Facts About the Unschooling Philosophy of Education

What is Unschooling?
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Because there are now over two million homeschooled children in the United States, most people are familiar with the idea of homeschooling even if they don't quite understand it. However, even some homeschooling families are confused about the concept of unschooling.

What Is Unschooling?

While often considered a homeschooling style, it is more accurate to view unschooling as an overall mindset and approach to how to educate a child.

Often referred to as child-led learning, interest-based learning, or delight-directed learning, unschooling is a term coined by author and educator John Holt.

Holt (1923-1985) is the author of education books such as How Children Learn and How Children Fail. He was also the editor of the first magazine dedicated exclusively to homeschooling, Growing Without Schooling, published from 1977 to 2001.

John Holt believed that the compulsory schooling model was a hindrance to the way children learn. He believed that humans are born with an innate curiosity and the desire and ability to learn and that the traditional school model, which attempts to control and regulate how children learn, was a detriment to the natural learning process.

Holt thought that schools should be a resource for education, similar to a library, rather than the primary source of education. He felt that children learn best when they are with their parents and are engaged in everyday life and learning through their surroundings and circumstances.

As with any philosophy of education, unschooling families vary as far as their adherence to unschooling principals is concerned. On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find “relaxed homeschoolers.” They prefer to follow their students’ lead with interest-led learning for the most part, but also have some subjects that they teach in more traditional ways.

At the other end of the spectrum are “radical unschoolers” for whom educational activities are relatively indistinguishable from everyday life. Their children fully direct their own learning, and nothing is considered a “must teach” subject. Radical unschoolers are confident that children will acquire the skills they need when they need them through natural processes.

There are some things that unschoolers usually have in common regardless of where they fall on the spectrum. All have a strong desire to instill in their children a lifelong love of learning – a realization that learning never stops.

Most like to employ the art of “strewing.” This term refers to ensuring that interesting and engaging materials are readily available in a child’s environment. The practice of strewing creates a learning-rich atmosphere that encourages and facilitates natural curiosity.

Benefits of Unschooling

This educational philosphy has many advantages. At its core, unschooling is natural learning based on pursuing passions, satisfying one’s natural curiosity, and learning through hands-on experimentation and modeling.

Stronger Retention

Adults and children alike tend to retain more learned information on topics that interest them. We stay sharp in the skills that we use every day. Unschooling capitalizes on that fact. Instead of being forced to memorize random facts long enough to pass a test, an unschooled student has a vested interest in learning the facts and skills that pique their interest.

An unschooled student may pick up geometry skills while working on a building project. He learns grammar and spelling skills while reading and writing. For example, while reading he notices that dialogue is set apart by quote marks, so he begins applying that technique to the story he's writing.

Builds on Natural Gifts and Talents

Unschooling can prove to be the ideal learning environment for children who might be labeled struggling learners in a traditional school setting.

A student who struggles with dyslexia, for example, may prove to be a creative, talented writer when he can write without worrying about having his spelling and grammar critiqued.

That doesn’t mean that unschooling parents ignore vital skills. Instead, they allow their children to focus on their strengths and help them discover tools to overcome their weaknesses.

This shift in focus allows children to reach their full potential based on their unique skill set without feeling inadequate because they process information differently than their peers.

Strong Self-motivation

Because unschooling is self-directed, unschoolers tend to be very self-motivated learners. One child may learn to read because he wants to be able to decipher the directions on a video game. Another may learn because she’s tired of waiting for someone to read aloud to her and, instead, wants to be able to pick up a book and read for herself.

Unschooled students tackle even subjects that they don’t like when they see the validity in learning them. For example, a student who doesn’t care for math will dive into lessons because the subject is necessary for his chosen field, college entrance exams, or successful completion of core classes.

I have seen this scenario played out in multiple unschooling families that I know. Teens who had previously balked at learning algebra or geometry jumped in and progressed rapidly and successfully through the lessons once they saw a legitimate reason for and need to master those skills.

What Unschooling Looks Like

Many people - even other homeschoolers - don’t understand the concept of unschooling. They picture kids sleeping, watching TV, and playing video games all day. This scenario may be the case for some unschooling families some of the time. There are those who find inherent educational value in all activities. They are confident that their children will self-regulate and pursue learning the topics and skills that ignite their passions.

In most unschooling families, however, lack of formal learning and curriculum does not mean lack of structure. Children still have routine and responsibilities.

As with any other home education philosophy, a day in the life of one unschooling family will look drastically different than that of another. The most significant difference most people would note between an unschooling family and a more traditional homeschooling family is that learning happens naturally through life experiences for unschoolers.

For example, one unschooling family gets up and does household chores together before heading out to the grocery store. On the way to the store, they hear the news on the radio. The news story sparks a discussion about current events, geography, and politics.

Upon returning home from the store, the children head off to different corners of the house – one to read, another to write a letter to a friend, a third to his laptop to research how to care for the pet ferret he’s hoping to acquire.

The ferret research leads to making plans for a ferret pen. The child looks up various enclosure plans online and begins drawing out plans for his future ferret’s home, including measurements and a supply list.

It’s important to note that unschooling isn't always done without homeschool curriculum. However, it usually means that the use of curriculum is student-directed. For example, the unschooled teen who decides that he needs to learn algebra and geometry for college entrance exams may determine that a specific math curriculum is the best way to learn what he needs to know.

The letter-writing student may decide she’d like to learn cursive because it’s pretty and would fun to use for writing letters. Or, perhaps she received a handwritten note from Grandma that she’s having trouble deciphering. She decides that a cursive workbook will help her achieve her goals.

Other parents may feel more comfortable unschooling some aspects of their children’s education while taking a more traditional approach to others. These families may choose to use homeschool curriculum or online classes for math and science, for example, while opting to allow their children to study history through books, documentaries, and family discussions.

When I asked unschooling families what they most wanted others to understand about unschooling, they worded their answers a bit differently, but the idea was the same. Unschooling does not mean unparenting and it doesn't mean unteaching. It doesn't mean that education is not taking place. Unschooling is just a different, holistic way of looking at how to educate a child. 

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Bales, Kris. "Facts About the Unschooling Philosophy of Education." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/unschooling-introduction-4153944. Bales, Kris. (2020, August 27). Facts About the Unschooling Philosophy of Education. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/unschooling-introduction-4153944 Bales, Kris. "Facts About the Unschooling Philosophy of Education." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/unschooling-introduction-4153944 (accessed February 8, 2023).