« Reading First-gate | Main | Revising Teacher Quality and School Finance »

To School—Or Unschool?


Children should learn to read, write, or count, only when they're good and ready. And if instead they demonstrate an interest in dinosaurs, video games or cooking, they should learn about those things first, according to "unschooling" advocates. Unschooling is an educational approach that follows the philosophy of letting children decide what they want to learn, when they want to learn, and making that learning an organic part of daily life.

In an era of increased standardized testing, top-down curricula, and the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, unschooling is attractive to some parents, who say learning should be a more natural, curiosity-inspired exercise. Advocates say it allows children to become passionate about, and invested in, their own learning. But critics, including some of those who opt for more structured home schooling and proponents of child-centered classrooms in regular schools, caution that unschooling risks not exposing children to diverse ideas, and not preparing them for the structured environment of college and work.

What do you think? Do the benefits of unschooling outweigh the risks?


I was disappointed with this piece on unschooling.
I didn't feel it covered many of the advantages of unschooling. I am the mother of 5 unschooling kids ages 6 - 21. My eldest two currently attend college at Stanford University and Oberlin College, two very selective universities. Having been unschooled with no formal academic training and no high school diploma, both of them were admitted to all four of the colleges to which they applied. Although tests and grades are a novelty to both of them, each of them have earned excellent grades while attending college.
Recently I overheard someone ask one of them what was the best part of their unschooling lives, to which my daughter explained it was being close with her family, and having long periods of uninterrupted time to pursue her own interests.
With unschooling, learning becomes an authentic
part of one's daily life. The interview in this piece mostly discussed how the children's screen time was the center of their learning. I don't believe this occurs with most unschoolers. Most of the unschooling families I know, including my own, are actively engaged in their communities.
My kids are involved in music, sports, political activism, outdoor adventuring, and many other community groups. They learn a lot by actively doing things and being engaged in activities with others from the community. They also learn a lot by reading. Unschooled kids, who learn to read at their own rate and only when they decide they are ready, tend to be voracious readers. They are interested in the world and constantly probing everyone around them for information which will help them understand things. Maybe the interviewer would have gotten a more accurate portrayal of unschooling if she had interviewed som kids who have unschooled for a long period of time and could articulate for themselves the perceived benefits. I am constantly being told how my kids are refreshing because they look adults square in the eye when talking to them and have a lot of thoughtful, original ideas. Creativity is another huge benefit of unschooling. My kids compose music and play several instruments each, they often write lengthy sophisticated stories, create their own recipes, design their own clothing, and love to be the one to creatively solve any problem which may arise. Math is something which is learned effortlessly. There are so many opportunities to learn math from day to day. Unschoolers do not have a resistance to learning, so they soak up knowledge and skills and retain them more easily than school kids.

Our son and daughter, now 20 and 17, were given the option of school, alternative school, academic homeschool or unschool during their standard high school years. Our son did one week of public school 10th grade and decided this was absolutely not the place for him. Our daughter did the full year of public school 9th grade and after that decided to unschool.

Our son Eric has taken to charting his own course and has seemed never to look back or have any second thoughts. On his own, with little direction from his parents, he has developed skills in computers, computer game design, video production, creative writing, oral presentation and leadership...besides becoming an all round wonderful caring person.

Our daughter Emma has also freely chosen the unschool route but has expressed more ambivalence along the way. But again, pretty much on her own, she has developed skills in writing, computer game design, music, and leadership. Though not as gregarious as her older brother, she is thoughtful and philosophical and can speak her mind, even in a room full of adults, with great clarity and effectiveness.

Alot of the skill, poise and self-assurance our kids have developed, I firmly believe they aquired because they were not in high school and not subjeccted to being controlled 200 days a year by adults in a hierarchical non-democratic institution. What they lack in some types of standard academic knowledge in say science or mathematics, they more than make up for in their ability to think on their feet and speak their minds.

I believe unschooling is a great path for youth, particularly when they have an enriched environment of supportive and interesting adults, a strong community of peers, and access to books, music, television and the internet.

I think the risk of curriculum "gaps" is overblown. In 11th grade, I had a physics teacher from whom I learned very little. My knowledge of physics had serious gaps, despite attending public school. But I made up that gap by taking college classes in astronomy, an area of interest. And what about all the curriculum that is forgotten, over the summer or after the test is over? Doesn't that result in gaps?

