Homeschooling 101: What is UN School-ing??

There is a term used among homeschoolers.  It is Unschooling.  AKA Unschooler.  Unschooled.  To Unschool.  Depending on who uses it, the word can have many different reactions.  For example:

I once told somebody I unschooled my children and the response I received was, “Well, that’s fine.  But I want my children to be able to survive in the real world if I die.”


“Well, I unschool reading or history, etc., but we have to do math!”


“We are sooo unmotivated to start back.  Maybe we’ll become unschoolers, ha ha ha!”

Or my favorite….

“We unschool….after we get our main work done.” (Just FYI people, that would be unschooling recess.  That’s it.  Recess.  And since you are already at home, we call that playing outside.  You are unschooling playing.  Outside.) 


By definition at its origination and by way of the Oxford English Dictionary, the term Unschooled means:


1  Not educated at or made to attend school: unschooled children

1.1  Lacking knowledge or training in a particular field: She was unschooled in the niceties of royal behavior.

1.2  Not affected or artificial; natural and spontaneous.


Although the term has been around since the 1500’s, it became popular in the late 1970’s when John Holt used the word in his magazine, Growing Without Schooling.  He meant the term to speak about the first and third definitions.  Combining those two ideas, unschooling means not educated at school, but rather educated naturally and spontaneously, and in an organic or authentic setting.  

And yet, as is made obvious from the above reactions, unschooling has, unfortunately, developed a reputation for the second definition, meaning  lacking knowledge or training.

Within the homeschool community, there are many types of people, many styles of teaching, and various styles of learning.  It is the natural habit to identify oneself by the style of teaching in order to find like minded friends within the community.  This isn’t unique to homeschoolers.  Humans love to put themselves in boxes in order to figure out who else is in the box with them.  And so, after getting my bearing within the homeschool community, I started labelling myself as a relaxed homeschooler to some or as an unschooler at times as well.  What I meant by these labels is child led learning.  Approaching learning through the interests of the child.  Figuring out the motivation for learning and using it as a tool to move forward. Learning as a natural integration of our day instead of organizing each day by hour and subject.  Recognizing learning moments outside of the traditionally accepted lessons provided.  In other words, learning naturally with my children’s interests as a vessel to accomplish our studies.  What I did NOT mean is learning in a chaotic environment.  No curriculum.  Living without rules.  Having my children explore all of life with only  natural consequence as the teacher.  No expectations.

However, in my personal opinion, the term unschooling has been absorbed by a group of homeschoolers that do exactly what I did not mean.  Their households operate with few to no rules.  None.  At.  All. There are no expectations, especially regarding education.  Manners, safety, hygiene practices, etc. are learned through observation and natural consequence.  In other words, when people at the library start avoiding your stench, that is the natural consequence of not bathing.  In order to avoid this, it is time to learn to bathe properly.  It is commonly assumed children will pick up what they need for success in adulthood through natural curiosity.  When a skill is needed, a person will be curious and motivated to learn it.  One or two, I repeat – one or two, of these ideas connected (to a degree) with my philosophy on education and so I have tried in some ways to give their version of unschooling a try.  Many would say if it isn’t a complete immersion, it isn’t a proper try.  Whatever. What I found is I did not like it.  But more importantly, my children did not thrive.  We were stressed and unsure of ourselves and of what we were accomplishing.  Both children became increasingly anxious.  And so, alas,  I cannot relate to this particular group in a way that would put us in the same box.

Now, back to John Holt.  Even he saw the writing on the wall (of that box) with using the term unschooling.  In fact, by the early 1980’s he stopped using it.  I like him.  I like some of his writings.  I agree with him on various aspects of educating a child.  I think John and Maria Montessori would have been good friends.  I would have loved to go to that dinner party.

As for my family, we are moderately relaxed.  Not radical.  We begin our days later than some, but our days go later as well.  Learning is a way of life more than a to do list.  Yet as a person that loves lists, having set requirements each day and commonly accepted household expectations are a part of our organizational practices and our learning methods.  We use curriculum.  We may collaborate on schedules, but I lead.  We study specific academic subjects.  There are boundaries relating to electronics and personal space and bed time and privacy.  My husband and I are heads of the household.  Basic skills such as prayer, safety, manners, chores, hygiene, etc. are taught before a natural consequence requires the skill.  I  personally believe in first impressions.  I care about socially acceptable behavior when we are around others.  I want my children to feel confident and independent and equipped to handle the world outside our home, according to what is appropriate for their age.  Being shunned or considered rude simply because my children were not taught how to handle public situations is not comfortable for me or for them.

So there it is.  We are not unschoolers.  Probably won’t ever be.  I don’t even know quite how to label us.  But If I have to label our family, I say we are life learners.  Because, in the end, no matter how we learn, we keep learning.  Always.


***Please note – This is my personal experience with Unschooling.  For more information on the subject and for people out there in the homeschooling world that do it well, please use Google.  Those people are out there.  And they are successful.  It just wasn’t our thing.***




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