Talking about Unschooling

January 19, 2006 @ 2:45 am | Filed under:

In case you’re interested, I’m participating in a discussion of unschooling on Donna Hebert’s website. (See her post, “When Will I Ever Learn?” and its comments section.) Donna is a teacher who is curious about why some homeschoolers use a seemingly negative term (unschoolers) to describe themselves. The conversation is also taking place at Atypical Homeschool here and here.

Here are some excerpts from my end of the conversation:

On socialization:

[S]ome of the responses address common concerns which seem to stem from a misunderstanding of what homeschooling, and particularly unschooling, is really like.

The socialization concern, for example. [A commenter] wrote, “Unschooling doesn’t allow the child to experience the social advantages that they get in public or private schools. This I believe is an invaluable asset to the developing child during their upbringing.”

The assumption that unschoolers and homeschoolers are deprived of opportunities for social interaction is a common misconception. Many people seem to be under the impression that home-educated children are literally home all day, every day, with no interaction with people outside the family. This is far from the case, as a quick perusal of some homeschooling blogs and websites will show you. Homeschoolers & unschoolers are involved in group lessons, sports, orchestras, theater groups, playgroups—the list of social opportunities goes on and on. For my family and many others, the only challenge involved with “socialization” is in whittling down the vast number of choices for social interaction!

It is also helpful to consider what exactly you mean by “socialization.” Many families turn to homeschooling precisely because of the negative social interactions that can happen even in the best of schools. One thing we treasure about our unschooling lifestyle is that our children are afforded the opportunity to develop friendships with children (and adults) of all ages—they are not boxed into a grade-level age group. Older children play with and entertain the younger children, and the little ones learn so much from the older kids. The kids are comfortable meeting new people, both old and young, because they are out in the world engaging with many different kinds of people on a regular basis. They play with neighborhood children after the public-school kids get home from school and finish their homework, and I have never noticed any awkwardness between these groups of children whose educational experiences and lifestyles are so very different.

There is a great deal of excellent writing on the internet addressing the socialization question. Here’s one good post: An Unschooling Life.

On the term “unschooling”:

For clarification on the differences between unschooling and other types of home education (there are many methods), Sandra Dodd’s site is a great place to start. Unschooling is a way of looking at life and learning that is completely different from what most of us think of as traditional educational experiences and processes. How [Donna asked] would an unschooled child prepare for a career as a doctor? Lots of ways. Self-study; investigation of college admissions requirements and self-motivated pursual of the skills needed to gain acceptance into a pre-med program; conversation and relationships with actual doctors; taking advantage of the numerous books and videos and other excellent resources available. The point is: if medicine is the child’s (or teenager’s) goal, he will most likely be interested in the subjects related to medicine, and he will be motivated to do what it takes to make his dream come true. That is the belief held by unschooling (and many homeschooling) parents: that the student’s personal interests and goals—thoroughly supported and assisted by the active, involved parents—will be fulfilled as a natural consequence of the very existence of that interest. Unschooling parents don’t cast their kids to the winds—a committed, loving, tuned-in relationship is what provides the child with the support necessary to pursue whatever interests and ambitions he or she has.


Unschooling [is] a way of learning that is utterly unlike a classroom learning experience. If another home-educating family tells me they are unschoolers, then I know they are unlikely to “do school” at certain hours. The family may indeed have a schedule or a rhythm to their daily and weekly activities, but they won’t have “math time,” “language arts time,” and so on. The activities that make up an unschooling family’s schedule will be directed by the interests of the various family members, not by an academic scope and sequence.

[Donna asked], “Why not utilize a more positive term, such as ‘interests-based learning’ or ‘exploratory education’ or ‘self-realization education’?”

I’ll address the ‘more positive’ part of this question in a moment, but first I’ll say that unschoolers do use other phrases to describe their learning style. “Interest-led learning,” “delight-directed learning,” “child-led learning,” and other terms are commonly used. But practically speaking, those terms are a mouthful! “Unschooling” quickly and succinctly sums up the heart of the philosophy—it’s about learning in a way that is the opposite of school. Since “school” is our society’s norm, and everyone knows what you mean by it, “unschooling” is a convenient way to express the opposite.

You’re reading the prefix as negative, as if it meant “anti-schooling.” And some unschoolers may indeed feel “anti” about school; but that isn’t exactly what the word itself is meant to convey. The “un-” means “not,” as in “not-schooling.” What unschoolers do is the opposite of a school situation, where 1) someone else is directing what and when and how the students will learn; and 2) learning is regarded as something that needs to be made to happen (with an implication that it happens best under the direction of trained professionals using specific curricula and methods).

To an unschooling mindset, learning happens best when the individual (child or adult) is the motivating force behind his or her own pursuit of knowledge. It boils down to the simple idea (which we proponents of unschooling would call a truth) that people learn best when they WANT to learn something or NEED to learn it—that is, when the motivation is internal, not external.

Schools operate under the opposite principle. An external body (whoever chooses the curriculum) is determining what the student should learn and when he should learn it. It is this opposite-ness that the word “unschooling” is attempting to convey.

[Donna] wrote, “The term ‘unschooling’ suggests to me that perhaps unschoolers perceive the public education system as unsalvagable.”

Some unschoolers do believe that. Others believe the public education system could be drastically improved if compulsory attendance laws were done away with, along with grades, scopes & sequences, and other forms of coercion.

“From my perspective, there are already many people of power who create laws that are crippling our public education system. Why declare yourselves loyal to a school-of-thought (pun intended) that includes a negative prefix?”

As I said above, to unschoolers, the “un-” doesn’t feel negative. I wish I could find the great quote someone wrote about this very question several years ago—she pointed out that we have many “un-” words in our language which convey positive, wonderful concepts: unfettered, unchained, uninhibited, etc.

I can see that from the perspective of someone working very hard to make learning fun for kids within a school system, the “un-” might feel like an attack or a slap in the face. But unschoolers use the term in a positive sense. What unschoolers do, how unschoolers learn (and live), is UNlike school—it’s as simple as that.


Click here for an excellent comment from WJFR of Every Waking Hour and for Donna’s gracious reply to both of us.

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4 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. AliceG says:

    This was an extremely interesting exchange, and I am glad you were able to explain the merits of “unschooling” so beautifully.

    Thanks for calling attention to WJFR’s comment as well–very well done as always.

  2. WJFR says:

    I thought Donna’s questions were very interesting and sincere, loved your comments,and am glad you have posted them on here for your audience. Thanks for the nice words about mine, as well! : ).

  3. Deputyheadmistress says:

    I’m not an unschooler but I’ve never thought of the term as ‘negative.’ It’s more like the uncola.=)

    It could also underline that what goes on in your home is so different from what goes on in a public school that it’s not fair (to school or home) to compare the two.

  4. deputyheadmistress says:

    Oh, yes, I meant to add, just as a point of interest, that friend of ours unschooled her two kids for years and years. One of them is in college studying to be an architect. He’s making straight A’s and is in his third year. The other is a music teacher.