields of interests.

Travel: Unschoolers aren’t constrained to any set schedule, so they can take trips and travel to new places whenever they want. Travel is a tremendously educational experience by itself, and unschoolers gain a lot of knowledge from the cultures and places they visit.

Spend Time Outside: Children thrive in nature, and unschoolers unsurprisingly show a real predilection for learning outside. They may go playing in the woods and learn about the flora and fauna there. Or they may learn how to build simple forts from the raw materials they find. Unschoolers tend to want to take things apart, put them back together, and find mentors who can show them how to create what they want to create.

Allow Passionate Focus: It’s common for unschooling children to become incredibly focused on and passionate about a particular subject for a while. In traditional schools, the children would be dissuaded from pursuing this passion, because the schedule wouldn’t allow for it. Unschooling, however, encourages it, and children will often research a subject with deep commitment, usually far surpassing their grade level in the process.

Use Traditional Resources As Tools: When children become interested in a subject, they may choose to pursue it further. They may even choose to enroll in an online class, find a textbook, or use some educational software to achieve their goals. Traditional resources can be incredibly useful for the unschooling family, but they’re not rigidly enforced.

The Pros of Unschooling:

Educational Freedom: Kids are free to learn and grow according to their unique personality, interests, and learning style.

Kids Actually Want to Learn: Unschoolers tend to be highly motivated, because they’ve chosen the subjects themselves and they’re actually curious about them. No more butting heads up against brick walls trying to force children to complete worksheets they’re not interested in. Furthermore, kids can stop pursuing a subject when it is no longer interesting to them.

Preparation and Monitoring is Much More Focused: Rather than planning a course of study an entire year in advance, without knowing exactly how much time a subject will take and how well the student will have mastered it by a certain time, unschooling allows parents to plan and prepare in response to the child’s interests as they develop. Parents also evaluate their child’s progress in a similar way, by being involved and paying attention to what the child has mastered as they progress.

Kids Learn to Act Responsibly in the Community and Beyond: In unschooling, a great deal of education happens while the children are interacting in the community or simply helping around the house. As such, they become much more independent and comfortable with interacting with new people of any age. They also develop a sense of responsibility, and accountability for their own education and behavior.

The Cons of Unschooling:

Missing Puzzle Pieces: Because children choose which subjects to study, there will likely be information gaps in their education. This is true to some degree of any style of education, but it can be more pronounced with unschooling. Because the children learn to motivate and direct themselves, however, they are typically able to fill in these gaps themselves if and when they need to.

It Takes a Great Deal of Parental Commitment: Unschooling is not the same thing as permissive neglect. Parents must be highly involved in and aware of their children’s growth, and must be able to provide resources and opportunities when interests and needs change. This schooling style requires a great deal of attentiveness, spontaneity, and focus, and is not a perfect fit for every parent’s personality or circumstances.

Kids Must Motivate Themselves: Some children thrive in a structured environment, and don’t respond well to the pressure of having to make all their own educational choices.

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