What is unschooling? Is unschooling the same as homeschooling?

Unschooling is a term that seems to have been coined by John Holt, a pioneer in the movement for an understanding of why public school is not the best option for our children’s education.  If you homeschool, the name John Holt should ring a bell, if not, it is worth looking into as his ideas are many and varied.

Holt was a Yale graduate who wrote many of the pioneering books of the modern homeschooling movement.  The “unschooling,” term coined was from the idea that child-led, unstructured learning is the most optimum action plan for education.  Its basic premise is that a child will learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it so they will be that much more engaged in the process.

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.

How do kids learn in ‘unschooling’?

Learning occurs sometimes as a side effect of exploring one’s own natural interests. What this can look like is a child who is in high school, for example, may not be explicitly taught geometry. However, the idea is that when the child has a need to understand and learn geometry, say while building a catapult, they will be engaged in the process and eager to learn, sometimes as a means to an end, because they need the information.

What is Unschooling and Who Does That?

Is unschooling the same as homeschooling?

It is interesting to note that unschoolers, though lumped in with more traditional homeschoolers, are often a subset unto themselves. Traditional homeschooling families often do not understand the thought processes around “unschooling”, and therefore have a tendency to downplay it as a legitimate source of education.

Unschooling contrasts with other forms of home education in that the student’s education is not directed by a teacher and curriculum.

Many homeschoolers who defect from the public school system have enough trouble wrapping their own heads around not just replicating the public school at home and having more freedom to complete the school day in say, 2-3 hours. Therefore the thought of completely removing all the structure of a daily routine seems completely a foreign concept, much as would be learning a new language with an entirely new alphabet.

So, if the concept is child-led, non-scheduled, and completely unstructured, who does that?

Who would do unschooling?

It would seem that often the parents who allow unschooling are ones that understand individualism to a whole new level than most.  There are highly educated college professors who employ this method with their own children after becoming frustrated at the lack of individualized thought they see in their collegiate classrooms.  There are entrepreneurs who do not believe in the institution of mass learning of facts and who walk to the beat of their own drum.  In fact, many proponents would argue that unschooling as a whole produces the kind of young adults who are attracted to being entrepreneurs, unique thinkers, self-starters, skeptical of institutions, and confident in their own learning abilities.

Though many of the rest of the homeschoolers may look on at this brand of education as being too far from what we would consider for our own families, its roots have a clear and valued premise, especially if you look at very young learners.  Most homeschool families probably even employ some sort of “unschooling” in the early years as we allow our preschooler to forgo worksheets for hands-on finger painting, or we abandon formal science lessons for nature walks. The pure curiosity of a child’s natural drive to learn will often sift out the chaff and allow them to glean very important concepts, and all without a book specific to that topic



bio-photoDawn is the homeschooling mom to 5 (soon to be 6) of God’s blessings and the wife to a husband she counts as her best friend.  She and her husband enjoy life on a small family farm where they strive to grow their own food, raise their own livestock, and homestead to the best of a modern day family’s ability.  When not chasing chickens and toddlers Dawn loves to write on her own blog, freelance for others, and cook from scratch.  You may well find her sitting on the front porch and sipping a glass of tea while flipping through the latest seed catalog, stop by sometime at Incidentalfarmgirl.com.


Maria Lianos-Carbone is the author of “Oh Baby! A Mom’s Self-Care Survival Guide for the First Year”, and publisher of amotherworld.com, a leading lifestyle blog for women.

1 Comment

  1. Although this is not a form of education that I would choosr for my children, especially my little guy who has Asperger’s and needs the socialization as well as the fact that my husband and I both worki can certainly appreciate other parents who choose alternates to mainstream schooling. Not every child is meant to be in a classroom and if this is something that wiuld be much more intuitive then that is a family’schoice to make.

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