If you’ve been homeschooling long enough, you’ve likely come across the term “unschooling.” Unschooling is one of those terms that often has the homeschooling community at odds with one another, as if there are only black and white approaches to educating our children. Many homeschooling families, chose to educate their kids at home so that they can educate kids outside the box: unschooling is just one way of (as the title reads), raising curious, well-educated kids outside the conventional classroom.

As a homeschool consultant and evaluator, I have had the pleasure of working with many unschooling families over the years. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a huge proponent of child-led learning. I have a deep respect for successful unschooling families.

When I came across the book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom by Kerry McDonald, I knew I had to have it. From the book: Written by a mother of four unschooled children, this timely new book explores the wide spectrum of unschooling options that focus on children’s natural curiosities and self-educative capacities. As schooling becomes increasingly standardized and test-driven, many have been challenged to rethink and redefine the old school model. McDonald shares their stories, from disillusioned parents to entrepreneurs and former educators. Weaving together thorough research and personal parenting narratives, Unschooledspotlights how a diverse group of individuals and organizations have come to reshape the education system.

Kerry was gracious enough to offer her time for a Q & A session, and so I polled my email subscribers and came up with the most pertinent questions about unschooling. The questions and answers are below.

How is unschooling different from child-led learning?

They are actually quite similar and could be the same thing depending on the learning approach. Unschooling embraces the philosophy of self-directed education in which the child drives her own learning, fueled by her interests and passions, with adult support and using the wider resources of the community. It is a non-curriculum-based approach to education. Child-led learning can be the same thing, but is typically used to describe giving children a lot of freedom and choice within a controlled curriculum or with pre-determined expectations of what she should know or do.

The term “unschooling” often conjures up a negative image among homeschoolers. People often believe that unschoolers are families who don’t really DO anything. Is this true? 

I think this is changing as more people understand the term’s origins and current practices. The author, teacher, and homeschooling pioneer, John Holt, coined the term “unschooling” in 1977 to mean “taking children out of school.” Today, it is used to describe non-coercive, self-directed education tied to a child’s emerging passions and talents. In short, unschooling is the opposite of school, including school-at-home versions of homeschooling. Unschooling is an informal approach to learning that does not rely on adult-imposed curriculum but that may use curriculum to complement learning or when the child himself seeks it, such as when a child wants to learn a foreign language or when teen unschoolers take community college courses. Its popularity among homeschoolers is growing, with the most recent federal data showing that the number of homeschoolers who “mostly” or “always” use an informal approach to learning increased from 13 percent of homeschoolers in 2012 to 20 percent in 2016. A primary theme in Unschooled is how unschooling families and organizations balance freedom and responsibility so that freedom doesn’t turn into license, or permissiveness.

I have heard the term “radical unschooler” – – what does this mean? 

I can’t speak for those unschoolers who would call themselves “radical” but generally “radical unschooling” means applying the principles of non-coercion and self-direction to all areas of a child’s life, beyond education, including food, sleep, hygiene, and behavior. Unschooled focuses on a more moderate and inclusive definition of the term while spotlighting families and organizations that run the unschooling gamut.

How do you keep a transcript when unschooling? 

Unschooled features both families and organizations that embrace self-directed education. Organizations could be licensed schools, like the Sudbury model, or self-directed learning centers that serve homeschoolers up to five days a week. These organizations typically comply with local regulations for schools or child-focused centers. Family-centered unschoolers typically register as homeschoolers in those states that require registration, and comply with local homeschooling regulations. For instance, they may take standardized tests in those states that require it and they may list various books and learning resources used.

How do you ensure that your kids are making adequate progress when unschooling? 

I make the case in Unschooled that all parents, whether homeschooling or not, have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that their child is highly literate and numerate. Unschooling’s immersive approach to learning, tied to the people, places, and things of one’s community, leads to meaningful, enduring learning. Parents and unschooling facilitators recognize the deepening of passions and the nurturing of talents. Like other homeschoolers, unschoolers often exhibit a strong love of learning and are avid readers, learning through the books, experiences, and tools of their lives. The learning that occurs with unschooling is often circuitous—not the neat and linear approach to learning that we have come to recognize through school and school-at-home.

How do you know you won’t miss anything or have any gaps in education when taking an unschooling approach? 

We all have gaps in our education! I explain in Unschooled that there is now so much information and knowledge generated every day that it is impossible for any of us to know even a fraction of it. The key is to cultivate a lifelong love of reading, learning, and doing propelled by human curiosity and with a clear sense of personal agency and responsibility. I argue in Unschooled that a schooled approach to learning is incompatible with the realities of the Innovation Era, with a technology-enabled culture and the skills and careers that constantly change with it. We don’t need people who can stay passive, follow all the directions, color in the lines, memorize facts, regurgitate those facts, and get the Good Job! sticker. Robots do that. What we need are creative thinkers and inventive doers who color outside the lines and tell the robots what to do. Schooling was for the past. Unschooling is the future.

What do you think of the unschooling approach?


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