Unschooling: Educational Theories Defined Part 2

Unschooling has come a long way from it’s original definition – The Oxford English Dictionary cites its first use in 1594: a.) Uneducated, untaught. b.) Not educated at school; not made to attend school. (3)

Now the definition reads: a home-school education with the child taking the primary responsibility instead of a parent or teacher; also called child-directed learning, self-learning. (5)

This change in definition didn’t happen overnight. Many people still don’t know what unschooling is and the examples shown in the media haven’t cast it in a positive light.

My first exposure to unschooling was on an episode of a “reality” show – Wife Swap. I remember thinking at the time (before I had kids of my own) that the unschooling family was weird – I watched it mostly because it was like watching a train wreck. It’s hard to look away.

The family that “unschooled” on this episode was the type that gave unschooling a bad name. They had 2 boys. One who received 75% of their attention and the other who tagged along. They started their day in the “family bed” (with middle school aged children) and then proceeded to allow the more favored child the authority to dictate the activities of the day. There wasn’t any structure, parental guidance, moral standard, or even cleanliness.

This family was a perfect example of what society assumes all unschooling families are like.

unschooling part 2 caterpillars changing

The term “unschooling” was popularized by John Holt in the 1970’s. At the early stage of this movement unschooling was often interchangeable with homeschooling to indicate that learning best happened at home – Holt did not intend for people to enforce a “school model” at home. (1)

Unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept living as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn. However, this does not mean unschoolers do not take traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student, or parents and children together, decide that this is how they want to do it. Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not “natural” processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority. Therefore it isn’t unusual to find unschoolers who are barely eight-years-old studying astronomy or who are ten-years-old and just learning to read.
—From Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling by John Holt and Patrick Farenga (3)

The philosophy behind unschooling is both straightforward and vague.

The straightforward thought is that no one can force a child to grow and develop. Most children learn to crawl and explore their world without an academic course on movement and coordination. (2)

The vague side of this philosophy is that there isn’t any formal direction to the model. The fundamental unschooling idea that to live is to learn doesn’t provide any other rules for living out this idea – to each there own.

This is what makes unschooling such a “touchy subject.” Unschooling does not have a standard from which to operate. Out of the thousands of families who have decided to unschool their children, none of them when compared will look similar. Essentially, unschooling families will look as unique as they are.

Unschooling part 2 Butterflies at FMG

My favorite quote from my research on unschooling is that “Unschooling is not unparenting.”

Since Holt first used the word in 1977, unschooling has also been defined by some religious homeschoolers and educators as “child worship,” or letting the children run the show, and so on. However, unschooling is not unparenting; freedom to learn is not license to do whatever you want. People find different ways and means to get comfortable with John Holt’s ideas about children and learning and no one style of unschooling or parenting defines unschooling. — Patrick Farenga (updated, 2013) (3)

Yet, some families fall into this “unparenting” category under examination – like the family I saw on Wife Swap. Clearly, this family haven’t held closely to Holt’s ideas. They have taken the term unschooling and use it as a license to do whatever they want.

Interestingly, in the videos I watched for research of this theory (reference below 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10) I found that people who were labeling unschooling as harmful hadn’t ever been exposed to it. This leads me to believe that the few families, who show up in the media with their loud and inconsistent lifestyle, are to blame for giving unschooling a bad name.

My take away from unschooling:

Since starting our own homeschool journey, I’ve heard about many families who have converted to unschooling because they wanted to provide their kids with the best and most natural learning environment. Slowly my mind has changed about unschooling. Where at first, I was one of the majority criticizing this educational theory, now I support it.

I understand that unschooling is not a neutral topic. It sparks controversy wherever it is discussed, yet more and more families are adopting the philosophy of allowing their children to follow their interests and learn through experience. I see hints of the unschooling philosophy in many other theories. Charlotte Mason said that self-education is the best education. Unit studies attempt to provide structure for interest led learning by categorizing the subjects within any topic.

This series, and specifically the research for understanding this theory, has revealed that I am unschooling myself. As a responsible adult, I am pursuing my interests and gaining a valuable education on many different subjects. It’s the purpose of this website – encouragement for the learning journey – sharing my love of learning with the world. Everyone should be a life-long learner.

The title of Alison McKee’s book: “Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves“* came up in Cathy Duffy’s session on which educational approach to use, and it has captured the heart of what I hope to accomplish for my family as well. (4) At the end of the day, my first goal is still to be their safe place, everything else flows from there.

Unschooling part 2 Joe in nature

Articles referenced in this post:

  1. Wikipedia: Unschooling
  2. Why Unschool?
  3. John Holt: Growing without Schooling FAQs 
  4. Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves*
  5. unschooling. (n.d.). Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon. Retrieved April 21, 2015, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unschooling

Videos for further exposure to unschooling:

  1. https://youtu.be/zhtT8adCx2Y – TEDxYouth
  2. https://youtu.be/I2EPsGTX0O0 – Fox News
  3. https://youtu.be/2T4mC53vuPs – Learn Free (an unschooling documentary)
  4. https://youtu.be/LxZEEBiTp-s – John Holt on The Phil Donahue Show discussing homeschooling, 1981
  5. https://youtu.be/sHHMQkyjnY0 – Good Morning America on Unschooling with Pat Farenga and the Biegler family.
  6. https://youtu.be/DefW0dbY84E – How Children Learn – ending quote

Still looking for more on unschooling? Patrick Farenga continues what Holt started. Click here to learn more about him.

This post is part 2 in the series Educational Theories Defined. Here is the intro post and part 1. Also, affiliate links are marked with an "*" - thank you for supporting this site.

2 thoughts on “Unschooling: Educational Theories Defined Part 2

  1. Interesting blog, Cara! I spent a total of seventeen years homeschooling our three older kids. My approach was to cover the essential subjects with rigor each morning, but not waste too much time on workbooks when there were creative ways to teach the same material. After the core work was done for the day, I encouraged the children to explore areas of interest to them. In this way, I think we used the best of both intentional teaching time and the “unschooling” idea of letting each child follow his own bent. It worked well for us. Two of our children are in their final years of university and planning to pursue Master’s degrees. Our eldest is a neurologist who still enjoys playing piano, which was a primary focus of his during our homeschooling years. Blessings on your efforts to be the best mom and teacher for your children, Cara!


    • Stephanie,

      I think your example of how you educated your children is so well rounded. When I learned the philosophy of unschooling, it was then obvious how many of us already do this in our own pursuit of knowledge and understanding. It’s how we choose our careers and hobbies. It’s the natural out flow of loving to learn.

      When I balance my children’s education, I believe it’s still important to include essential subjects too. Even if the only reason is to encourage perseverance and self discipline. My interests don’t always lead me to the kitchen sink to wash another load of dishes, but it needs to be done. Same is true for learning to write, read, and multiply.

      I hope this blog encourages you that you’ve done well! I definitely feel encouraged by your children’s success! Thank you for sharing it!


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