What is unschooling?
Unschooling is a philosophy that allows that given a rich, interesting environment, and attentive, supportive parents, that learning will happen naturally. To believe in unschooling is to believe that true learning happens best when it arises from the experiences and interests of the learner, not from an imposed curriculum or a teacher or a parent. As unschooling parents, we don’t act as teachers, but as facilitators and partners. We do not separate the day into subjects, or into school time, or play time, or learning time. We live as if school does not exist. We live our lives and we learn from it.
While some people will call unschooling a method of homeschooling, I believe that this implies that it is something that is done to children, and I prefer to think of it as the manner in which we live and interact with our children.
What’s the difference between unschooling and ‘radical’ unschooling?
Generally speaking, the basic term ‘unschooling’ refers only to the type of self-directed, life-learning from the previous question, but does not take into account different types of parenting. For example, many people will use the term ‘unschooling’ to define their style of homeschooling… but will still otherwise exert a lot of controlling, punitive rules, regulations, and externally imposed structure on their children. With ‘radical’ unschooling, there is a complete paradigm shift away from a traditional, authoritative, “I’m the parent and I said so” type of parenting to one of mutual respect and partnership. Radical unschoolers won’t have chore charts, enforced bedtimes, or time-out chairs. They live and work together as a family unit, and strive to simply treat each other as they’d like to be treated…. with respect and kindness.
Why does the label matter?
It doesn’t. I, along with lots of unschoolers, would keep doing exactly what we’re doing regardless of what its called. For us, it’s just a way of life. But for the sake of clarity, it makes sense to realize and recognize that there is a world of difference between someone who says they unschool simply because they don’t use a curriculum; and someone who has embraced and lives the whole life philosophy that is referred to as ‘radical’ unschooling.
What do you do all day?
We live! We play, we read, we build things, we research, we watch movies, we play games, we do science experiments, we talk, we discuss, we run errands, we take care of the animals, we bake things, we make things, we go to museums, we sit and run and play outside, we do yard work, we go to the library, we go to the park, we invent things, we work on projects, think and postulate and try and learn…
Is unschooling a new concept?
Not at all. Families have been living and working and playing and learning together since the beginning of time…. long before it was called “unschooling.” John Holt was writing about unschooling and educational reform four decades ago. It is not a trend, or a fad, but simply something that has always been done by lots of mindful families.
Is unschooling legal?
Unschooling, which falls under the broader umbrella of homeschooling, is legal in all fifty states, and in many countries. The specifics of each state vary (some states require book keeping or portfolios, some ask for yearly evaluations, some have mandated testing) so you need to be aware of your own state’s laws, as well as your rights as a homeschooling parent. You can look up your state’s laws here
Should Christians unschool?
I know wonderful unschoolers who are Christians, Atheists, and everything in between.
I’ve read a lot of negative things about why Christians should not unschool (something about some taken-out-of-context scriptures about “training up” a child) but I have not found anything about unschooling that is at odds with my faith. In fact, the longer I unschool, the more I wholly believe that they both enhance and strengthen each other. Jesus loved children, and he treated them with such kindness, dignity, and respect. He told us to become like children! At its heart, unschooling is about honoring children as the unique individuals that they are, which is exactly what Jesus did. He also taught us to have love for Him, and for others, something that plays an integral part in how I live, and how I parent. To take it further, Jesus was not a dictator but a friend to children (and to adults for that matter) He walked with them, talked with them, told them stories, and helped them. He essentially was an unschooler. And finally, the Bible is a book about the FREEDOM we have in Christ. As a Christian unschooler, I am raising my children in that same freedom.
What if my child just wants to play video games all day?
I’m going to ask you to do something. Read that question again, only replace the words “play video games” with “read books.” Do you feel differently about the question? If you do, you’re still looking at unschooling with a traditional “school” mindset. Truly understanding unschooling means an entire shift in perspective, to one in which there is no distinguishing between a learning activity and a non-learning activity. Learning is everywhere and in everything. Playing video games is as valuable a learning tool as anything else. Now, let’s say that your child does play video games all day, and you give him or her the freedom to do so. A couple of things could happen: Chances are, because he’s been giving the freedom to choose, the child will explore it until he’s had his fill (whether that means for a day or a week or a month), then move on to something else. It will then become just like any other option… something he could take or leave, enjoy in moderation, or avoid altogether. Or maybe it’ll turn into a true passion, something he continues to explore and learn from for a long time to come. Maybe it’ll turn into a future career. Or maybe it will be the catalyst that leads to other interests and areas of exploration. In any case, while it’s unlikely that your child will do any one thing all day every day for any length of time, it’s not a bad thing if he does. When someone is free to choose, what may look to someone else like an “obsessive” amount of time spent on one activity, may well in fact be a normal, healthy, and important step in that person’s personal path to growth and learning.
How will they learn to read and write if I don’t teach them?
Babies learn to walk and talk without being taught. They learn because that’s what people do. “Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns.” (John Holt) People learn. They learn because they’re surrounded by walking and talking people who (one would hope) love them, and support them, and help them. Reading and writing are no different. When children are immersed in a literate world filled with the written word, they learn. When children have parents who read to them, read with them, write with them, draw with them, play with them… they learn.
