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What is Unschooling?

Child-Led Learning and How it Works


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Unschooling, also known as child-led learning, is one of the hottest topics in homeschooling. Many parents are intrigued by it. Some educators are skeptical about whether it really works. And unschoolers themselves can get very protective about the label, who gets to use it, and what it means.

Yet the truth is that many techniques associated with unschooling are used by all varieties of homeschooling families with great success. Those who use an eclectic style often "unschool" in certain areas. Whether or not you identify with this form of home education completely, there's a lot to learn from unschooling.

Defining Unschooling:

So what exactly is unschooling? One widely accepted definition says that unschooling is an educational philosophy that lets children follow their interests at their own pace, without direction from adults. Rather than teachers planning a course of study for the year, parents act as facilitators, watching to see where their children's interests take them and providing the resources and opportunities to study them further.

Doubters wonder how kids learn anything at all if no adult is telling them what must be covered and when. But adult unschoolers tend to be highly motivated, well-rounded people who are capable of setting their own goals and finding the resources and help they need on their own. Anecdotally at least, unschoolers seem to do just as well in college and the wider world as other homeschoolers.

How Unschooling Got Its Start:

The term "unschooling" was coined by educator John Holt in 1977, when he began the popular homeschooling magazine Growing Without Schooling. A former classroom teacher, Holt wrote many books still used by homeschoolers today, including Teach Your Own and Learning All the Time. After his death Holt Associates and the magazine were taken over by Holt's long-time associate Patrick Ferenga, who continues to write and lecture about unschooling.

One offshoot of the unschooling movement is the philosophy known as "Radical Unschooling." Founded by writer and speaker Sandra Dodd, Radical Unschooling calls for families to apply the concept of "child-led" to every aspect of life, not just education.

What Unschooling Looks Like:

To an outsider, unschooling may look like nothing is going on at all. But in reality, unschooling children learn from everyday life. Baking cookies from a recipe teaches reading, measuring ingredients involves fractions, and combining them to get the right mix of crunchy and chewy is chemistry. Daydreaming may lead to working on a novel, and doodling may be the beginnings of a comic book. Here are some ways families practice unschooling:

Fill the home with resources. While parents may not be directing what subjects they want their kids to learn, they set the stage by creating an environment that encourages exploration. So they may strew the house with books and games, keep art supplies and musical instruments around, and take the time to listen to their children when they want to talk about their developing interests.

Take it outside. Unschoolers also tend to do a lot of their learning in other places. They are very likely to indulge in many of the activities of earlier generations: tromping through the woods, building forts, taking things apart and creating messes. They are also eager to find mentors who can show them, hands-on, how to do the things they're interested in.

Use travel as education. Without schedules to adhere to, they can travel whenever they feel like it and for any length of time. When they take a trip, they learn from the people, the environment, and the culture around them.

Let kids delve deep. Unschooling children are often very passionate and knowledgeable about a particular topic that interests them. They may spend hours reading books and websites that are way beyond their grade level.

Adapt traditional resources. Unschooling doesn't mean that no formal or structured learning occurs. Children may choose for themselves to take a class in a coop, at a community college classes, or online. They may work toward a specific goal with the help of a curriculum, math textbook, or foreign language software. The difference is that these materials aren't being assigned by the parent and they can be used in whatever way works best.

Advantages of Unschooling:

  • Kids have time to pursue their passions. The greatest advantage of unschooling is that kids are free to devote themselves to topics that engage them.
  • They're enthusiastic about learning. With unschooling, there's no fighting to get kids to do lessons -- they work hard because they have chosen the topics themselves. And they are free to drop a topic when their interest fades.
  • More focused preparation and monitoring. Unschooling means no trying to guess months in advance what classes or materials a child may be ready for, since the parent's role is to respond to the child's needs as they become apparent. And unschoolers look for meaningful ways to evaluate their children's progress, which could be as simple as being aware of what skills they have mastered as they go along, rather than assigning them papers to write or having them take standardized tests.
  • The world is your classroom. Because unschoolers do so much of their learning while helping around the house and interacting in the community, they are more comfortable fending for themselves and dealing with new people, including adults and children of any age.

Disadvantages of Unschooling:

  • Information gaps. No form of education can cover every topic completely. But because unschooling children choose what to study themselves, they're more likely to miss a subject altogether. However, they are usually resourceful enough to fill in the gaps themselves when the need arises.
  • Parents must be flexible and committed. Unschooling children set the agenda themselves, so parents must learn how to find the resources needed and ready to meet changing needs and interests. And as homeschooler Melissa Wiley says, it also requires a degree of energy, focus, attentiveness, and spontaneity that not all parents may be suited for, or that not all circumstances -- financial, work, health, family size -- may allow.
  • Kids have to take the initiative. Children who work best in structured environments may not be comfortable having to make all the decisions themselves.

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