Unschooling: Are you brave enough to try? Part 1

unschooling, boy at table, striped shirt, big glasses, holding book

I’ve been a parent for 36 years. I have 10 children. We’ve participated in the public school system, the parochial school system, Catholic school system and homeschooling. We’ve been living the latter lifestyle for 19 years now. During that time, I’ve always had a secret dream that I’ve never been brave enough to make a reality: Unschooling. I know I’m an unschooler at heart. If you’re an unschooler, we want to hear from you! Tell us about your journey.

If you have no clue what unschooling is, keep reading. Let’s start with a basic definition and some background. Unschooling (as opposed to homeschooling) generally refers to an unstructured form of learning that is self-directed, motivated and implemented. If that just made you go, “HUH???” let me clarify. In an unschooling environment, the learner chooses activities as the primary means of education. Such activities may include natural life experiences, play, work, books, travel and more.

Unschooling was ‘invented’ by a teacher

unschooling, book cover, john holt, how children fail
Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/31/How_Children_Fail.jpg

A man named John Holt coined the phrase in the 1970s. He’s considered the “father” of unschooling. Holt was an educator and author who taught in elementary school for six years. He became the center of controversy. His experiences prompted him to write a book called, “How Children Fail” in 1964, the year I was born. Holt’s book included an extensive list of problems he believed existed in the U.S. public school system. He wrote another book three years later, entitled “How Children Learn.” In the 1970s, Holt began promoting homeschooling. From there, he began to advocate unschooling, a sort of subset of homeschooling.

Unschooling is a lifestyle

girl with long brown hair sitting on bench holding an opened book

After 19 years of homeschooling, I now “get” unschooling much more than I did when I first heard of it. Back then, I was among many people who hear the term and immediately start attacking the idea without understanding it. “How can you get an education without books or curriculum?” “Won’t unschooled children be neglected?” “How can you go to college if you’ve been unschooled all your life?” I’ve since learned that, not only is it possible to provide a strong academic foundation and learning base through unschooling, many children thrive in this type of setting!

In daily life, unschooling will look as different from household to household as snowflakes would look under a magnifying glass. No two families are exactly the same. The fundamental premise of unschooling, however, is to allow the learning process to unfold in a natural way. The gist is that if you’re living, you’re learning. Therefore, education is constantly taking place. People who agree with John Holt’s philosophy believe that trying to fit every child into a “one-size-fits-all” model for education is not only inefficient but a misuse of children’s time and, possibly, a detriment to helping each child achieve his or her full potential in life.

How does it work on a daily basis?

hands of child stacking blocks

One of the problems with the public school system that Holt listed in his first book is that the pre-written curriculum and structure of the typical school day doesn’t take into account a student’s present or future needs, abilities, interests, goals or existing knowledge. On a typical day in an unschooled lifestyle, kids have perpetual opportunity to learn through hands-on, community-based or real world experiences.

Children have different learning styles. Many have special developmental needs. Studies show that natural learning consistently produces better results than traditional learning methods when developmental behavior support and change is the goal. In the unschooled environment, the student directs his or her own learning time (with parents acting as facilitators). One child might be prompted to take a nature walk or spend several hours in unstructured, outdoor play while another has his or her nose deep into a stack of historical fiction books or even, a book on calculus or trigonometry. Speaking with elders in the community, serving at a food shelter, writing letters, cooking, building, playing video games, visiting museums etc., all become part of the “academic experience.” The idea is that curiosity sparks formal learning.

What are the benefits?

unschooling, boy in orange shirt blowing tufts on dandelion

Every form education undoubtedly has benefits and downsides. The following list includes some of the most common benefits unschooling provides:

  • Boosts critical thinking skills
  • Encourages problem solving
  • Parents and kids learn alongside each other
  • Inspires self-motivation and entrepreneurism
  • Allows time to digress or delve more into a topic
  • Encourages intergenerational interaction
  • Ample time for developing social skills
  • Inspires true love of learning
  • Avoids ‘teaching to the test’
  • Students learn at own pace
  • Can choose activities that fit learning style
  • Provides opportunity for well-rounded education
  • More family time

These are merely a few of many benefits unschoolers often say they have noticed in an unschooling lifestyle.

Now, for the cons

boy with head down on table writing on paper

Regarding the downsides, some people believe unschooling’s lack of structure is a detriment to a child’s education. Is there really lack of structure, though? Since parents and kids are free to let a typical day unfold at will, they can incorporate whatever type of structure they feel is needed. Another supposed downside is the absence of standardized testing. I’m not a proponent of these tests anyway (Although, as a PA homeschooler, my children are required to take them and I always comply.) so I’m not sure this is a real downside either.

When researching potential downsides of unschooling, I came across several articles claiming that this lifestyle “produces” spoiled and unsocial children. I am adding it here because I DID come across it in my research. However, I’m also adding my own opinion, which is that such claims are unfounded and ridiculous. For one, if that occurs, it is more of a parenting issue than an unschooling one. Also, what do these accusers blame the same problems on for kids who are this way but who attend outside schools?

Stay tuned for “More info on unschooling: Part 2”, where we’ll talk about the legal aspects of the lifestyle and more!

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