How Unschooling Challenges the Traditional School of Thought

Getting educated in the unschool of life
girl drawing in sketchbook at the table

The term “unschooling” has crept into the lexicon since the 1970s when John Holt, author, educator, and youth rights advocate, coined it. Conceived as a reaction to the conventional school system, which Holt worked within and became disillusioned with, he attempted to remove the focus on enforced structure and place it more on grasping concepts and respecting the child’s interests. He began to observe that a student-centred approach where the child directed the course of learning was healthier and more effective. When his methods were ultimately met with administrative rejection, he began to promote the unschooling approach.

How is unschooling different from homeschooling?

While “unschooling” and “homeschooling” are often used interchangeably, some distinctions have emerged. Initially, Holt intended unschooling as an inclusive term that simply meant being taken out of the school system. “Homeschooling” has become a term most frequently associated with a structured format that may even follow the established curriculum of the local school district – a format that Holt did not intend when he envisioned homeschooling. Images of parents sitting with their children in home-based classrooms complete with desks, textbooks, and designated snack-time were not Holt’s vision of education, as this was simply moving the limitations of educational bureaucracy into the child’s own home. So unschooling, though a homeschooling “style”, developed its own unique sensibility.

The important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place. ~ Pat Farenga

The definition, reflecting the diverse and flexible nature of unschooling, is fluid. Patrick Farenga, who runs the unschooling website, JohnHoltGWS.com, and blogs at PatFarenga.com, describes unschooling as

… interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning....allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear. [This method doesn’t require the parent to become] a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an "on demand" basis, if at all....So, for instance, a young child's interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place.

With this in mind, it’s unbefitting to describe a “typical day”, as the definition inherently includes and encourages variety and freedom. In terms of its subject matter, methods, personal interests, resources, and environment, importantly, only the students themselves are “authorized” to describe (if they even can) what the educational day will entail. Caregivers can only recount what happened.

Where are all the unschoolers?

Homeschooling is completely legal in all Canadian provinces and territories, and in all 50 states. Because all children are legally required to receive elementary education, the minimum expectation is that they be registered with the education authority in their area but other regulations vary by region. In a 2014/15 study, homeschooling rates in Canada ranged from .1% in Quebec to 1.5% in Manitoba, and 3.4% in 2012 in the US. Since in many regions no lesson plans or outcomes need be submitted, unschooling is estimated to be about 10% of the homeschooled population.

The moment we quit trying to teach our son anything was the moment he started really learning. ~ Ben Hewitt

By its very nature, unschooling is difficult to quantify accurately as its practitioners can tend to be countercultural. (Many online resources contain a reference to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out Forever”.) Ben Hewitt, an avid unschooling parent, author, and homesteader, notes in his Outside Magazine article, “We don’t need no education”, “…many unschoolers have been reticent to stand up and be counted, perhaps because the movement tends to attract an independent-thinking, antiauthoritarian personality type.” And while a large proportion of homeschoolers choose to do so in conjunction with religious or moral purpose, Hewitt claims that unschoolers are not as firmly motivated by that reason. Hewitt’s family might fit the stereotypical profile. Rural but worldly and free-spirited, he and his wife, Penny, know their two boys, Fin and Rye, are thriving in their “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests” lifestyle. Initially intending to homeschool, they soon discovered their son Fin balked at the idea of being directed in his learning. “The moment we quit trying to teach our son anything was the moment he started really learning.” The boys spend much of their days fishing, carving, constructing, and enthusiastically absorbing the details of nature. Living on a farm, they do have a routine of chores and responsibilities, and Hewitt notices that the more responsibility the boys are given, the more they assume themselves. Between the “imposed” activities, they alone decide how to spend their time, and Hewitt estimates that not more than two hours per month are spent studying mainstream subjects. They both learned to read and write “with essentially zero instruction” at about eight years old, apply their math skills to their daily projects, and have friends who are both schooled and unschooled.

But there are many environments in which unschooling can happen. Kerry McDonald (wholefamilylearning.com), one of the founders of AlternativesToSchool.com, blogs about unschooling and practices it with her four children in Boston. She tells Hewitt, “The city is our curriculum. We believe that kids learn by living in the world around them, so we immerse them in that world.”

Scholars are also embracing the virtues of unschooling. Carlo Ricci, a professor at Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University in Ontario, writes that, at four, his daughter happened across an activity for building a clock. Realizing that she needed number-writing for this (she had already mastered letters and knew how to read an analogue watch), she had the problem solved within minutes, working out logically how the shapes of the numbers could be related to what she already knew about letters and making the necessary adjustments, and soon parlaying this prowess into number games.

She is not being drilled and skilled to write numbers for the sake of learning to write numbers, but she is internally motivated to write numbers because she is living her life and at this stage…she feels the need to make clocks and do Sudoku which means, as an aside, that she has to learn to write her numbers.

