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Unschooling refers to a range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including child directed play, game play, household responsibilities, and social interaction, rather than through the confines of a conventional school. Exploration of activities is often led by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

The term "unschooling" was coined in the 1970s and used by educator John Holt, widely regarded as the "father" of unschooling[1]. While often considered to be a subset of homeschooling, unschoolers may be as philosophically estranged from homeschoolers as they are from advocates of conventional schooling. While homeschooling has been subject to widespread public debate, little media attention has been given to unschooling in particular. Popular critics of unschooling tend to view it as an extreme educational philosophy, with concerns that unschooled children will lack the social skills, structure, and motivation of their peers, especially in the job market.[2]

Within the homeschooling movement, unschooling has featured in debates on pedagogy and values, where it can be perceived as conflicting with Christian education.[3]




Children are natural learners

A fundamental premise of unschooling is that curiosity is innate and that children want to learn. From this an argument can be made that institutionalizing children in a so called "one size fits all" or "factory model" school is an inefficient use of the children's time, because it requires each child to learn a specific subject matter in a particular manner, at a particular pace, and at a particular time regardless of that individual's present or future needs, interests, goals, or any pre-existing knowledge he or she might have about the topic.

Many unschoolers also believe that opportunities for valuable hands-on, community based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences are missed when educational opportunities are largely limited to those which can occur physically inside of a school building.

Children do not all learn the same way

Unschoolers note that psychologists have documented many differences between children in the way that they learn, and assert that unschooling is better equipped to adapt to these differences.

Developmental differences

Developmental psychologists note that children are prepared to learn at different ages. Just as some children learn to walk during a normal range of eight to fifteen months, and begin to talk across an even larger range, Unschoolers assert that they are also ready to read, for example, at different ages. Since traditional education requires all children to begin reading at the same time and do multiplication at the same time, unschoolers believe that some children cannot help but be bored because this was something that they had been ready to learn earlier, and even worse, some children cannot help but fail, because they are not yet ready for this new information being taught.

Learning styles

Recent research has indicated that people vary greatly in their "learning styles", that is, how they acquire new information.[citation needed] In a traditional school setting, while there might be some application of this knowledge, classroom teachers almost never allow an individual student to be evaluated any differently than any other student, and while a teacher—particularly at the primary levels—often uses different teaching methods, this is sometimes done haphazardly and not always with specific regard to the needs of an individual student.

Essential body of knowledge

Unschoolers often state that learning any specific subject is less important than learning how to learn. They assert, in the words of Alec Bourne, "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated", and in the words of Holt:

Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.

This ability to learn on their own makes it more likely that later, when these children are adults, they can continue to learn what they need to know to meet newly emerging needs, interests, and goals. They can return to any subject that they feel was not sufficiently covered or learn a completely new subject.

Many unschoolers disagree that there is a particular body of knowledge that every person, regardless of the life they lead, needs to possess. They suggest that there are countless subjects worth studying, more than anyone could learn within a single lifetime. Since it would be impossible for a child to learn everything, somebody must decide what subjects they are to explore. Unschoolers argue that "Children... if they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than anyone else could make for them."

The role of parents

The child-directed nature of unschooling does not mean that unschooling parents will not provide their children with guidance and advice, or that they will refrain from sharing things that they find fascinating or illuminating with them. These parents generally believe that as adults, they have more experience with the world and greater access to it. They believe in the importance of using this to aid their children in accessing, navigating, and making sense of the world. Common parental activities include sharing interesting books, articles, and activities with their children, helping them find knowledgeable people to explore an interest with (anyone from physics professors to automotive mechanics), and helping them set goals and figure out what they need to do to meet their goals. Unschooling’s interest-based nature does not mean that it is a "hands off" approach to education; parents tend to be quite involved, especially with younger children (older children, unless they are new to unschooling, will often need much less help finding resources and making and carrying out plans).

Criticism of traditional school methods

Many unschoolers agree with John Holt when he says that "...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." Proponents of unschooling assert that individualized, child-led learning is more efficient and respectful of children's time, takes advantage of their interests, and allows deeper exploration of subjects than what is possible in conventional education.

Others have pointed out that schools can designed to be non-coercive and cooperative, in a manner consistent with the philosophies behind unschooling. Sudbury model schools are evidence of schools that are non-coercive, non-indoctrinative, cooperative, democratically run partnerships between children and adults, including full parents' partnership, where learning is individualized and child-led, and complement home education.

There is a particular philosophy of homeschooling, often referred to as "unschooling," which shares many similarities with the Sudbury model schools. John Holt was a well known proponent, and his writings offer an explanation of how learning can happen without teaching, and what motivates children to learn.

Unschoolers believe, as Sudbury schools do, that children are born curious about the world and eager to succeed in life and that kids learn best through experience and experimentation rather than by being told how and what to think. In the words of John Holt: “Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. . . They include time, freedom, and a lack of pressure."

But unschoolers, for the most part, see the family environment as the best place for children to grow, while the Sudbury model schools believe that, as the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family.

In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional pressures that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school — the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example. In most homeschooling families, the parent sees him or herself as ultimately responsible for the child’s education, while at Sudbury schools, that responsibility rests squarely with the child.[4]

— Ok, So You’re Sort of Like...Homeschooling?

History and usage of the term "unschooling"

The term "unschooling" probably derives from Ivan Illich's term "deschooling", and was popularized through John Holt's newsletter Growing Without Schooling. In an early essay, Holt contrasts the two terms:

GWS will say 'unschooling' when we mean taking children out of school, and 'deschooling' when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory...[5]

At this point, then, the term was equivalent with "home schooling" (itself a neologism). Subsequently, home schoolers began to differentiate between various educational philosophies within home schooling. The term "unschooling" became used as a contrast to versions of home-schooling that were perceived as politically and pedagogically “school-like.” In 2003, in Holt's very influential book Teach Your Own, originally published in 1981, Pat Farenga, co-author of the new edition, provided such a definition:

When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.[6]

In the same passage Holt stated that he was not entirely comfortable with this term, and that he would have preferred the term "living". Holt's use of the term emphasizes learning as a natural process, integrated into the spaces and activities of everyday life, and not benefiting from adult manipulation. It follows closely on the themes of educational philosophies proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paul Goodman, and A.S. Neill.

After Holt's death and the cessation of GWS, there was no longer anything resembling an authoritative voice of the unschooling movement. A very wide range of unschooling practitioners and observers defined the term in various different ways. For instance, the Freechild Project defines unschooling as:

the process of learning through life, without formalized or institutionalized classrooms or schoolwork.[7]

New Mexico homeschooling parent, Sandra Dodd proposed the term "Radical Unschooling" to emphasize the complete rejection of any distinction between educational and non-educational activities.[8] Catherine Baker and Grace Llewellyn emphasize unschooling as a process initiated and controlled by the learners (as opposed to their parents).[9][10] All of these usages share an opposition to traditional schooling techniques and the social construction of schools. Most emphasize the integration of learning into the everyday life of the family and wider community. Points of disagreement include whether unschooling is primarily defined by the initiative of the learner and their control over the curriculum, or by the techniques, methods, and spaces being used.

Home education

Unschooling is generally considered to be a form of home education, which is simply the education of children at home rather than in a school. Home education is often considered to be synonymous with homeschooling, but some have argued that the latter term implies the re-creation of school in the context of the home, which they believe is philosophically at odds with unschooling.

Unschooling contrasts with other forms of home education in that the student's education is not directed by a teacher and curriculum. Although unschooling students may choose to make use of teachers or curricula, they are ultimately in control of their own education.[10] Students choose how, when, why, and what they pursue. Parents who unschool their children act as "facilitators," providing a wide range of resources, helping their children access, navigate, and make sense of the world, and aiding them in making and implementing goals and plans for both the distant and immediate future. Unschooling expands from children's natural curiosity as an extension of their interests, concerns, needs, goals, and plans.


