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Unschooling is an informal learning that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.

The term "unschooling" was coined in the 1970s and used by educator John Holt, widely regarded as the father of unschooling.[1] While unschooling is often considered a very free form of homeschooling and homeschooling has been subject to widespread public debate, little media attention has been given to unschooling in particular.[2]

Critics of unschooling see it as an extreme educational philosophy, with concerns that unschooled children will lack the social skills, structure, and motivation of their schooled peers, while proponents of unschooling say exactly the opposite is true: that self-directed education in a natural environment better equips a child to handle the "real world."[3]

Even though unschooling is not as known and widespread as more traditional forms of homeschooling, it is gaining ground.[4]


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 contrasted 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 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," using textbooks and exercises at home, the same way they would be used at school. In 2003, in Holt's book Teach Your Own (originally published in 1981) Pat Farenga, co-author of the new edition, provided 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, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Paul Goodman, and A.S. Neill.

After Holt's death a range of unschooling practitioners and observers defined the term in various 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] Radical Unschooling emphasizes that unschooling is a non-coercive, cooperative practice, and seeks to promote those values in all areas of life. 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.

Peter Gray suggested the term self-directed education, which has fewer negative connotations.[9]


There are many different motivations for unschooling, many of which overlap with those for homeschooling.

Unschoolers question schools for lessening the parent/child bond and reducing family time and creating atmospheres of fear,[10] or atmospheres that are not conducive for learning and may not even correspond with later success. Some unschoolers criticize that in schools, childs are taught a set of facts and skills that they might not need in the future anymore,[10][11] while with unschooling, they learn how to learn,[10][11] which is far more sustainable for their life. Also, some say that in school, persons are only taught how to follow instructions,[10][11] which means that they face problems with doing tasks they have not done before. Another argument is that the structure of school is not suitable for people who want to make their own decisions about what, when, how and with whom they learn because many things are predetermined there, while you are more free in these decisions when unschooling.[11]

Often those in school have a community consisting mainly of a peer group, of which the parent has little influence and even knowledge. Unschoolers may have time to share a role in their greater community, therefore relating more to older and younger individuals and finding their place within more diverse groups of people. Parents of school children also have little say regarding who their instructors and teachers are, whereas parents of unschoolers may be more involved in the selection of the coaches or mentors their children work with and with whom they build lasting and ongoing relationships.[11]

According to unschooling pioneer John Holt, 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.

"...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."

Others point out that some schools can be non-coercive and cooperative, in a manner consistent with the philosophies behind unschooling.[12] Sudbury model schools 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 complements home education.[12]

Concerns about socialization can also be a factor in the decision to unschool. Some unschoolers believe that conditions in conventional schools, such as age segregation, the ratio of children to adults, or the amount of time spent sitting, are not conducive to proper education.[13]

Unschooling is claimed to broaden the diversity of people or places an unschooler may be exposed to. Unschoolers may be more mature than their schooled peers on average,[14][15] and some believe this is a result of the wide range of people they have the opportunity to interact with.[16] Opportunities for unschoolers to meet and interact with other unschoolers has increased in recent years, allowing unschoolers to have interactions with other children with similar experiences.[17]

Methods and philosophy[edit]

Natural learning[edit]

Unschooling may emphasize free, undirected play as a major component of children's education.[18]

A fundamental premise of unschooling is that learning is a natural process constantly taking place[19] and that curiosity is innate and children want to learn.[20] 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 specific subject matter in a particular manner, at a particular pace, and at a specific time regardless of that individual's present or future needs, interests, goals, or any pre-existing knowledge they might have about the topic.

Many unschoolers believe that opportunities for valuable hands-on, community-based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences may be missed when educational opportunities are limited to, or dominated by, those inside a school building.