So, if you can swing it, why wouldn’t you choose this method?


small girl playing with cards in the living room

Is unschooling just scholarly folly?

The idyllic vision of education shared by unschoolers is unsurprisingly not universal. Just as unschooling proponents employ metaphors of walls and prisons, opponents apply adversarial language and unflattering descriptors like “exclusive” and “misguided” to unschooling’s potential shortcomings.

Sandra Martin-Chang, a Concordia University professor, conducted a study that compared 37 schooled to 37 homeschooled children, a third of whom were unschooled. She found that while the homeschooled children who followed a curriculum were measurably ahead of public school kids in subjects like math and reading, the unschooled children scored lower than all participants in all measures. In an article in the Montreal Gazette,Unschooling: No classes, no schedule, no tests”, she went on to say,

There is no empirical evidence to suggest that unschooling is beneficial to learners …The research on unschooling is non-existent, but we have lots of research on guided learning, scaffolding, expert vs. non-expert teaching and all of it points to the fact that learning by doing is great, but learning by doing with an expert is better.

Martin-Chang has spoken to parents who, out of a fear of being coercive, refuse to point out interesting things, or teach about or obtain instruction for ideas their children independently express interest in, insisting that the kids seek out the information by themselves. In some cases, this creates enormous difficulty. For instance, while learning speech is intuitive and hard-wired, reading and writing is not. Martin-Chang says, “I’ve worked with 7-year-olds who don’t know the alphabet. And that’s heartbreaking … [The parents] say, ‘My child didn’t start reading until they were 12, but then they read with passion and purpose.’ But their child has missed out on all those years of print exposure, and it’s very difficult to make up for it.”

Furthermore, not all families are equipped to facilitate such learning. In the same article, Christine Brabant, another researcher of homeschooling in Quebec, believes there should be many educational methods available but cautions,

We can’t give parents carte blanche.…If the parents are educated, and are very present in a stimulating environment, unschooling can be very good. But if it’s in a culturally poor house, with no books, no outings, no computer, with low-level language, and kids left on their own at home, that’s the other extreme.

Adult graduates of integrated high schools shared a commitment to diversity, to understanding and bridging cultural differences, and to appreciating “the humanness of individuals across racial lines" ~ Dana Goldstein

Another criticism levelled at unschooling is that it is only for an advantaged few and limits exposure to social and cultural diversity. In a Globe and Mail article, “‘Unschooling’ is a luxury for the wealthy”, columnist Leah McLaren asserts, “Like privately educated children, home-schooled and unschooled kids tend to be economically and culturally privileged.” According to Dana Goldstein in the Slate piece, “Liberals, don’t homeschool your kids”, the socioeconomic integration of public schools

… helps children become better grown-ups. Research by Columbia University sociologist Amy Stuart Wells found that adult graduates of integrated high schools shared a commitment to diversity, to understanding and bridging cultural differences, and to appreciating “the humanness of individuals across racial lines.”

Is traditional school uncool?

Unschoolers are usually making a deliberate, calculated choice whereas entering the school-system remains largely a passive or assumed one. Aside from their basic belief in how children learn best, what else prompts unschoolers to opt out of the system?

Peter Gray, psychologist, author of Free to Learn, and prominent unschooling advocate argues:

Coercive schooling is not good for children. Schooling that children are forced to endure – in which the subject matter is imposed by others and the “learning” is motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments rather than by the children’s true interests – turns learning from a joyful activity into a chore, to be avoided whenever possible. Coercive schooling, which tragically is the norm in our society, suppresses curiosity and overrides children’s natural ways of learning. It also promotes anxiety, depression and feelings of helplessness that all too often reach pathological levels.

In his Outside piece, Ben Hewitt points out another disadvantage of being cooped up in a traditional school setting: inactivity.

What price do school-going children pay for their confinement? The physical toll is easy enough to quantify. Diabetes rates among school-age children are sky-high, and the percentage of 6-to-11-yearolds who qualify as obese has nearly tripled since 1980. And what do children do in school? Exactly. They sit.

mom playing with blocks on the floor with boy

Comparing outcomes of the schooled and unschooled

Just as the schooled will exhibit a spectrum of skill mastery like literacy, so will the unschooled. In her blog, “I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write”, Idzie Desmarais writes how strangers frequently, without solicitation, and almost gleefully love to point out typos in her entries, argue about her stylistic choices, and criticize her topics with an entitled air of authority that clearly intends to disparage her unschooling background.

I stumbled across your blog – admittedly I found it during a discussion on the impracticality of Unschooling … This article serves absolutely no point and actually harms your entire thesis that you are a credible, contributing and functioning member to [sic] society in spite of your educational background.

Notwithstanding the errors within the comment, it serves as an illustration of the disdain and skepticism that exists for the scholarly capacity of the unschooled.