What about math?
Basic math is virtually everywhere. You would have to make a conscious effort to keep your kids from math if you didn’t want them learning it. We use math every day, in a myriad of ways, so the kids learn it easily, and naturally. It looks different than the math they would do in school, to be sure, because they are doing it in a practical, functional way. They are learning it as they are actually using it, instead of just filling in a worksheet or repeating it back on a test. As for higher level math, such as algebra or trigonometry (which are things that a lot of potential home/unschoolers worry about), if they’re like me, they will never even use it. If they do have a need or a desire to learn it, they’ll learn it the same way they learn anything else…. in their own time, in their own way; whether it’s self taught through a book or a website, or shown to them by a parent or a friend. The difference will be that they won’t be resistant to learning it, because it will be something they are ready and willing and to learn.
It should be noted too, that John Taylor Gatto (a former New York city school teacher) tells us that “reading, writing, and arithmetic really only take around 100 hours to transmit, as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. “ 100 hours. Less than three weeks worth of a full-time job. What then, are these kids doing in school all day, for twelve years?
Can I unschool certain subjects, and use a curriculum for the rest?
You can do anything you want to. But if you’re still dividing learning into subjects, and insisting that certain things need to be taught, you’re not unschooling.
How do you know they’re learning if you don’t test them?
If they’re engaged, and living, and breathing… they’re learning. When you learn to cook a new meal, or knit yourself a scarf, or play a new game, do you test yourself at the end to see if you’ve learned it? Of course not. You eat it, or wear it, or play it…. and you know you’ve learned. I know my kids are learning because I see them learning.
How will I know they’re learning everything they need to know in order to be successful?
You won’t. The fact is, no one knows what another person in going to need to learn in order to fulfill his or her personal destiny. Schools don’t have a magic set of “must know” facts and skills that if you learn and memorize you’re guaranteed to be successful. They can’t know what today’s child is going to need in the future. Our children today could one day be working at jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. What you can know is that by giving them the freedom to learn in their own way, in their own time, that they will retain their natural love of learning, and their natural desire to learn more. They will be confident and eager and able to learn what they need to know when they need to know it, no matter what career path they decide to pursue.
What if my child is resistant to learning? And similarly, what if my child is 7, 8, 9 and still not reading?
Children have a natural love of learning. It’s what they do. If they’re resistant to learning, it’s because they’ve been forced or coerced or otherwise just not ready to learn that particular thing at that particular time. And reading, like anything else, comes at different times for different people. There is not a magic window that exists in which we have to learn how to read or the opportunity will be lost. Lots of kids, both schooled and homeschooled, are not ready to read at 6. The difference is, when they’re in school they’re labeled as “slower” learners, and made to endure extra practice, special classes, more homework, tutoring, etc, because they must. catch. up. It damages their self-esteem, squashes that natural love of learning, and turns something that should be fun (reading should be fun!) into a painful and difficult chore. And for what? Maybe that child would have learned to read easily, naturally, if they were allowed to do so in another 6 months, or a year. Or two. And let’s say one child begins reading at age four, and another begins reading at age nine. When they’re both thirty, would you be able to tell which was which? They both can read!
The beauty of unschooling is that the children get to learn at their own pace, in their own way, in their own time.
What if my child has special needs?
By its very nature, unschooling is an absolutely unique and personal journey for every individual child. Because of the structures and limitations of school, classes need to be aimed at sort of the “average” student. Anyone who is different from the norm in any way (which is most of us) is then segregated. There are honors classes and remedial classes. Special ed and resource rooms. Tutors and extra credit. Kids are labeled as gifted or slow. They are either made to feel that they need to “catch up,” or pressured into feeling like they have to “get ahead.” That segregation does not exist in unschooling. Kids are allowed to be who they are… and they live, work and play with others of all ages, abilities, and differences.
Unschooling, can be, and IS, a respectful alternative for any child, of any and all abilities.
How will they learn to respect authority?
Unschoolers, like everyone else, behave as well as they are treated. They treat people with the same amount of respect that they are given, and that they are shown as their parents interact with others. We show them, through both words and actions, what respect means, and what it doesn’t. Do I think they’ll grow up and automatically follow the lead of anyone with more age or power, without questioning it, and without checking it against their own moral compass? No, and I wouldn’t want them to. But they do treat people with respect… both because they see us doing so, and because they themselves are treated with respect.
How will they get into college?
Unschoolers get into college the same way anyone else gets into college. They research their chosen college/s, find out what they need to do for admittance, and they do it! They prepare a transcript, they study for any exams they need to take, they write their essays. And because they’re not spending their days in middle or high school, they have the opportunity to attend college even earlier than “normal” if they so choose. A friend of mine has a fourteen year old unschooler who has taken, and enjoyed, more than one college class.
How will they adapt to a college environment if they’ve never been in school? How will they be able to get and keep a job if they’ve never had any kind of structure?