Learning styles[edit]

Unschoolers note that psychologists have documented many differences between children in the way they learn,[21] and assert that unschooling is better equipped to adapt to these differences.[22]

People vary in their "learning styles", that is, the preference in how they acquire new information. However, research has demonstrated that this preference is not related to increased learning or improved performance.[23] Students have different learning needs. In a traditional school setting, teachers seldom evaluate an individual student differently from other students, and while teachers often use different methods, this is sometimes haphazard and not always with regard to an individual student.[24]

Developmental differences[edit]

Developmental psychologists note that just as children reach growth milestones at different ages from each other, children are also prepared to learn different things at different ages.[21] 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 and able to read, for example, at different ages, girls usually earlier, boys later. In fact, experts have discovered that natural learning produces far greater changes in behavior than do traditional learning methods, though not necessarily an increase in the amount of information learned.[25] 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.[26]

Essential body of knowledge[edit]

Unschoolers sometimes state that learning any specific subject is less important than learning how to learn.[27] They assert, 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 must be learned.[27]

It is asserted that 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;[27] and that they can return to any subject that they feel was not sufficiently covered or learn a completely new subject.[27]

Many unschoolers disagree that there is a particular body of knowledge that every person, regardless of the life they lead, needs to possess.[28] Unschoolers argue that, in the words of John Holt, "If children 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."[29]

The role of parents[edit]

Parents of unschoolers provide resources, support, guidance, information, and advice to facilitate experiences that aid their children in accessing, navigating, and making sense of the world.[22] 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 involve themselves, especially with younger children (older children, unless new to unschooling, often need less help finding resources and making and carrying out plans).[22]

Paradigm shift[edit]

Unschooling opposes many aspects of what the dominant culture insists are true, and it may be impossible to fully understand the unschooling philosophy of education without both active participation and a major paradigm shift. The cognitive dissonance that frequently accompanies this paradigm shift is uncomfortable. New unschoolers are advised that they should not expect to understand the unschooling philosophy at first.[30] Not only are there many commonplace assumptions about education, there are many unspoken and unwritten expectations. One step towards overcoming the necessary paradigm shift is accepting that, "what we do is nowhere near as important as why we do it."[31]

Unschooling compared to other homeschooling forms[edit]

Unschooling is a form of homeschooling,[32][11] which is the education of children at home or other places rather than in a school. It involves teaching children based on their interests rather than a set curriculum.[32]

Unschooling contrasts with other forms of homeschooling in that the student's education is not directed by a teacher and curriculum. Unschooling is a real-world implementation of "The Open Classroom" methods promoted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, without the school, classrooms or grades. Parents who unschool their children act as facilitators, providing a 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.


There are different branches of unschooling, including the following:

  • Worldschooling, in which families travel around the world and learn through traveling and experiencing other cultures.[33]
  • Project-based homeschooling, which holds that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges, problems and projects that they can do in their own way and time.[34]
  • Gameschooling, in which board and card games are important to homeschool learning method, and educational philosophy.[35] In addition to developing skills in math, English, history, board games are also used to develop social skills such as interpersonal communication, negotiation, persuasion, and moral character such as good sportsmanship.[36]

Complementary philosophies[edit]

Some unschooling families may incorporate the following philosophies into their lifestyles.

Other forms of alternative education[edit]

Many other forms of alternative education also place a great deal of importance on student control of learning, albeit not necessarily of the individual learner. This includes free democratic schools,[37] like the Sudbury school, Stonesoup School and "open learning" virtual universities.

General criticism[edit]

Questions about the merits of unschooling raise concerns on its absence of the following qualities, compared to established systems:

  • Socialization – schools provide a ready-made group of peers, but unschooled children need other ways to make friends in their age group.[3][38] However, ironically, some people say that the exact opposite is the case by criticizing that social interaction, communication and discussion in schools are strictly regulated and that students spend most of their time in school almost exclusively with people of the same age, which would result in a lack of social and emotional skills.[39]
  • Isolation – a child might not encounter people of other cultures, worldviews, and socioeconomic groups if they are not enrolled in a school. Of course, a school is not necessarily a place that is guaranteed to provide such a range of experiences, either.[38]
  • Qualifications – some parents may not have the skills required to guide and advise their children in life skills or help them pursue their own interests.[40][41]
  • Development – children eventually won't learn what they need to know in their adult lives.[38][40] Of course, this is also possible by attending a school.[10][11]
  • Standardization – a child may not learn the same things a regular-schooling peer does unless an educational professional controls what material is covered.[41] In a 2006 study of five- to ten-year-olds, unschooling children scored below traditionally schooled children in four of seven studied categories, and significantly below structured homeschoolers in all seven studied categories.[42]

See also[edit]

Persons of interest[edit]

Adult unschoolers of note[edit]


