Lessons in Learning: Unschooling

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“What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” – George Bernard Shaw

When you hear the word “education,” what do you think about? Teachers? Classes? Homework? So many different words could come to mind, but school is at the center for most of us.

Unschooling, then, may seem like a rather contrary concept to education. However, unschooling is actually an educational philosophy that uses natural life experiences, rather than compulsory school, to learn. Unschoolers use their own curiosity and interests to drive learning instead of attending school and focusing on the subjects presented to them. In place of school- and teacher-dictated goals, topics, materials, books, timing and pace, the student determines the how, what and when of his/her learning in unschooling. Leo Babauta, an unschooling parent and blogger, said, “in unschooling, life itself is learning. There is no ‘doing school’…you are learning all the time.” Unschoolers often explore subjects through real-world activities that simply can’t be done in a school setting, like using the night sky to map constellations of Greek legends.

Unschooling is also known as “natural learning,” “experience-based learning” or “independent learning.” It is considered a subset of homeschooling, but with less structure. While homeschoolers tend to follow a curriculum and focus on the core academic subjects (math, science, history, etc.), unschoolers learn what they want to learn rather than what someone else tells them is important.

John Holt, an author and educator, is considered the father of unschooling, coining the term in the 1970s. He was a teacher who became disillusioned with the school system. He believed that if children were presented with a stimulating learning environment, then they would “learn what they are ready to learn, when they are ready to learn it.”

So who should try unschooling? Really, anyone can. Unschoolers use the philosophy to learn in a way that works for their specific needs. There is no “right way” to unschool because it’s different for everyone. This is the beauty of unschooling – it is what you make of it. As Babauta says, “telling you how to unschool is like taking away your freedom and all the fun out of it. The questions are everything, and the finding out is the fun.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that parents are completely hands-off when it comes to a child’s learning. Parents can still teach their children new things and guide them through their learning. In fact, a parent’s role is extremely important because providing an environment that is full of learning opportunities is critical. Unschoolers can learn through play, travel, books, family, friends, museums, the Internet, household responsibilities, etc. Learning is constant for an unschooler. As Earl Stevens, an unschooling parent, said, “Unschooling provides a unique opportunity to step away from systems and methods, and to develop independent ideas out of actual experiences, where the child is truly in pursuit of knowledge, not the other way around.”

Unschooling is not as widely discussed or well-known as homeschooling, but it is a philosophy that merits some thought. A quick search online will pull up a number of blogs and resources!

This blog post is part of a series focused on alternative learning styles. Previously, we’ve explored the concept of experiential education, which is essentially hands-on learning by doing. We also looked at distance education, specifically systems and programs designed for online learning. Over the next couple of months, we will continue to consider a number of alternative learning styles that can be found all over the world.


Education Research and Journalism Fellow, Bon Education

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