You will probably find that even though you're not following a standardized curriculum, the unique curriculum you are making with your family actually covers much of the same material. ~ Patrick Farenga

Farenga points out, as illustrated by Martin-Chang’s study, that parents may be concerned about where their children stand in comparison with their conventional peers, and this is OK. He advises that they access various curriculum outlines in order to reassure themselves that they are indeed facilitating comparable outcomes.

You will probably find that even though you're not following a standardized curriculum, the unique curriculum you are making with your family actually covers much of the same material. Further, you may find your children are at the same level or ahead in some areas of the standard curriculum and behind in others – just like most children in school.

Not only do you have the ability to remediate those areas in the future (as in school), you can choose to address those areas later, ignore them if they are irrelevant to your children's needs, or approach them in an interdisciplinary fashion through projects.

Do unschoolers actually end up levelled-out as grown-ups, do they look back on their experience positively, and do they go on to pursue higher education? In 2013, Peter Gray and Gina Riley conducted a survey of 75 adults who had been partially or completely unschooled. Seventy-two participants reported that they felt the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. Eighty-three percent had pursued some form of higher education, and the more unschooling they had received, the more likely they were to have done that. Of the disadvantages reported by 47 of the participants, the greatest were the criticisms and judgments made by others, social isolation (mentioned by 16 respondents), and adjusting during higher education “to the values and social styles of those who had been schooled all their lives.”

Alternatives to unschooling

Many understandably feel that unschooling is not feasible for them, but a self-directed approach may not be as impossible as some parents think. Ricci, who volunteers on the board of the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents, says, “I field hundreds of calls and people of all socioeconomic backgrounds unschool and homeschool. The demographic is varied. People find very creative ways to make what they feel is best for their children work.”

My vision is that libraries will become community learning and recreation centers and eventually replace schools. ~ Peter Gray

He also refers to “democratic schools” which are combining unschooling practices with a more instructional school setting. In Toronto in 1971, the fully public ALPHA school was established. It recognizes that “…all children are unique and develop differently and at different rates” and it supports “active engagement with real and meaningful pursuits, and even the youngest children are encouraged to develop a personal sense of responsibility for their own learning. Children choose what, how, and when they learn to the greatest extent possible.”

Similar places include North Star and Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts, and the Compass Centre in Ottawa. These centres do charge fees according to the type of membership, but are not as expensive as many private schools.

Gray (in an email) supports the idea of developing a public program through libraries:

My personal hope is that publicly supported self-directed education will come about through expansion of libraries....Librarians understand that their job is to help people learn what they want to learn, not coerce or test them. My vision is that libraries will become community learning and recreation centers and eventually replace schools.

In the “strictest” sense, child-directed learning permits the choice to attend regular school. To his chagrin, even Ricci’s number-savvy daughter opted for this route. “My children have the freedom to make these decisions for themselves. I may disagree, but as a loving father, I definitely support her decision.”16 Indeed, many children end up exploring a combination of learning styles by the time they are adults. Gray says, “Of course, while they are attending public school they are not ‘unschoolers,’ but one could say that they are still involved in Self-Directed Education as long as they feel completely free to quit the school at any time.” 

Caregivers can still give children the opportunity to engage in free-range play and to decompress after the rigours of structured learning have ended for the day. Gray says, “Parents of children in public school can … find ways to enable children to play and explore in their own chosen ways rather than put them into adult-directed activities when school is not in session. Parents can also take a relaxed attitude about homework, school grades, and the like.” Healthy amounts of time in nature and imagination, lots of sleep and rest, and avoiding too many scheduled sports and activities allow the growing brain a chance to recover from stresses and pressures, enhancing the ability to cope in social situations, manage demands and conflicts, and think critically.

Proponents like Peter Gray argue that no children benefit from an enforced curriculum and Gray says, “I don’t think that the public school system can make this change from within. There is too much vested interest, too much bureaucracy, for such radical change to occur.” Researchers like Martin-Chang say, “Learning by doing with an expert is better.” Brabant counsels that the Education Department “…should consult with parents and teachers and see what’s being done elsewhere to pick up best practices and avoid the worst.... to make school and unschool better.”

If a healthy middle ground between advocates and opponents has not yet been reached, it is in no small part due to the lack of robust research (on both sides) which forces parents to rely almost solely on intuition and anecdote. Even so, many people recognize that allowing children an active voice in what they will learn is valid, and unschooling can be regarded as taking that idea to the ultimate level, complete with its own challenges. We all want our kids to have a positive learning experience, and some of the most meaningful, powerful, and indelible moments in our lives have been flanked by the backdrop of our educational setting. Caregivers and parents know the best we can do is conscientiously provide a balanced environment that recognizes and satisfies the values and aptitudes of the family, and makes available the resources that fulfill the child’s inherent appetite to learn.

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