Unschooled kids learn plenty of basic knowledge as they go about their daily lives. And they have the precious time to go way beyond the normal curriculum in areas of interest without losing eight hours a day to classroom and homework. Unschooling with active parenting is an excellent way for kids to reach their full academic potential and become lifelong learners.

Among the many advantages our family found with unschooling was our son's ability to make his own choices in learning, and that led him to making his own decisions in all other areas of his life. It contributed to his confidence and self-worth, his self-knowledge and self-discipline.
Another advantage was that we did not put stress on our relationship with him by becoming his teachers -- taskmasters and judge. That allowed us to have a relationship of love and total trust of each other. That love and trust is still as strong today. His gratitude is sincere.
We never did school lessons; we never used school-type textbooks. When he wanted to be tested, he did it himself. He had jobs to earn his own money and truly liked the responsibility. To get into college on his own, he aced the SAT, and the GED. In college, he did near perfect in all courses he took, putting him on the dean's list for all eight semesters and graduating in the top one percent -- Magna Cum Laude. He is 27 now, has all the employment he needs or wants, is engaged to an accomplished woman and planning his own future, just as he always has.
I must add, he would have been miserable in a school.
We offer a packet of information about unschooling. email [email protected] and simply ask. It's free.

I'm sure for the right kid and the right family this is great, but for the wrong kid and the wrong family, this would be disaster. I suspect there is only a small percentage of the population that would benefit from this approach. Let's be careful with extrapolating this to the larger population. While there are many things wrong with the current system, it's still the best at educating a large population with varying abilities and backgrounds -- not perfect.

As a public school teacher, I find some of these comments to be very interesting. Although I do not believe that public school is for everyone, I do believe it works for the vast majority. I hear the "family support" as a consistent thread in reading your testimonials. Any child who has "family support" tends to be very successful in any learning avenue. The public school has many flaws. The curriculum is tied directly to standardized tests which are tied directly to state standards. Many flaws? No doubt. I think that we need to spend many hours infusing these ideas into a system that is already in place so that all may benefit. NCLB has made pursuing this idea almost impossible. Teaching to a test has become the norm in many states. I wish our state leaders would read some of these success stories and see the need to readdress our current testing mode frenzy. Good luck to all of you that do this. I would become rather concerned though if this became extrememly popular as I do not think it would benefit the vast majority of kids who do not have that strong support at home.

I'm inclined, through experience, to agree with both Bill and Robin. The few children out there with strong family support, and the gift of a higher iq which is often inextricably tied into a strong family, will succeed no matter what program they follow. Indeed, they will likely succeed more in an unconventional mode of education simply because of their situation. However, most of the children I teach would founder in an unstructured and narrowed curriculum such as the unschooling. These are the children who need a solid background in mathematics, science theory, writing skills, and comprehension strategies. This background will allow them the opportunity to bound past lackadaisical, uninterested, and/or uneducated parents who lack necessary skills to raise citizens for our new age.
As a brief and entirely unrelated aside, it is alarming that there are adults out there who believe the term 'a lot' is one word and spell it such. I have fourth graders who do this but this is somewhat understandable for a nine year old!

Molly, thank you, I enjoyed your comments!!

I, too, found the article (although well written) lacking. Unschooling encompasses so much that unless you've watched an unschooled child grow and learn you just wouldn't understand. I didn't feel I was quoted in context although, in Michelle's defense, I was having a very poor day the first conversation we had. Who knows if I made my thoughts clear.

For what it's worth, my children do NOT watch a "few" hours of television per day, in fact we don't have cable access. They are permitted videos at quiet time. I do put parental guidelines on my children, it's my job as their mother. While in parenting my children I allow them total freedom to explore the world, dipping their sweet fingers (and minds) into whatever piece of the universe they like. They are more well-rounded than any public schooled child I've met. They are not confined to the four walls of our home, and the four corners of a text book, the whole world is theirs for the taking. ;o)

In Christ,
Nicole Puckett


"most of the children I teach would founder in an unstructured and narrowed curriculum such as the unschooling"

Wendy, confined to the classroom, I can understand why you would not see the capacity for curiosity and learning the children you teach would have. I must say, the classroom is the narrow curricula of choice for most. Unschooling is anything but "narrow".