  1. ^ Greer, Billy. "Unschooling or homeschooling?". Archived from the original on 2013-11-15. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  2. ^ "Understanding the Concept of Unschooling". Yorktown Education. 2020-04-22. Retrieved 2020-09-05.
  3. ^ a b "Readers share heated opinions on "unschooling"". 2006-10-31. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  4. ^ Miller, Tyler (2014-10-15). "How Is Unschooling Different From Homeschooling?". www.noodle.com. Retrieved 2020-09-04.
  5. ^ Holt, J (1977). "Growing Without Schooling". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ Holt, J. "Teach Your Own". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  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. ^ "Differences Between Self-Directed and Progressive Education". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
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  13. ^ Bunday, Karl M. "Socialization: A Great Reason Not to Go to School". Learn in Freedom!. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  14. ^ Shyers, Larry Edward. "Comparison of Social Adjustment Between Home and Traditionally Schooled Students". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ Liman, Isabel. "Home Schooling: Back to the Future?". Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  16. ^ Bunday, Karl M. "Isn't it Natural for Children to be Divided by Age in School?". Learn in Freedom!. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  17. ^ "Peer Unschooling Network (PUN) - Unschooling Teens Unite!". Peer Unschooling Network (PUN). Retrieved 2017-09-29.
  18. ^ Rolstad, Kelly; Kesson, Kathleen (2013). "Unschooling, Then and Now" (PDF). Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning. 7 (14): 33. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  19. ^ Ingram, Tyshia (2020-07-17). "The case for unschooling". www.vox.com. Retrieved 2020-07-18.
  20. ^ "I Live Therefore I Learn: Living an Unschooling Life - The Natural Child Project". www.naturalchild.org. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  21. ^ a b Vosniadou, S. (2001). "How Children Learn?" (PDF). The International Academy of Education.
  22. ^ a b c Hunt, Jan. "Evaluation". Natural Child. Retrieved 6 January 2013.
  23. ^ Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. (2009). "Learning styles: Concepts and evidence". Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9 (3): 105–119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x. PMID 26162104.
  24. ^ Learning through home education Retrieved 2011-02-20
  25. ^ J. Scott Armstrong. "Teacher vs. Learner Responsibility in Management Education" (PDF).
  26. ^ Holt, John C. (1982) [1964]. How Children Fail. Classics in Child Development. ISBN 978-0201484021.
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  28. ^ Noll, James Wm. (2008). Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues 15th ed. McGraw-Hill. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0073515205.
  29. ^ David Gurteen. "On children and learning by John Holt (Gurteen Knowledge)". Gurteen.com. Archived from the original on 2013-05-13. Retrieved 2014-01-16.
  30. ^ "Unschooling: An Introduction and Beginner's Guide". Homeschool Base. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  31. ^ Koetsier, Cathy. "Paradigm Shifts". Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  32. ^ a b "What Is Unschooling? A Parents Guide to Child-Led Home Education". Parents. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  33. ^ Family, Author Alyson for World Travel (2020-06-29). "What is Worldschooling? | 2020 World Travel Family Travel Blog". World Travel Family Travel Blog. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  34. ^ "Homeschool with Project Based Learning | Hess Un-Academy". 2019-05-21. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  35. ^ "What is Gameschooling?". Orison Orchards. 2020-02-09. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  36. ^ "The Ultimate Guide to Gameschooling". Oct 3, 2017. Retrieved Jun 6, 2020.
  37. ^ "Democratic Schools". Alternatives to School. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  38. ^ a b c 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.
  39. ^ "Ein Vater erzählt - "Mein Kind geht nicht zur Schule"". Deutschlandfunk Kultur (in German). Retrieved 2020-09-12.
  40. ^ a b Unspooling Unschooling, by Bonnie Erbe, in "To the Contrary" blog on US News and World Report website, November 27, 2006
  41. ^ a b A new chapter in education: unschooling, by Victoria Clayton. NBC News, October 6, 2006
  42. ^ Martin-Chang, Sandra; Gould, O.N.; Meuse, R.E. (2011). "The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from home-schooled and traditionally-schooled students". Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. 43 (3): 195–202. doi:10.1037/a0022697. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  43. ^ "Schooling: The Hidden Agenda". Retrieved 2014-01-09.
  44. ^ Gestel, Nanda Van; Quinn, Daniel; Hunt, Jan (2008). The Unschooling Unmanual. USA: The Natural Child Project. ISBN 978-0968575451.

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