Skip Nav

What is "Unschooling" and Why Are Its Fans So Passionate?

What is "Unschooling" and Why Are Its Fans So Passionate?

What is "Unschooling" and Why Are Its Fans So Passionate?

Providing children with a solid education is among parents' top priorities. So it's hardly surprising that so many moms and dads are choosing to take charge of their children's education by homeschooling them (the number of kids homeschooled rose 74% between 1999 and 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Education). But should parents, instead, let their children take the reins?

That's the question on the mind of a Circle of Moms member who goes by the screen name "Mother Bacher" as she considers the unschooling phenomenon. "I am so interested in unschooling," she says. "I would love to keep our basics but throw everything else away. I would love to let our schooling go where [my daughter's] interests lie. I've seen so many success stories. Because they started specializing so early they were leaps and bounds ahead of their class."

But what exactly is unschooling? And is it a viable alternative to preschool for your child? Here are three factors that fans of unschooling often mention as key to their decison.

1. You Want to Homeschool But You're Not a Teacher

Celebrated classroom teacher and a founder of the modern homeschooling movement John Holt coined the term unschooling in 1977, to describe "learning that does not look like school learning, and learning that does not have to take place at home."

Since then, unschooling has become known as self-directed learning, or a type of homeschooling that doesn't use a fixed curriculum. The advantage of this method, supporters believe, is that it doesn't require the parent to act like a professional teacher. Rather, the parent provides guidance only and promotes a natural love of self-learning and living together.

"The big difference between formal education and unschooling is that formal education tends to be result driven, whereas unschooling focuses on the process of learning," says a Circle of Moms member named Charlie P. "It may seem like doing nothing but there (is meant to be a) method to it. … It is essentially child-led learning." For example, when Charlie's sons cook, they cover math, measurement and sensory development; when they read they learn literacy; and when they do puzzles, they enhance their cognitive development.

Another member who unschools, Kelly, facilitates her first-grade-aged son's interest in architecture. She takes him on "field trips" to famous buildings, reads about different architects' buildings and contributions, and visits history museums to look at cultural architecture.

As another example of how children can self-direct what they learn, a young child's interest in cars could lead to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. "Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place, though parents with a more hands-on approach to unschooling certainly can influence and guide their children's choices," explains "Growing Without Schooling, the magazine John Holt founded.

As an unschooling mom, member Tracey R. agree that she is "more of a facilitator than a teacher." Nevertheless, Tracey emphasizes that she still parents her children, which means she disciplines and enforces house rules to ensure her children do their chores and don't watch too much TV.

2. Your Child Needs to Go at His Own Pace

Because unschooling doesn't follow a specific curriculum, parents who unschool will have difficulty measuring their children against students of the same ages. But many say that their unschooled children progress faster. Tracey R. says her unschooled children, who are 15, 12, and 7, all read on a junior high school level by age 8, and on a high school level by 10. "My son actually tested beyond high school in reading at 10 1/2. My youngest just turned 7 and reads on a 4th grade level," she says. On the other hand, Tara K. admits that one of her children didn't begin to read until age 9.

"That would have been unacceptable in a public school system, and she would have been given all sorts of remedial help to 'force' her into it. But she picked it up at her own pace [through unschooling] and quickly, when she was ready," Minnie says.

Indeed, Tara agrees (and says unschoolers believe) "there is a right time to 'teach' things and unfortunately in school, that time is different for lots of kids. So those who might be better suited to reading at seven years old spend their first two or three years in school going against their natural learning style, [and] they struggle and feel as if they are failing because they 'should' be able to read at the end of grade one. So just by putting that time frame on one's ability to conquer a skill implies they are failing if they aren't able/willing to do it within that time frame. I have yet to meet an unschooled teen or young adult who is not completely proficient at reading, writing, spelling, articulation etc.," she says.

Nevertheless, not having gone through traditional schooling should not prevent children from learning what they need to support themselves as adults, or attending college if they want to, moms members say. Tara says in most of Canada, many universities have entrance exams specific to unschoolers.

Additionally, "an unschooler may use SAT/ACT scores to attend universities or may enroll in community college before transferring credits to another college. There are also many ways to succeed without the use of institutional higher learning — apprenticeship programs, online accelerated courses or on-the-job training. Unschoolers are used to thinking outside the box (or have not become accustomed to thinking inside one) and have therefore achieved their goals numerous ways with or without the use of degrees," Charlie says.

3. Your Child Is Self-Motivated

Moms should be aware that unschooling will not work if your child thrives on regimen. "Instead of making a schedule and lesson plans and telling your kids 'you must do this at this time,' and let's say you even grade or 'do review' or test, etc., an unschooler would go about learning the same material in a more organic and authentic way. Your little one doesn't want to play with phonics and reading until close to bedtime and only picks it up once this week? No problem. It's about trust," a member named Rebekah explains.

"Some kids thrive in a less structured environment, some need the structure. It's a call you have to make based on your own child's needs, in my opinion, and with each individual child if you have more than one," Mom LaCi says. "I think kids that are self motivated and academically driven could thrive moving at their own pace and doing what interests them, but kids tend to not be academically driven or motivated and usually need the structure to keep them on track."

Charlie agrees. "While I know this type of schooling is suitable for some children, it really isn't for all children. . . .The ones who would appeal more to this type of learning would be the creative types, although an analytical mind would also do very well. . . I actually think there comes a point in time where you need to asses your children and discover what type of thinkers they are, whether they are methodical, analytical, creative, intuitive or sensing thinkers. Each has a direction of education that is more suited to them." For instance, a naturally creative mind in a formal setting might feel stifled, he says.

A naturally sensing thinker, on the other hand, might prefer to learn through organized and structured environment because this type of person tends to thrive on meeting the task and the final achievement. Kelly says her children did better learning through unschooling than they did in public school because they grew to love learning. "Many public schools teach to the test, and my kids did fall into that routine in school, but they knew the difference between studying for the test, and studying because you are interested and want to learn more."

Heather L. laughs that while unschooling would have worked for her because she wanted to learn about sentence structure and fractions, if her parents had tried to unschool her little brother, "he'd be an illiterate expert of WWF movies."

Meghan, too, worries that because "everything about traditional school is thrown out," and children learn from everyday experiences, there is no safety net in place to make sure that the "necessities" are learned.

Nevertheless, Charlie says that while "unschooling does not use guidelines or agenda in regard to 'what a child should learn,' because of their love for learning and with appropriate parental guidance, unschooled children will learn what they need to. Unschooling "puts the child in the driver's seat of their own life, and with love and encouragement, allows them to see what they need and don't need. It accepts that each person's life requires different skills."

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

Latest Family