5 Lessons We Can Learn From Unschooling

The unschooling movement is rapidly drawing interest from educators and parents around the world. What is it, exactly, and what can it teach us about the learning process that traditional schooling can’t? Jennifer Lachs weighs in on the issue below.

The term “unschooling” was first coined by John Holt, an American educator and author. As a concept it resembles interest-driven learning, natural learning, or child-driven learning. While unschooling is a type of home education, it is important to clarify that it is not the same as homeschooling. Unlike traditional homeschooling, the student doesn’t follow the instructions of a teacher or a curriculum. The unschooling concept relies on a child’s natural curiosity. Instead of following a strict learning schedule or curriculum, parents allow their children to learn at their own pace and follow their own interests and passions. They can choose what they learn, when they learn it and how they learn it, without being graded or tested on their skills. With the rise of education technology and widespread access to the internet, there is no shortage of materials to help them.

The underlying concept is not actually new, but is more commonly known as experiential learning, or learning-by-doing. Research has shown that students understand scientific concepts more deeply if they physically experience them. The role of the parent, however, isn’t strictly passive; they act as a facilitator to help and encourage their child’s natural learning process.

While the concept of unschooling is quite controversial and not widely covered in the media, a growing number of parents are embracing the model. There are very few official numbers on students who are being unschooled in Australia. However, statistics on homeschooling can give an indication of the current trends. Australia-wide, the number of registered homeschooled children has steadily risen in the last few years, with an increase of 6% in 2014 to a total of 13,000 students. In the US, the numbers are much higher, with nearly 2 million children currently being homeschooled. A 2014 survey on homeschooling, submitted to a NSW Parliamentary inquiry by the HEA (Home Education Association), states that 15% of the surveyed parents use an unschooling approach to home education.

Many prominent educators and academics have spoken out against the traditional education system, including acclaimed educator Sir Ken Robinson, who, in the most-watched TED Talk of all time, claims that schools kill creativity and advocates a learning revolution.

Unschooling might be a radical solution to a one-size-fits-all education system that doesn’t work for every student, but there are some lessons we can learn from unschooling to apply to traditional education and parenting.

What Can We Learn From Unschooling:

1. The skill of learning how to learn

Critics of traditional school systems point out that children are taught to solve tomorrow’s problems using today’s solutions, training them to navigate a world that doesn’t exist yet. The rise of the internet in the last fifteen to twenty years proves that it is impossible to foresee the skills we might need in the future or what job roles will be required.

Would it not make more sense, then, to teach kids the skill to teach themselves? A child who understands their own learning pace, style, and challenges will be better equipped to solve tomorrow’s problems than children who learn to solve a problem in one specific way. Children who learn how to learn will be able to apply this skill to any subject, project, or job in the future.

2. Life and learning are not separate

Learning is everywhere, not just in the classroom. From an early age, students of modern school systems are forced to separate learning time in the classroom and playtime after school. In this way children are taught that learning is a chore. John Holt wrote about this in his book How Children Fail: “We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty rewards—gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards…in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”

In real life, however, learning is not a competition and never stops. No matter if you’re pursuing an academic degree, going through a career change, or starting your own business, learning new skills is crucial. If we teach kids that learning is an integral part of everyday life and can actually be fun, challenging and interesting, they won’t see it as a chore.

As parents and educators, we should therefore encourage learning in every aspect of life, even if a child is interested in a project that is not directly relevant to the school’s curriculum. Following through a project from beginning to end, researching, testing, playing and presenting findings, are all valuable skills, even if the project involved is cookie baking rather than algebra.

3. Unschooling helps with the entrepreneurial mindset

According to serial entrepreneur, popular blogger, and unschooling advocate Leo Babauta from Zen Habits, unschooling is the best preparation for future entrepreneurs:

“Schools prepare kids to follow instructions, like good employees, while entrepreneurs take charge of what they need to know and make decisions for themselves, navigating through uncharted waters. Unschooling prepares kids to be entrepreneurs.”

Indeed, a 2013 US survey of 75 adults who were unschooled as children shows that over 50% became entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial skills include self-motivation, problem-solving, the ability to pick up and learn new skills, confidence, time-management, and creativity, to name just a few. All these skills are encouraged in unschooling.

Not only does unschooling prepare students for entrepreneurial careers; it prepares them for more traditional paths too. Research shows that unschooled children have no academic disadvantage at a higher level of education compared with their peers who were traditionally schooled.

4. Parents should be part of the learning process

Unlike traditional school systems where parents are only peripherally involved, maybe as part of the parent-teacher association or checking homework after school, home-schooling and unschooling allow parents to take a more active role in their child’s education. Although unschooling students are encouraged to take the lead in their own education, parents will always be available for support, suggestions, and to learn along with their child.

Common reservations about unschooling and home-schooling from parents include shirking responsibilities or taking the easy way out. In fact, it is quite challenging to let your child make their own decisions on what they want to learn, how, and when. Parents must have a lot of trust that their children will ultimately use their curiosity and inherent desire to find out more about the world and to learn the skills that work for them.

Parents of traditionally schooled children can apply this to their own children’s education. Learning is fun and should be enjoyed together. Showing a positive attitude instead of a dislike for certain subjects (often maths) can improve a child’s attitude towards learning.

5. Unschooling at school

Parents typically choose to carry out unschooling at home if traditional schools don’t adequately foster personalised or natural learning. But with the use of education technology, unschooling methods and philosophies could be applied to the classroom. Internet access in schools is becoming more widespread, with programs such as Education Super Highway and the state-funded Connect-Ed popping up in the US.

Personalised learning makes use of technology and lets children study at their own pace. The tools free up time the teacher would have spent handling grading and other admin, and allow them to focus on helping children in the classroom. “Different abilities, different times,” Elon Musk said about personalised education in an interview with Business Insider. “It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities.”

Tools like Khan Academy provide an extensive range of tutorials, videos, and interactive exercises that empower the learner to study at their own pace. Primarily developed as a self-directed learning tool, Khan Academy can also be applied to a classroom setting. Schools like AltSchool in the US are already using a similar model. They are collaborative micro-schools that leverage the latest research and technology to provide every student with a personalised education.

Unschooling may still be an educational alternative in its infancy, but there are important lessons to be taken from this system that could be applied to traditional schools with the help of technology in the future. With home-schooling numbers on the rise, a surge in research on unschooling is sure to follow. What do you think about self-directed learning? Let us know in the comments section below.


Jennifer is a freelance writer for Open Colleges. She earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Imperial College and now travels and works location independently. Her interests lie in travel, personal growth and development, and the future of work. You can follower her @nomadgirls or at http://digitalnomadgirls.com

Leave a Reply