I am raising eight children, from very different backgrounds. Five are adopted, one has fetal alcohol effect (with severe memory problems), another two are ADHD, drug effect. Every one of these children has *flourished* being unschooled. Even my FAE child, whom I was told would not read for several years, is reading above "grade level".

Kids are amazing. Their capacity for knowledge and discovery is astounding. If we adults would continue to encourage, support and supply they would continually blow us away.

As a Christian, it is my belief that each child is specifically gifted by the Lord to glorify Him. When we try to stuff their little brains with information that is "one-size-fits-all", we are muddling with God's plan.

My oldest is a gifted writer, writing lyrics and poems. He self-taught the guitar. My next son is a budding zoologist with the desire to work in a refuge after college. He is also in Civil Air Patrol and working towards his private pilot's license. My oldest daughter self-taught the fiddle. She's amazing, her fingers fly. She is now teaching her 7yo brother. She is also a Highland dancer, along with my next daughter. My next daughter is also a gifted writer, has had numerous submissions to magazines, and won an Air Force wide historical contest. She is also deeply involved in adoption, and regularly steals my books.

They CAN succeed.

In Christ,
Nicole Puckett

Be careful what you wish for???

To “Improve” graduation rate Florida will go to a new program next year. It is called, “Major Areas Of Interest”, and will require every 8th grade student declare a major entering high school. State law, HB 7087, outlines 404 possible choices. Each district must select from the master list and submit their choices to the DOE for approval. Half of the college studies lists were “International Baccalaureate”. In addition IB will be introduced in schools K-12 starting next year. Is the U.S. willing to turn over our brightest students, (Requires a 3.0 to get in IB.) and all public schools to Switzerland?
Bob Brewster

I'd like to respond to the two teacher posts. I have a unique perspective in that my unschooled offspring are young adults (19 and 21), while meanwhile I have maintained employment in a field closely related to education, working as a home health speech-language pathologist specializing in pediatrics, birth to 21.

I have helped children learn to read whose parents were told by the schools that their IQ was too low for them to become literate. I deal in language-based learning disabilities, autism and countless other challenging behaviors.

I intimately know the kinds of children and families that the teachers fear would be inappropriate for unschooling. I know there are parents with minimal parenting skills and children with learning problems who have difficulty with traditional academics. I know better than these teachers what the homes are like because I go there twice a week for a not insignificant amount of time, at times for many years--13 years now with one child. Yet, I can unhesitatingly say that many, many of these families could unschool and the results would be no worse than what the end result of traditional school is. And in many, many cases the results would be far superior, often in immeasurable ways.

To say that unschooling is "narrow" is almost laughable if Wendy didn't sound so smug in her opinions--unschooling is using the real world, and it is traditional school that provides only a narrow window to the world. Furthermore, you should never judge what a family or child is capable of doing based on what you see in the classroom--again, your narrow window. The act of unschooling itself could transform a family in many unpredictable ways.

There is no perfect world, utopia comes at a terrible cost, and it is time to stop worrying about "what would happen if everybody chooses to homeschool/unschool". What has happened with universal public education? It has not eliminated literacy deficits and there are legions who will say "I am terrible at math". The income gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown astronomically since the turn of the century at 1900 when the compulsory education laws were becoming universal.

I think the problem is that because you are part of the education enterprise you are only able to think in terms of "mass solutions" "programs" and "universal prescriptions". Unschooling is jazz, individual, quirky and unpredictable. Anathema to someone concerned about controlling the masses. But that really isn't your job--if you just stick to being the best teacher you can given the children of the families who choose traditional school, that is enough. You are not responsible for everyone else's children.

And yes, my unschooled young adult offspring will tell anyone they meet that they know their upbringing was a magical, special gift that they know is serving them well. Stop worrying that too many kids might get to enjoy the gift.

This post I want to address the criticism relating to limiting children from exposure to "diverse ideas".

First of all, parents have a perfect right to do everything they can to pass on their worldviews. I was raised in a conservative Catholic home and was sent to private Catholic elementary school for that very purpose. For some reason we think it is okay to do this if the views parents try to pass on are the same as our own, and somehow we think it is bad if we don't like those ideas. But note I say, "try to pass on."

