Q: Homeschooling seems fairly straightforward. Parents act as their children’s teachers, imparting a chosen curriculum and evaluating progress appropriately. What is unschooling?
A: Over the last few decades since it became legally-recognized in all 50 U.S. states in 1993, homeschooling has become a widely-accepted method of education in which parents assume responsibility for educating their children at home and throughout their community. There are currently over two million homeschoolers in the U.S., and a percentage of them (estimates range from 10% to up to 50%) identify as “uschoolers,” or families who avoid replicating school-at-home and instead embrace the philosophy of Self-Directed Education.
Unlike traditional homeschooling, in which the accoutrements of standard schooling (e.g., top-down instruction, packaged curriculum, and standard assessment tools) remain intact, unschooling rejects the very idea of schooling. Instead, unschooling parents allow their children’s emerging interests to guide their learning, and provide the support and resources to facilitate natural, non-coercive education.
Q: The idea of non-coercive learning resonates with me—and I see the value of allowing children to explore their own interests—but what about “the basics?" Left to their own devices, wouldn’t kids just do fun and games and never buckle down to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic?
A: Unschooling acknowledges that humans are learning creatures. From infancy, children exhibit an insatiable drive to explore and understand their world. We don’t overtly teach children how to roll, crawl, walk, and talk; yet, most children learn all of this, on their own, as they observe and imitate the world around them.
As Boston College psychology professor, and unschooling advocate, Dr. Peter Gray explains:
Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything. This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.
You may be surprised that many children who do not go to school retain their capacity and drive for natural learning. Their curiosity guides them to discover new interests and understand new content. Unschooled children, when properly supported by their family and community, teach themselves to read when given the freedom to read material that is personally meaningful. With the help of supportive adults, children learn to read on a widely variable timetable with an average age of reading proficiency (defined as reading anything with ease) at around age 8 ½.
They learn writing—not by doing writing lessons and being told what, when, and how to write—but by being surrounded by literacy and given the opportunity to write in authentic, purposeful ways. They learn arithmetic by being exposed to mathematical principles in the course of everyday living, when they are surrounded by numeracy, by opportunities to play with mathematical principles (such as by reading mathematical children’s books, through online math games, and video games), and by being encouraged to engage with mathematical concepts through daily commerce, banking, cooking, and so on. When children are given access to the tools of their society, they will learn how to use the tools effectively when appropriately supported and encouraged.
Q: This sounds like a lot of work for the parents. For some families, homeschooling and unschooling are simply not viable education options. Some parents are just incapable or incompetent. Isn't that what schooling is for?
A: It is true that homeschooling and unschooling require adult support. Adults provide the time, space, opportunity, and resources that enable unschooled children to learn, grow, and thrive. Often, unschooling parents are the ones creating this space for their own children, but increasingly independent self-directed learning centers and “unschooling schools” are sprouting to support unschooling families.
Self-directed learning centers are community-based resource centers that reflect the unschooling ideals of non-coercive, interest-driven education. Parents typically register as homeschoolers, providing the legal designation necessary to opt-out of compulsory schooling, and then enroll their children in a self-directed learning center on either a part-time or full-time basis, up to five days a week.
“Unschooling schools,” like Sudbury-style schools and certain democratic free schools, are full-time licensed private schools that embrace unschooling principles. There are no required classes, no curriculum, no exams or evaluation. Children interact with peers of all ages, spending their time on activities and efforts that matter to them, with adults available for help and support. Two of the most famous self-directed schools are Summerhill, founded in England in 1921 and still in operation today; and the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, founded in 1968. It recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary and has inspired the formation of dozens of other Sudbury-style schools around the world.
Q: I wonder about the consequences of all this freedom. How do kids learn how to buckle down and do things they may not always like? What are the outcomes of unschoolers? Wouldn’t they flounder in adulthood?
A: Unlike conventional schooling that often serves a preparatory function, unschooling views living and learning as inseparable. As the renowned education philosopher John Dewey wrote in My Pedagogic Creed (1897): “I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” Unschoolers view education as a process of living, and learning as something that happens naturally, and deeply, when it is non-coercive and tied to individual passions.
While research on grown unschoolers is limited, studies have shown that they do quite well in adulthood. Despite not having a high school diploma, unschoolers frequently get accepted into the colleges of their choice and successfully pursue a wide variety of degrees and occupations. This research is consistent with research on Sudbury Valley School graduates, revealing successful paths to college and career, along with fulfilling adult lives tied to individual passions—that often sprouted during childhood and adolescence.
Humans thrive in freedom. Children are no different.