A small minority of families have always sought alternatives to traditional public schools in the U.S. But the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many schools were closed for a year or more, led some parents to explore other options, from private schools to microschools to homeschooling, and many families have not returned to the public system.
One of the most radical departures from traditional schooling is an approach known as “unschooling.”
What Is Unschooling?
Unschooling is an educational philosophy that relies on a child’s innate curiosity and desire to learn. In families that practice unschooling, students do not attend school and do not follow any set homeschool curriculum.
Rooted in the ideas of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed children should be free to explore their own interests, the modern American unschooling movement began in the 1970s, alongside the emergence of homeschooling.
Former elementary school teacher and homeschooling advocate John Holt coined the term unschooling to describe the process of kids learning naturally from the world around them. Like free schools, which emerged around the same time but were school-based, unschooling appealed to parents who felt traditional schools were overly restrictive and emphasized conformity over personal growth.
More recently, advocates like psychologist Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn,” have continued to champion self-directed learning as an alternative to a public school system increasingly focused on standards and test scores. Unschooling parents, Gray wrote in a Psychology Today blog post, “allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests,”
Unschooling advocate Akilah Richards frames it as a social justice practice, defining unschooling in a YouTube video as a “child-trusting, anti-oppression, liberatory love-centered approach to parenting and caregiving.”
What Does Unschooling Look Like?
The unifying characteristic of unschooling is that children are allowed to direct their own learning. But what that looks like in practice can differ drastically from one family to another.
Some students choose to learn through more traditional pathways such as textbooks or online courses. But unschoolers, who generally believe that learning is happening all the time, may also consider routine errands to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment part of a child’s learning.
“The whole point is that there is no such thing as a typical day,” says Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, an advocacy group. “And so therefore, the key thing is to simply follow up on the interest of the students. That may mean going to a library or it may mean going to a museum.”
Across content areas, unschooling parents act more as partners than instructors. If children ask for help with a subject, a parent will provide it or connect them to other resources for instruction, including websites like Khan Academy or Outschool. But children determine what they learn and when.
As a result, unschooling parents may not see their children reach certain academic milestones at the same pace as peers in school. For example, while public schools generally begin teaching reading in kindergarten, unschoolers allow children to decide when they are interested in reading and don’t push it, Gray says.
Similarly, in math, unschooling children tend to learn the kinds of everyday math used by adults, but may not learn higher-level concepts such as algebra, which are tested on college entrance exams. In these cases, according to Mintz and Gray, some unschooling students choose to enroll in community college classes.
Why Do Parents Choose Unschooling?
Daniel Hamlin, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has studied homeschooling, says many parents choose unschooling after dealing with repeated disciplinary problems at their child’s school.
“The routines and some of the structures and disciplinary methods and styles in some traditional schools might be alienating to a fair number of students,” he says.
Jay Williams, a former middle school history teacher in Broward County, Florida, says he excelled in traditional schooling as a child, but chose to unschool his own two children, now 7 and 4.
“I always felt this feeling of I guess you could say guilt when we’re teaching kids,” Williams says of his time in the classroom. He often felt he was forcing students to engage in content they were uninterested in, he says, “and it felt wrong.”
As a basketball coach, Williams noticed a huge difference in his students’ motivation. With basketball, Williams says, “I saw the learning and the growth that young people had when they were genuinely interested and passionate about it.”
Many families believe unschooling fosters independence and develops executive functioning in children. Concerns about common problems in traditional schools, including boredom, bullying, racial bias, and school shootings are among other reasons families may choose homeschooling, and unschooling in particular.
Benefits of Unschooling
There is limited quantitative research on the effects of unschooling, in part because approaches to unschooling vary widely, making it difficult to find a representative sample.
But parents say unschooling improves their children’s motivation and well-being. In a 2013 survey of 232 unschooling families by Gray and educational psychologist Gina Riley, published in the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, parents reported benefits like “improved learning, better attitudes about learning, and improved psychological and social well-being for the children; and increased closeness, harmony, and freedom for the whole family.”
For Williams, “the No. 1 benefit for unschooling that I’ve seen is the relationship between parent and child.” Through conversations with his children about their interests and supporting them in their explorations, he says he feels a stronger connection to his children since they began unschooling.
Drawbacks of Unschooling
Many unschooling parents cite pushback and criticism from other parents as a major difficulty with unschooling. They also note it’s a challenge to “unlearn” their own experiences with formal education.
Unschooling may not be a good fit for all children or all families, says Gray. Children on the autism spectrum, for example, “are not going to reach their full potential through self-directed (learning),” he says. “They really need help from somebody who knows how to work with somebody who’s on that spectrum.”
In order to make unschooling work, Gray cautions that families need access to enriching public institutions, like museums and zoos. “Unschooling works best when the family is well-connected … to the larger community,” he says.
Some critics say that unschooling ignores research on the benefits of direct instruction for mastering skills in math and reading. Unschooling, they argue, can leave children without basic literacy or numeracy skills.
In their article “Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research” in the journal Other Education, researchers Robert Kunzman, of Indiana University, and Milton Gaither, of Messiah University, identified studies that found “some evidence that unschooled children underperform on academic assessments.”
Another study cited by Kunzman and Gaither found that “less religious, potentially less structured homeschooling correlated with much higher rates of drug use, delinquency, social isolation, and poor academic performance.”
Resources for Families
For families interested in unschooling, Williams suggests connecting with other unschoolers through Facebook groups and finding unschooling podcasts and YouTube videos.
The John Holt GWS website also features homeschooling and unschooling resources.
Regulations about homeschooling vary from state to state. So parents interested in unschooling will need to check their home state’s laws to determine how to unschool legally.
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