I think one huge misconception that exists about unschoolers is that they never do anything that involves a set schedule, or any structure, or any rules…. that they just sort of free-flow through life, and are ignorant to what it means to adhere to an outside set of fixed circumstances. While it certainly could be true for some unschoolers (just like it could be true for anyone else) I have not personally seen it. Life is full of schedules and structure, and unschoolers adapt to it like everyone else. They do things like cub scouts and little league. They take art classes and guitar lessons and gymnastics. They show up for their dentist appointments. They make it to church on time. They’ve even been known to set an alarm when they want to get up at a certain hour. Heading off to college or starting a new job is an adjustment for anyone, but unschoolers are as prepared for the challenge as anyone… perhaps even more so, because they are used to following their own intrinsic motivation that got them there in the first place.
How will they ever _______, if I don’t make them ________?
This is a very, very common question, and it kind of makes me sad. It seems to be built on the negative supposition that kids are inherently lazy and unmotivated, and wouldn’t possibly do anything on their own unless they were forced to do it. I actually think the opposite is true… making someone do something does not create motivation at all, but rather resistance, and eventually resentment. Even now, as an adult, I still feel that resistance towards things that I was forced to do. That little part of me that wants to stand up and say, “try and make me.” My children willingly do all kinds of things that people think must be forced in order to learn…. from taking out the trash if they are asked, to brushing their teeth at night, to using “please” and “thank you,” despite never having been prompted with “What do you say?” They do them because they want to do them, because they respect me and respect themselves. They do them because they are happy and confident people… and happy and confident people have an inner desire to behave in a certain way, both for themselves and for the people around them.
How will they learn to function in the real world?
This always makes me chuckle a little bit. Unschoolers live in the real world, right now, and for their whole lives. They are living in it, and learning from it. For those of us who went to school, we spent 12+ years in the artificially created environment of school, and then were thrust into the “real world,” at 18 or 22 years old. There’s no such thing as having to enter the real world for an unschooler, because they’re already there.
How can I unschool without teaching experience? What if they want to learn about things I don’t know about?
When you send your kids to school, do you think that their teacher knows everything? Do you think that their teacher has the answer to every question that they might ask? I say that with no disrespect towards teachers. But teachers are human, like the rest of us. No one knows everything. No one has all the answers. My kids ask me things that I don’t know ALL THE TIME. And together, we find the answers. I learn from, and with, and beside my kids daily. They don’t need to be shown how to learn… kids know how to learn. What they need is an attentive and supportive and patient partner and facilitator. Someone who will answer their questions. Someone who will provide them with the experiences, people, places, and materials with which they need to learn. Someone who will help them when they need help, and leave them alone when they don’t. If you can do all those things, you can unschool.
I find it somewhat odd and confusing that as a society we think we’re qualified to help them learn as they are babies… as they learn to talk, and walk, and count, and recognize circles… and then they reach a magical, mythical age, and we stop being qualified and need to send them to someone else to learn? It honestly doesn’t make sense to me.
How can I unschool if I have to work? How can I unschool if I’m a single parent?
Lots of unschooling families have two working parents, and find a way to make it work. They may work staggered schedules so one parent is always home, one may work part time only, they may work from home, they may run their own family businesses. And while it may take more determination, and surely more creativity, many single parents unschool as well. One single mom I know runs a small daycare from her home. Another sells Mary Kay. Another earns a (modest) living as a freelance writer. All while spending their days with their children. I’ll be really blunt when I say that if you’re a single parent and your goal is lots of money and lots of “stuff” and a certain standard of living, and the ability to home/unschool, you might waste your whole life waiting for the opportunity to do so. If, however, you simply want to stay and learn with your children, and be able to provide for them with a safe and comfortable home, food on the table, and clothes on their backs… there are many creative ways to make it happen. People make it happen.
Check out The Single Crunch for more.
What about socialization?
Spending the day in a room with 20 other kids of the same age and roughly the same ability is not socialization. Your children’s opportunity for real socialization increases ten-fold when they are not in school. You can read more here.
Will unschooling make my kids weird or different? Will they stick out of a crowd?
If you’re doing it right! If you want cookie-cutter children, you definitely won’t want to unschool.
How do I start?
If your kids are still young, and have not yet gone to school, great! Keep doing what you’re doing. Read to them, play with them, support their interests. Expose them to new people, new places, new things to do. TRUST… trust the children, and trust yourself. Read, read, and read some more about unschooling, mindful parenting, and alternative education.
If your kids are in school, and you decide to take them out, you will both have to first go through a period of “deschooling.” Your kids will need to decompress, and rest, and likely need to learn to love learning again. There’s a rule of thumb that for every year your child spent in school, you should give them one month of deschooling time…. time to just BE. Time to sleep. Time to read. Time to zone out. Time to find out what it is they want from their education. And if they’re burnt out, time to recover. Give yourself, and your child, time. Talk. Wait. Watch. Listen.
Where can I learn more?
I thought you’d never ask! First, go to your library and check out everything they have by John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, as well as the growing number of books written for new unschoolers. You can visit my Amazon store for recommendations of specific titles.
And get lost in the world of some of the best unschooling websites (in no particular order)
And finally, take some time to peruse these blogs by unschoolers who are living, learning, and writing about it: