What is Unschooling?

Unschooling is just a kind of homeschooling. In fact, while we’ve been unschooling for many years, I don’t often use the term in passing conversations—I just say we’re homeschooling. There’s a better chance people will have at least heard of homeschooling. And if they are actually curious, they’ll ask more questions and the conversation will eventually get around to unschooling.

The Term Unschooling

The term unschooling was first coined by John Holt back in the 1970s. Holt was a teacher, working to change the school system from the inside. Once he felt that wasn’t going to work, he began advocating for parents to take their kids out of school altogether. It was around the time when 7-Up was marketing itself as the “UNcola” (to distinguish itself from Coke and Pepsi).

How could he differentiate this way of educating kids from the typical path of school? UNschooling! And it stuck.

One of the first questions people often have when they come across unschooling is, “What IS unschooling?” Such a seemingly innocent question, but it can be a challenge to answer, let alone to do so concisely. That’s why sound bites about unschooling for TV interviews often fail so miserably. Even newspaper articles have a hard time getting the point across. Most writers were assigned the story with a short deadline—they are doing their best, but it’s hard to understand unschooling deeply enough to explain it to others in that short a time frame.

Here’s my attempt, from my first book, Free to Learn:

Unschooling is, at its most basic, about learning without a curriculum, without a teacher-centred environment, but sometimes the concept is easier to define by what it’s not. It’s not school-at-home, a re-creation of the school environment with a low student-teacher ratio around the kitchen table. And it’s not about leaving your kids to fend for themselves, far from it. It is about creating a different kind of learning environment for your children. An environment based on the understanding that humans learn best when they are interested and engaged, and when they are personally involved and motivated. Creating an environment conducive to real learning is very difficult if someone else—parent, teacher, or curriculum developer—is dictating what a person should be learning at any given time. But drop that outside control over the child and learning truly comes naturally. As the late John Holt, educator and unschooling advocate, notes so succinctly, “Fish swim, birds fly; man thinks and learns.”

In addition, once you experience unschooling, you realize that there is much more to it than just dropping curriculum. It becomes a learning lifestyle—one where parents and children together enjoy exploring their interests and passions, learning along the way; one that evolves to inform your outlook on just about any situation that arises. Some like to call it life learning because what you are doing is learning through living. It revitalizes your relationships with your children. You will come to see that learning is often handicapped when confined to a classroom and a curriculum, but exciting and ubiquitous when children are given the freedom to explore their world. And soon you begin to glimpse the true nature of unschooling unfolding: living joyfully and passionately as a family, and building lifelong relationships in an environment where your children are free to discover and to grow into the people they were born to be.

Unschooling is a unique process for each family, and for each child. That may be why explaining unschooling is so straightforward and so difficult at the same time; the implications of that simple phrase learning without a curriculum are profound and life changing.

A little wordy, isn’t it? But did it help a bit? Learning without a curriculum. It sounds simple. But then you think … how? Without a curriculum, how do you support your child’s learning? Unschooling is about creating an environment that is conducive to supporting real learning—not just for your children, but for everyone in the family, because learning is a lifelong activity. And kids seeing their parents learning are observing the joy and fun of learning first hand.

Be curious and interesting. Be fun and open. Be loving and responsive.

Watch your kids in action. Both on your knees, toy (or game controller, or paintbrush, or book) in hand playing with them, and from across the room when they’re immersed in what they love to do. Learning about learning is key to understanding.

Because we’re not exchanging one set of curricula for another, or one set of rules for another, nobody can definitively tell you that you must do X, Y, and Z for unschooling to thrive in your home. That’s why understanding how it works and the principles behind it are crucial steps in figuring out how it’ll work well in your unique family.

“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”


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