And what happened to me? I reflected my parent's values and beliefs throughout my k-12 experience. But by the time I was a young adult I had pretty well dropped just about everything relating to their religious and political beliefs. Not because of what I was exposed to in school but because I finally moved out into the real world and began reading and learning independently--like an unschooler.

I now live in the heart of the midwest in a rural area surrounded by religious fundamentalists and social conservatives. In fact, if my children had attended public school they would have been surrounded by adults and children with much more narrow religious and polital views than are espoused in our home. hmmm.

Again--it is time to stop worrying about "what would happen if. . " The world will continue to contain many diverse ideologies whether children attend public schools, private schools, or no schools. Let the jazz play.

Well said, Leslie!

You know what should be scary? The thought that no changes come, that the public system remains status quo for those children who have no other choice.

Your children have indeed had a rare gift Leslie, one that every child is entitled to.

In Christ,

I am just learning about unschooling and it already sounds terrific to me. I have two children that I think would benefit greatly from this type of learning process. I am looking forward to learning as much as I can about unschooling. If anyone has any information please let me know!

I hope to god my kid isn't prepared to sacrifice his happiness for college or money. If he learns what he wants he will learn alot more different and more useful things. the educational system is horrible and prepares you for a horrible life, if you do well.

Allison -

If you are interested in learning more about unschooling, take a look at the books by Par Farenga, who is carrying on the work of John Holt (now deceased). Here is a link to a list of Pat's books on Amazon.com...

Unschooling is a term that is new to me as well. Reading through the comments I can see that some parents are very passionate about this approach. It sounds like it has worked wonderfully for you. This sounds like a fantastic way to educate your children, while helping them to explore the world they live in during their own sweet time. However, I also agree with Robin. I think it would be wonderful in a perfect world, if every child had the same opportunities. Like Robin though, as someone who works with children and has seen what many of these children go home to, we realize that all children don’t even come close to having the same opportunities.
Sometimes, a child’s school is the best place for them to be. Many children come from single-parent, poverty-stricken families whose parents do not care if the child even goes to school. Many times they are so caught up in their own messy lives that the child’s best interests aren’t even in mind. Their school may be the only place they feel safe, the only place they know they will be fed or be treated with care. For the many parents out there that are extremely involved in their child’s life and play an important and active role in their education, I’m sure it’s hard to understand how some parents can be this way. Unfortunately though, that’s the sad reality.
Obviously, the unschooling approach could work beautifully for families that could support this lifestyle. For parents who were actively engaged with their children and their learning, and had the time and resources to pull this off.
Although the public school system does have many downfalls, it does have a number of benefits that many overlook. While it’s wonderful that unschooled children are so close to their family, school can provide children with many experiences that they may not receive otherwise. Even though some of the parents who have chosen this route for their children have commented that they were actively involved in the community and in sports and music, which is great, I sill worry that they would miss out on many opportunities for social experiences. Children learn a great deal of social skills in school while surrounded by other children. While it’s wonderful that the unschoolers can stand up and clearly speak their minds in a room full of adults, can they just as comfortably initiate and carry on a conversation or relationship with a peer? I’m sure many can, but I’ve also heard of many homeschoolers who lacked the social skills because they were not exposed to other children or social situations on a daily basis. Especially for young children, being around other kids and being able to create friendships and play and then change those relationships from day to day offers unique experiences and skills that would be hard to find at home. I’m sure though if parents keep these things in mind they can work hard to make sure children get to experience these things to a certain degree.
Another benefit of school is that children learn how to function and survive in the world away from their parents. They learn to take responsibility for their actions and they learn to be self-sufficient. They realize they can do things on their own, which is important for any growing individual.
While the benefits of unschooling sound new and refreshing for many, it’s definitely not the answer for all children. It would be great if it was, but we still need to keep our focus on those children that don’t have those opportunities. It’s not their fault and they deserve the best education they can get too.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Elizabeth Shane: Unschooling is a term that is new to me as read more
  • Cooper Zale - Unschooling Parent: Allison - If you are interested in learning more about read more
  • burn the schools down(ivy leaue student): I hope to god my kid isn't prepared to sacrifice read more
  • Allison: I am just learning about unschooling and it already sounds read more
  • Nicole Puckett: Well said, Leslie! You know what should be scary? The read more




Technorati search

» Blogs that link here