What is unschooling?
Like the best things in life, unschooling is stunningly simple. Unfortunately, we have overcomplicated our thinking around children and learning to such an extent that it can be difficult to find our way back to these innate and beautifully-designed processes. It can take some work to rediscover the intrinsic joy and magic that society has managed to quash so thoroughly, and to realise that it really is all just about living.
I can't remember when I first heard the term 'unschooling', but I do remember feeling some relief that there was actually a word for what we were doing. The word was first used in the 1970s by John Holt, an educator from New York City who had become disillusioned with the education system. He strongly believed that in the right environment, children are capable of naturally learning without coercion. He ran a newsletter called Growing Without Schooling, and wrote a number of books, including How Children Learn and Learning all the Time.
Whilst reading about Holt recently, I found out that he wasn’t entirely happy with the term 'unschooling' and would have preferred 'living' instead. Some time ago, I was talking with one of my sons about the term 'unschooling'. He said that he isn’t keen on it because it has the word 'school' in it, and he couldn’t see why that needed to be there, since school doesn’t come into it. I asked him what he would prefer and he said that he would call it 'living’. So there we go, perhaps the best description of unschooling is 'living'.
In fact, over the years, I see how our children have naturally been able to just live whilst we have had to undo a lot of our paradigms around parenting and learning to, firstly, allow them to just live, and secondly, to relax into the living ourselves. So, if you’re new to unschooling or just curious, here’s a little rundown of what it is and what it isn’t, learned, as always, the best way – by living.
We're all hardwired to learn
Unschooling (or self directed learning) is based on the knowledge that all children are hardwired to learn, and that all of us are driven to lead meaningful, coherent lives given the right environment. Children are naturally curious and capable of deep learning when motivated by and emotionally engaged with their interests. Intrinsic motivation has been shown to be far more powerful than extrinsic motivation, and it is this power that a child taps into when given the space and autonomy to choose their own path. For an unschooled child, learning is an open-ended exploration.
More than learning - a way to live their best lives
Although learning is a large part of unschooling, it is also just the logical outcome when a child is free to live in a way that feels deeply satisfying and authentic to them. Unschooling also facilitates the child achieving a deep understanding of themselves and how they best thrive in life. They become experts at making aligned choices, and in knowing and advocating for their own values and boundaries. The child’s ability to live in accordance with their own inner motor and values will be with them throughout their lives. They are far more likely to move through life in a way that feels coherent to them rather than seeking approval or validation from others.
There’s no curriculum
In an unschooling home, the children learn what they want to learn. To our schooled minds, this may sound odd, but you’re likely to end up marvelling at the strange and wonderful things that happen. They are highly unlikely to make steady, linear progress over many subjects like they would at school. Instead, they will become passionate and knowledgeable about all sorts of things. Much of what is sweated and struggled over at school will appear to be acquired with no effort whatsoever. You are likely to find yourself amazed at the things they learn, and you will frequently wonder how they know all of what they know.
It doesn’t look like school learning
In the absence of teachers, textbooks and worksheets, children are free to acquire the knowledge any way they want. This may be through conversations, videos or books, or just by observing something in their lives. They may also choose to attend workshops or online classes on things they are interested in. They become highly knowledgeable about how they best learn and they are likely to find all sorts of ingenious ways to keep things interesting. Here, each child learns in very different ways. One loves to create things and often designs online booklets on the topics she's interested in. Another loves languages. He uses language apps, watches programmes in different languages, and translates songs on YouTube into English. And, another has always loved maps. Through maps, he explores history, geography, politics, economics, languages.
There is no coercion
Children learn because they are hard-wired to learn. If they are following their own curiosity, there is no need for coercion, rewards or prizes. There’s no need to disguise learning as play, no need to intentionally incorporate maths into baking, or create a writing activity from a nature walk. Enjoy the playing, the baking and the nature walk for the fun that they are, and let the maths, reading and writing come up when they naturally come up, as they inevitably do in life. Don’t worry about making things ‘educational’. All of life is an education.
There’s no teaching (unless requested)
My children would always laugh when someone asked me, ‘So, do you teach them?’ I’ll always offer help if I happen to know something that’s useful, and I’m happy to join in any project. But the idea that I would be teaching them is very funny to me now (and even funnier to them). They know so much more than I do on countless topics. From North Korea to Romans, stock investing, politics, dogs, physics and geography, they run rings round me. Besides which, once you have left the idea of a curriculum to one side and embraced the idea that the whole of life is one vast field of learning, how can we decide which things are important for your children to know?
Having said this, many unschooled children take part in classes of their choice. All three of my children have done classes in things they wanted to know more about, from computer programming to history and dog training. They’ve chosen to attend the classes as they enjoy the subject and have wanted some more knowledgeable input. Many unschooled children choose to go into further education. The lack of school and teaching doesn’t put them off learning. It’s pretty much the opposite—it gives them self-knowledge and confidence in their ability to learn whatever they put their minds to.
It takes advantage of real life
Real life, as opposed to school, is packed with curious and interesting things. It has meaning and purpose and is filled with exciting possibilities, so it is naturally fascinating to children. Nature, business, economics, politics, fashion, sport, ecology—whatever they are interested in, it’s out there in the world. Here, as our children get older, almost all of our conversations revolve around real world topics. Everything is more interesting in its authentic context. The narrow curriculum of school, learned in a classroom, just can’t compare.
It takes a lot of involvement and connection
Unschooling may look like a lazy, hands-off approach, but it’s far from that. True, the parents aren’t spending their time preparing their home-ed classes for the next day, but they are investing their time in a different way. They are likely to be looking for ways to facilitate interests and to find new life experiences. They will be joining in on projects, helping solve problems, and engaging in long conversations about whatever is on people’s minds that day. They will be noticing how their children are, and figuring out what is needed to keep creating and holding that safe space for them. They will also be constantly working on their own triggers and issues and at ‘deschooling’ themselves. It’s hard to quantify all of this, but it is anything but lazy.
It is driven by intrinsic motivation and passion
Knowledge and skills aren’t rewarded with gold stars, grades or a pat on the back. They are not acquired for someone else’s approval. There is no pass or fail. The learning happens because that is what feels good and right. It is the result of endless curiosity and a desire to know and to engage in the world.
It is based on trust and respect
At the heart of everything are trust and respect. In order to relinquish the idea that we must have control over our children we need to trust the child and their natural processes, and understand that we can accompany these processes but we can’t direct them. This means respecting our children as the whole people that they are. There is a lot of talk about children being respectful, but unschooling requires us to understand how an adult should be respectful of a child. It requires us putting control, authority and hierarchy to one side, and engaging in an entirely different way with our children.
Every family looks different
Your family's journey will look nothing like anyone else's. If you have more than one child, you'll probably see how each of your children's journeys is entirely different. And that's the beauty of this. It's great to get inspired by others, but important to not compare.