What is Unschooling?


Homeschooling. Worldschooling. Unschooling. I think I have used all of these terms interchangeably here on Our Global Adventure. In my own head though, and the one that I am hoping will work out the ‘best fit’ for our family is Unschooling (To all my teaching friends who read this, I just felt you shudder ๐Ÿ™‚ ย ). ย If you read my last post, you will know that last year our kids were attending a very nice private school which we handpicked ourselves from the selection in our area when our oldest was just a baby. So what is Unschooling and why have we made such a HUGE change in our plans for how our children learn?

I’ll admit, I’m still getting my head around the style of learning that will best fit our kids and in true “Gina” form I have spent literally hours and hours researching the best way to educate our own kids at home. Six months ago when Simon and I decided to embark on Our Global Adventure it seemed a no-brainer that of course I would be their teacher at home or on our travels, after all, I am a teacher right? The next thing we had to decide was, how would I do that? The first term I Googled was “Homeschooling in Australia” and to tell you the truth I didn’t like the results. From what I could gather from many websites it seemed that many (but not all) families were following the National Curriculum and teaching in much the same way that happens at school, just at home. Worksheets, lesson plans, tests and lists of learning outcomes to be ticked off by the end of the year. Next, I downloaded a copy of the National Curriculum and looked at the list of topics and outcomes that each of our children were expected to cover. This made me even more uncomfortable, some things they were already ahead of, some needed catching up, and others I knew that they just wouldn’t be interested in, and I anticipated the struggle I’d have on my hands to engage their interest.

Simon and I discussed my findings and I aired my frustrations, hypothetically asking the questions; Why do they need to learn all this stuff that they’re not interested in and will probably never use in their lives? Who decided what they should and shouldn’t know at this point of their learning journey anyway? And if they should fail a test or not cover it all right now, who is it that sets these arbitrary benchmarks? In his usual calm, thoughtful way Simon let me vent and then simply stated, “So, lets not do it that way.” ๐Ÿ™‚

We came up with our own set of guidelines for how and what we’d like the children to learn and it looks a bit like this…

  • To empower the children and help them become masters of their own education
  • To help the children to learn the basics of maths and literacy, but allow room for them to go off in tangents as their interests lead them
  • To find opportunities to learn from our daily conversations and surroundings
  • To see learning as a slide scale that can be moved back and forth to suit the level that the kids are at, rather than in a linear year after year school fashion
  • To provide a stimulating environment for learning
  • To learn with our children
  • To allow our children the freedom to follow their interests rather than learn facts just for facts sake
  • To help the children become confident learners who are unafraid to have a go, and are unperturbed by mistakes
  • To remove expectations that our children should make grades, pass tests, achieve scores, or even go to University, (unless they choose to)
  • To have a purposeful education for the world that we live in, rather than one that is created in an institution
  • To provide opportunities for the children to learn from others, not in competition with others or to satisfy government enforced testing

I think that it is important to add as a disclaimer that our children have already been to school, and so they can already read, write and do maths at the levels that are academically accepted as the norm for their ages. If they hadn’t yet though, and we’d decided to do this when they were toddlers, I am confident that they’d still have gained skills in these areas. Also, neither of our children has a learning disability, a social disorder or other condition that might have effected their path through main stream education, and so these concerns did not factor in our decision to remove them from the classroom. Simon and I completely empathise with parents who have decided to remove their children from mainstream education because they felt that the system did not cater to best suit the learning style of their child with special needs, (we believe that problem lies with the system, not students) but ours has been a decision based on a lifestyle change, and a firm belief that right now our education system is not best serving our kids for the future. This excellent RSA Talk by Sir Ken Robinson explains very clearly why many parents, just like us are realising it is time for a change…

So, this brings me to Unschooling, described in Wikipedia as…

“…an educational method and philosophy that rejects compulsory school as a primary means for learning. Unschoolers learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in maximizing the education of each unique child.”

I’ve also seen the term “Radical Unschooler” pop up in my searches for alternative education styles, and whilst the definition varies depending on what you read, it appears to be generally accepted that sometimes Radical Unschooling can also mean that the children are given complete freedom over EVERY aspect of their lives; learning, bedtimes, mealtimes, chores around the house etc. If traditional Homeschooling is just ‘school at home’ and ‘radical unschooling’ is a no-expectations free-for-all, then I think maybe we sit somewhere in the middle. We do not follow a curriculum, but the children regularly access a website to practice skills in all subject areas with the freedom to choose what they study, how long for, and at what level, (they move the academic scale up and down themselves). Other opportunities for learning are regularly offered to them to assist them in following their interests eg. we visit the Library once a week, they have access to computers and the internet, we regularly visit museums, parks, places of interest and the theatre and swim 3 times a week at our local pool. They are given freedom to completely immerse themselves in their interests, such as watching Horrible Histories for a whole day, and making swords all afternoon from paper and sticky-tape. When they display an interest in a particular topic I find ways to scaffold their learning by making available additional resources such as videos, books, websites and community based activities. They are still reminded of bedtimes, but there is not an exact time that is enforced. They help out with chores around the house, but we do not reward them financially for doing so, as it is understood that we should all contribute cooperatively to living together. It is an expectation that we all come the dinner table to share a meal each night, this has always been our practice and so the children do not know or expect otherwise, in fact they enjoy it!

We are very new to Unschooling and in fact, Homeschooling in general, so it’s safe to say that we don’t have all the answers yet, and we are still finding our way. What we are doing with the children seems to be working at the moment, they are happy and they are learning. Our goal is that eventually they will independently replace the website that we use to practice common skills (Study Ladder) as a result of naturally learning and seeking out opportunities for practicing and increasing their skills. But, since they enjoy doing the activities and playing the games at the moment, we see no harm in it. If you are considering using this website at home with your own children, please be advised that whilst it is a very useful tool, it is not a teacher replacement. The children and I continue to work on, and expand the skills that they practice with each activity long after the computer has been turned off. It is also one of many online resources that they access.