Concerns about socialization are often a factor in the decision to unschool. Many unschoolers believe that the conditions common in conventional schools, like age segregation, a low ratio of adults to children, a lack of contact with the community, and a lack of people in professions other than teaching or school administration create an unhealthy social environment.[11] They feel that their children benefit from coming in contact with people of diverse ages and backgrounds in a variety of contexts. They also feel that their children benefit from having some ability to influence what people they encounter, and in what contexts they encounter them. Unschoolers cite studies which report that home educated students tend to be more mature than their schooled peers,[12][11][13] and some believe this is a result of the wide range of people with which they have the opportunity to communicate.[14] Critics of unschooling, on the other hand, argue that unschooling inhibits social development by removing children from a ready-made peer group of diverse individuals.[2][15]


Common opinions and concerns of people who are critical of unschooling

  • Most children lack the foresight to learn the things they will need to know in their adult lives.[16][15]
  • There may be gaps in a child's education unless an educational professional controls what material is covered.[17]
  • Because schools provide a ready-made source of peers, it may be more difficult for children who are not in school to make friends and develop social skills than it is for their schooled peers.[2][15]
  • Because schools may provide a diverse group of both adults and students, it might be more difficult for children who are not in school to be directly exposed to different cultures, socio-economic groups and worldviews.[15]
  • Some children are not motivated to learn anything, and will spend all of their time in un-educational endeavors if not coerced into doing otherwise.[18]
  • Not all parents may be able to provide the stimulating environment or have the skills and patience required to encourage the student's curiosity.[16][17]
  • Because they often lack a diploma from an accredited school, it may be more difficult for unschooled students to get into college or get a job.[17]
  • Children who direct their own educations may not develop the ability to take direction from others.[2]


A relatively new phenomenon is the unschooling, homeschooling, or self-directed learning center.[19] Some centers are created for (and often by) existing homeschoolers or unschoolers, while others, such as North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens[20] in Hadley, Massachusetts, often attract people who aren't currently unschoolers (and may never have heard of unschooling), but are interested in using a new form of education.

Not Back to School Camp is an annual gathering of over 100 unschoolers ages 13 to 18. The camp is directed by Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.[21]

Other forms of alternative education

Many other forms of alternative education also place a great deal of importance on student control of learning. This includes free democratic schools, like the Sudbury Valley School, Stonesoup School and 'open learning' virtual universities. Unschooling differs from these approaches in that unschoolers do not believe that an institution is necessary to facilitate learning. Many believe that 'educational' institutions actually limit learning by removing people from the larger world, where they believe the most valuable learning occurs.

Prominent unschooling advocates

See also


  1. ^ Billy Greer. "Unschooling or homeschooling?". Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Readers share heated opinions on "unschooling"". 2006-10-31. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  3. ^ Dana Hanley (2008-02-09). "Christian education and unschooling". Principled Discovery. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  4. ^ Pittman, Romey, Ok, So You’re Sort of Like...Homeschooling?. Retrieved February 3, 2010.
  5. ^ Holt, J (1977). Growing Without Schooling. 
  6. ^ Holt, J (2003 originally published in 1981). Teach Your Own. 
  7. ^ "Unschooling & Self-Education". Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  8. ^ "Is there a difference between a radical unschooler and just an unschooler?". Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  9. ^ Catherine, Baker (1985). Insoumission à l'école obligatoire. Barrault. 
  10. ^ a b Llewellyn, Grace (1991). The Teenage Liberation Handbook. Lowry House. 
  11. ^ a b Bunday, Karl. "Socialization: A Great Reason Not to Go to School". Learn in Freedom!. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  12. ^ Shyers, Larry. Comparison of Social Adjustment Between Home and Traditionally Schooled Students. 
  13. ^ Liman, Isabel. "Home Schooling: Back to the Future?". Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  14. ^ Bunday, Karl. "Isn't it Natural for Children to be Divided by Age in School?". Learn in Freedom!. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  15. ^ a b c d Common Objections to Homeschooling, by John Holt, originally published as Chapter 2 of Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education. New York: Delacorte Press, 1981.
  16. ^ a b Unspooling Unschooling, by Bonnie Erbe, in "To the Contrary" blog on US News and World Report website, November 27, 2006
  17. ^ a b c A new chapter in education: unschooling, by Victoria Clayton MSNBC, October 6, 2006
  18. ^ Unschooling Leads to Self-Motivated Learning,
  19. ^ Homeschool Resource Centers
  20. ^ , North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens website
  21. ^ Staff Bios, Not Back To School Camp, retrieved 2008-12-02

External links

Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiversity


Course Description

Unschooling is an educational philosophy and practice that believes that traditional schooling is detrimental to a person's education. This course explains how and why you might want to Unschool.



The Outside World


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