Inside: You’ve heard the term “unschooling”, but you’re wondering what does unschooling mean? Get a clear definition of what unschooling is, plus the nine core beliefs that lead parents to choose this counter-cultural educational path.
Once upon a time, against all odds, I decided to homeschool.
It seems like forever ago, but I guess eight or nine years – or thirteen, if you count from the time my oldest was born – isn’t forever.
I wasn’t even a week into homeschooling when I realized that my first born wasn’t really into the whole forced learning thing.
She’d rather stare out a window for 45 minutes than do a single assigned page in her phonics workbook.
She and I both agreed that Saxon math was the worst.
And neither of us loved the book choices our boxed curriculum somehow decided were the best books to read-aloud to first graders.
So, yeah. Right from the start, I knew traditional homeschooling wasn’t going to work all that well for us.
As I searched for alternatives, I kept coming back to this thing called unschooling.
And after fighting it for a very long time, I finally, fully embraced what was obviously the only style of homeschooling that would work well for our family: unschooing.
But what does unschooling even mean?
Here’s my explanation after reading about unschooling for years, being super unschooly for much of my homeschooling “career” and fully unschooling for a year and counting.
What Is Unschooling? The Most Basic Definition
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Unschooling is by far the most misunderstood homeschool style. It receives the most hate and skepticism.
All that negativity is honestly what kept me from wanting to unschool. The thought of all those yucky, judgmental comments being thrown my way made me shudder.
So what makes unschooling the target of such angst? Mostly because at its core is the radical idea that we can trust children.
We’re not big fans of trusting children in our society. Of supporting children in learning to trust themselves and know themselves really well is perhaps a better way of putting it.
We assume that parents and adults in general know best.
If I had to define unschooling in one sentence, I would put it this way:
“Unschooling is a style of homeschooling where children are trusted to direct their own education, with the parent offering support, resources, opportunities and connection.”
“Direct their own education” means children decide what to learn and when to learn it. Unschooling families live rich, full lives as though school does not exist.
Parents offer opportunities to expand horizons – trips, books, videos, resources – with the knowledge that the child has the freedom to decline.
Parents also offer support and help with projects and passions. They often facilitate, as opposed to teach.
Mostly, they stay connected to their children, learn alongside them and find the tools their child needs to pursue their unique interests in the ways that make most sense for their unique learning styles.
Important Note: unschooling parents do not sneak in learning, force learning or push their children towards various paths. They offer suggestions, but only after building a foundation of trust.
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9 Core Beliefs Unschooling Parents Share
So how do you go from thinking your child absolutely needs to know how to multiply fractions on paper or they will fail at life to trusting that your child will learn everything they need to be a successful adult just by living life?
(I’m joking about the fractions…kind of.)
What makes that kind of radical trust possible? Core beliefs.
These nine core beliefs are the pillars of unschooling and what supports all of that radical trust.
Hopefully they help you understand unschooling just a little bit more, and why unschooling parents make the choices they do.
Related: Is Strewing Really a Good Idea? An Unschooling Perspective
1. Children are hard-wired to learn, and they are learning all the time.
I was shocked to discover that children keep right on learning after age 5, even if they don’t go to school.
They investigate. They explore. They ask questions.
Often, they will even learn how to read without direct instruction. Yes, really.
Society would lead you to believe that no school and no direct instruction = no learning. And it’s just not true.
Children are hard-wired for learning, just like breathing or talking or walking.
Have questions? Read Peter Gray’s Free to Learn or Naomi Fisher’s Changing Our Minds.
2. Natural learning is not linear.
Schools teach subjects in a linear fashion. Everything builds on each other in nice, neat and separate stacks (or circles), especially for things like reading.
There is no room for readiness showing up at a different age than school has declared THE age to learn how to read.
If you fall “behind”, catching up is hard because the pace of school doesn’t slow down to match yours.
Learning outside of school isn’t linear because it doesn’t need to be. It’s also not separated into subjects – everything overlaps and intertwines.
Kids are free to learn to read words like “Minecraft” and “pizza” before they learn how to read the word “cat” or “the”.
They can learn about exponents before they learn how to multiply fractions.
They can learn about aspects of WWII before they learn about WWI. And they can learn about math or writing or science as it relates to WWII.
Order doesn’t matter because there’s no deadline and no set curriculum declaring what you must learn or master by a certain time. You can do things out of order and learn in the way that makes sense to you.
You are free to learn what you want to, when you need to. Or when you’re ready and interested.
3. All learning is valuable, not just the sliver of knowledge that schools deliver.
Schools teach such a small part of knowledge that’s available in the world.
They would have you believe it’s everything you need to know to be a successful adult.
I mean, you do need to be pretty convincing if you want the majority of parents to believe sending their child to school for thirty hours a week for thirteen years is not just a good idea, but necessary for their success.
In reality, it’s just a drop in the ocean. And so much of what kids learn in school? They will never use again.
I’m convinced that this is part of the mental health crisis among youth today, at least in our country. Kids can smell pointless from a mile away.
Schools don’t value things like emotional intelligence, self-awareness, interview skills, or personal finance (and how to do your freaking taxes).
If they valued it, they would dedicate time to it. And they don’t.
They may or may not try to argue that they do value those things, but it’s parents job to teach those things…mmmm, k.