The following video is a very interesting RSA talk on ‘The Unschooled Life’ by Film-maker Astra Taylor. I found this one very interesting, enjoy!

If you have decided to educate your own children at home, we’d love to hear from you, what were your motivations, and what works well for your family?

11 thoughts on “What is Unschooling?

  1. Hello!
    I definitely admire your desire to give your children all they need in life without sending them through the “regular” schooling system.
    I tried to do it myself in 2003, when our kids were 9, 7 and 5 … only to find out that I, who am used to working with special-needs kids, was unable to handle my three brilliant children – I was way too demanding, losing patience easily. After a 6 months experiment, I was glad to hand my children back to “regular schools” where they have thrived ever since. The regular system has its limits, and it sometimes does more harm than good – but I think we are not all destined to “(un)school” our children. I myself am a far better mum for my kids when I donot have to be their teacher! Good luck!! Talitha

    • Thanks Talitha, I’m not sure that I would have done this if we’d not planned on traveling, but we were definitely looking for a change anyway. We’ll most likely reassess after a year, but it seems to be working for us in these early days. I agree, there are positives and negatives to both regular school and learning at home, you just have to do what fits your family best I think ๐Ÿ™‚
      Thanks for commenting xx

  2. Respect for the article!!! Given the fact that we live in a world where education is predominantly an ideological tool for those who hold the power, unschooling in deed may provide a better perception for world citizens. Thanks for the great article, once again.

    • Thanks for commenting Kutay! I’m glad I struck a chord with you. We are loving this style of educating our children, with so much freedom and joy. Do you have children of your own? Would you consider unschooling if you did? In such a short time we are seeing ours find a love for learning, it’s very inspirational to witness ๐Ÿ™‚

      • I don’t have children (yet, I guess I must say) but I could say that unschooling is totally favourable to me. Yet I must ask, do you have to confront laws and regulations from time to time? I live in Turkey and here you are penalized if you attempt to skip your child’s mandatory education at the age set by the laws.

        • I have learnt that different countries have different laws regarding educating children, (see Cherrie’s comment from the Netherlands). In Australia I guess we have a bit more freedom. Parents are permitted to home educate their children, providing they notify the authorities of their intention to do so. Some states are getting stricter about WHAT they would like you to cover with the children, but on the whole Australians can legally educate their own children. Unschooling itself occurs in many shapes and varieties depending on each families comfort levels, but I think that the most important thing that sets it apart is that the children lead the learning whilst parents are active facilitators.

  3. Here in the Netherlands (and I think in many other European countries) it is compulsory to send your kids to school to the extent that it is illegal to homeschool them. It applies to all kids residing in the country, citizen or not (so it may be something you need to look into before deciding to stay there with your kids for some time).

    Luckily, both us the parents and our daughter is happy with the education the kid is getting now at a local school. All primary and secondary schools are free here (even privately owned ones) and they have the freedom to choose their own curriculum and teaching methodology, so in the end, parents also have the choice what suits their children the best.

    Personally, I would always choose to send my kid to a school, since I know I’m not the best teacher material for any kid, but also because knowing my kid, she is the type of child who actually thrive in structured environment. But the school she goes to pays a lot of attention to the individual needs of the kids. Sometimes they do standard lessons, sometimes they are split in groups, where the fast kids are given more challenging material to work with, and the slower ones given more help. Sometimes all the kids collaborate on projects, where they can choose to take on different roles depending on their interest. Sometimes they are also working with kids from other grades. Every morning, everybody has to grab a book of their own choice, and their own reading ability, and sit (anywhere they find comfortable in the class) to read for 15 minutes before class started. It’s a small school, and the kids are happy. I don’t think I can offer my kid a better schooling experience if we take her out of school.

    If we do take her travelling extensively, I guess the only viable option is to homeschool her for the sake of continuity. One question though, how do you plan to do science lessons? Are you taking along supplies and lab kits alongside books (and what’s available in nature)?

    • Thanks for your comment Cherrie, yes I had heard that it was illegal in Germany to Homeschool your children, and that there are underground groups of parents doing it illegally there. I did not know about the Netherlands, but naturally these laws would impact on our decision to stay long term in the countries with these laws. Whilst it sounds like yours is a very good system, I must admit that I am skeptical of laws that remove the rights of parents and families, but my opinions are based on my Australian views.
      We know that some travelling families do chose to travel with workbooks and strictly follow the curriculum of their home countries, but we do not plan on doing this, other than providing access for the children to online resources from Australia that they can work through in their own time and pace. I guess all families work within their own comfort zones and beliefs about education and we encourage and respect this. What works for one family may not work for another.
      In reply to your question about Science there is so much useful science that can be covered naturally through travelling, for example, learning about new animals, plants, climates and landforms, tides, time zones, the planet in general, to name a few. Yes these are all natural sciences, but I question the usefulness of academic chemical science. I know that I had to learn the periodic table off by heart in school, but do not recall any but the most commonly used symbols now because they have been of no use to me beyond school. The best thing about allowing our children to follow their interests to learn is that should either of them develop an interest in academic science when they are older they will learn and recall facts because THEY want to.
      We are in the very early stages of our new educational journey with our children, and if they should decide that they’d like to return to school, or that this is simply not working, then of course we would need to respect and accommodate their wishes.
      Thank you so much for commenting Cherrie, it’s always so good to hear from other families, especially those in different countries than we are used to. We can all learn so much from each other ๐Ÿ™‚

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