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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."

Image Source: Kelly Taylor via Flickr/Creative Commons

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.

TracyStuart TracyStuart 4 years
RaquelW: I went to public school entirely and am now 34. I took tests to enter college and my reading level was very high but my math levels were quite low. Public school doesn't guarantee a level education anymore than homeschool/unschool. :) Many of my friends from school (my own age) still can't spell anything properly and have no concept of proper grammar. I plan on homeschooling my 3 year old. My 16 year old was never interested in it yet complains about school all the time. He knows it's an option but doesn't want to take it. Ferris: Math does need to build on itself, but it doesn't always have to take the form of sitting down and doing worksheet after worksheet or doing chapter learning. I don't have to sit my child down for formal lessons at designated times to teach my child to read. For us anyway, it's stuff usually done in the process of "real life" or we find a way to integrate a lesson into what we are doing. My daughter and I work on letters everywhere we go. What they look like, what sounds they make, etc... In the bathtub we draw with bath markers and while she goofs with drawing flowers or whatever else she likes, we talk about people she knows and work on writing letters from their names. She is three and yesterday she wrote my name (Tracy) on the bathroom wall as I spelled it out verbally for her (don't get me wrong - she is 3 and no picasso but the letters are rather legible especially for bathtub soapy markers). When we read together in the evening (she insists on some college level biology book most nights while I would love to read something more like Elephant and Piggy) I will point out words as I read them and sound them out for/with her. Just a specific word or two and then challenge her to find them as we thumb through the book. Anyway, that's how we have been handling the learning to read part. We covered money recognition a couple nights ago as we put money grandpa gave her into a piggy bank. She had to identify which coins were which and then put all the similar ones (like all nickels) into the bank at the same time. Soon we will cover values associated with the coins. She checked out a clock from the library and is trying to figure out telling time. When it comes time for things like algebra or even higher, then we will address her needs at that time. Maybe she'll be happy to pick up a book and learn it on her own. If she's like her mom, that isn't going to happen - at least not with math. So maybe address some online curriculum with available tutors? Or part time enrollment in a local school district for classes that interest her. Maybe at that time there will be a homeschool co-op locally that will address advanced math. I know it sounds like a lot of maybes. It is. But public schools aren't really any more certain of what they will be doing 10 years from now than I am. They change their curriculum and their methods every few years. They don't know what will catch my daughter's attention for LEARNING (and not performing for grades) anymore than I do. Arguably, I might know better than they do since I spend more time with her and know who she is. Anyway, I just wanted to try to answer a few of the questions you posed. :) Lastly, Lauren: Some homeschool kids hate it just like some public school kids hate it. Nothing is the right fit for everyone. Maybe your friend's parents were super strict about being a high performer or maybe they just dumped her in front of books and told her to learn without any direction. Who knows (at least I don't know). There are a lot of variables to her life that may factor into her hating homeschool. Personally, I would have loved homeschool because I hate (even at 34 years old) people telling me what I should do/think/learn/know... You can talk at me and talk at me but I won't HEAR you, I won't assimilate the information. But if I am curious about that same subject, I will research it into the ground and learn everything I can get my hands on about that subject. But just don't tell me I HAVE to learn it because I won't be interested. And I'm an adult and should have learned better by now... :) If you talk AT me (as most schools do), then I will shut down. But if you want to discuss or debate the subject, you have my full attention.
RaquelW7068 RaquelW7068 4 years
I was unschooled as a child. I am now 22 years old and although I did test into college level Reading at 16, my math scores are below average. Unschooling is not a solid education so your child may be lacking in some areas. I would recommend unschooling after school during the evenings or weekends. This way your child will have a solid education and the opportunity to more deeply explore other subjects that may interest them.
LaurenArnold89219 LaurenArnold89219 5 years
I home schooled my 6 year old for preschool before kindergarten and I continue to be very active in what she's learning while in public school. I had a friend who was home schooled until 8th grade and still to this day (with kids of her own) hates the idea and would NEVER home school her kids. The only kids she ever hung out with was other home schooled kids and well me (who went to public school) she was always envious of me. Now I see why, she wanted to be "normal", she wanted to get away from her family and be independent, she wanted to be "as smart as me" (her words). I'll never home school my children but I'll always make sure they're learning enough. I believe my children will get more of an education, because they'll be getting the best of both worlds.
FerrisKneile FerrisKneile 5 years
I only "homeschooled" briefly. If you can even call it that. My daughter was 4. She goes to public school now and asks all the time can she be homeschooled. She's 7 and likes to spend her days playing. She feels the "school" part can be done fairly quickly, then it's play all day. How do unschooling parents teach their young kids how to read, if it's not formally done? How do you deal with the constantness of having your kids home all day? Once kids are older and need to learn Algebra, Geometry, Trig and so forth, how do you teach that using unschooling?
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