(P.S. The school system was dreamt up by a billionaire and designed to churn out mindless worker bees. If you’ve never read about the dark history of school, read The Underground History of American Education.)
4. Children will learn what they need to know when they need to know it.
Unschooling parents trust that the best learning happens when you need to know something or you want to know something.
Kind of like adults who learn how to do something when they need to.
I may or may not have needed to change a car headlight for the first time the other day. I went to Youtube, and I figured it out.
Now I will forevermore know how to change a headlight, at least on our particular vehicle.
Learning outside of those two parameters – needing or wanting – usually doesn’t stick.
And even if a child does somehow manage to retain information from forced learning, that learning takes up valuable time and energy that could be spent learning things they need or want to know.
5. Adults cannot possibly know exactly what children will need to know in the future.
The world is changing at lightning speed these days.
With the introduction of AI, no one – yes, no one – knows for sure what the future will look like. And not knowing is pretty damn scary.
Will my job as I know it (writing and making money online) even exist a few years from now? I honestly don’t know.
And that’s true of many other jobs right now.
Instead of making kids learn things they might need one day, when we really don’t know, why not let them spend time learning what they believe is the next right step on their own unique educational path?
Because no one knows what jobs will be around five years from now, let alone ten.
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6. Children are more than capable of directing their own education.
This one is something you have to watch play out in front of you to believe it. The tricky thing is, you need to give your child the trust and freedom to do so first.
Until then, believe me when I say that children are capable of directing their education. They will follow their interests, build on their existing knowledge and figure out how they learn best.
My kids have decided to study languages for months, memorized complicated Rubik’s cube algorithms and taught themselves video editing software.
They explore interests until they are no longer interested. And sometimes, they come back around to them again.
If they are free to do so, they will spend their time building a unique knowledge case and unique skill set that will eventually lead them to their one-of-a-kind future.
7. Children learn faster and retain more when they are truly interested.
We recently tackled our standardized testing for the year. In our state, you test in grades 3, 5, and 8.
In the past, one of my kids could care less about the test. He click, click, clickety click clicked their way to completion.
Not this year. This year, he wanted to know how to do all of the elementary math.
As in, long-digit multiplication and division on paper. YAY.
I tried to teach him the old-fashioned way to do long division. That bombed. So I researched the area method, and that made a lot more sense to him.
So he learned how to do long division on paper for the test.
But even after the test, he decided he wanted to know even more. So we’re working on memorizing multiplication tables, after which we’ll practice more long-digit multiplication and division.
Children can learn all of elementary math in a really short time. When they’re motivated, for their own reasons.
The same is true for any other subject.
8. Everyone does not need to learn the same things.
This belief directly challenges the cookie cutter version of mainstream education, where all children must learn certain things in order to get that graduation certificate.
But do all children really need to practice geometry theorems?
Do they all need to be able to write in APA format?
Do they all need to dissect a frog? Really?
Everyone has a unique life path, where they will need a unique knowledge set. Why not let the child’s interests guide that path and what makes up that knowledge set?
Surely there are some basics? Sure, like learning to read, for instance. But you realize pretty quickly that those basics take care of themselves by living and learning together all day, every day.
9. Knowing and trusting yourself is by far the most important thing.
I am a grown, 37-year-old adult, parent to five children, and I’m realizing I don’t know myself all that well.
I spent years listening to other people tell me who I am. I spent my time doing things for their approval.
Decades later, I’m still trying to figure it out who I am. I’m still trying to learn how to trust myself, and I’m pretty sure a lot of my anxiety stems from my lack of self-trust.
How do you learn this most important skill? By experimenting. By trying different things. And having the time and space and freedom to do so.
As I’m sure you know, you have far less time and space when you’re 37 than when you’re a kid.
I want to give my kids the gift of stress-free space and time to learn what I didn’t.
What About Radical Unschooling? That Seems Even More Bizarre
Radical unschooling takes the principles of unschooling – trust and connection – and extends it to all of parenting.
Radical unschooling parents trust their child to know when they’re hungry and what they want to eat. They trust them to know when they’re tired or when they’re cold.
This doesn’t mean children “rule the home”, but more that there are no arbitrary rules. No, “bedtime is at 8 p.m. just because that’s when children should go to bed.”
For radical unschoolers, family is a place where everyone works together to get their individual needs met and takes everyone’s preferences into account, as much as possible.
And just like any good marriage partnership, where two people navigate through their differences to find rhythms and systems that work for both of them (not just one), so do radical unschooling families.
Are we radical unschoolers? I suspect we’re radical to some and not radical enough to others.
Ultimately, we just do our best to treat our kids the way we would want to be treated.
Related: What Is Respectful Parenting? A (Sadly) Radical Philosophy
Interested In Unschooling? Come Along for the Ride
I am by no means an unschooling expert. I’m figuring this whole thing out as I go along.
One foot in front of the other, one day at at time, one year at a time.
As Kara Anderson put it, I’m more like a big sister coming alongside you, just a step ahead with sisterly empathy and hopefully, a bit of wisdom in there, too.
Wanna come along for the ride? Subscribe to get my weekly e-mails.
Every week, most weeks, I offer thoughts and stories from our own lived unschooling experience to encourage you on your journey (or just for the unschooling curious, if you’re not unschooling yet).
Hopefully, I’ll be in your inbox soon! Happy unschooling!