Unschooling: What It Is and What It Is Not

What Unschooling Is and What It Is Not

For the most part, when I mention to people that we unschool, I get one of two reactions. The first is curiosity, the second is disbelief. This is typical across the board.

The former usually means they haven’t heard the term and they want to know more. The latter comes from unschoolers or homeschoolers themselves, both claiming that that’s not really what I’m doing.

So I’m here to set the record straight. Since unschooling is a term that can apply loosely or rigidly, here is what unschooling is and what unschooling is not.

Letting the Child Take the Lead

When it comes to our family, unschooling is trying as hard as possible to take the lead of the child. It involves waiting, agonizingly long sometimes, for the child to be ready for the next step of their education instead of following some random scope and sequence because the state standards require it.

A perfect example is one of writing. Many curricula tie reading and writing together and while there probably is a connection, I don’t see any reason to hold back a budding reader simply because he is not holding the pencil right.

By the same token, we do not believe that the children will learn only when and what they want. We set aside time for “school” every day, but it is with the awareness that it is only the tip of what they will learn on an ongoing basis through the day.

We emphasize reading, writing and math and, yes, we do math drills.

We do this because we believe that these are the basics of any good education and no matter what the children decide to do in the future, they will have need of these basic skills.

However, we follow a relaxed schedule and don’t feel pressured to keep up with grade levels. We insist rather on achieving a certain level of mastery before moving on to the next level.

Aiming for Self Discipline

My ultimate aim for the children is self discipline, which is one of the reasons I am such a proponent of unschooling. I want them to take responsibility and be self-directed. But I am also aware that at this point they need my guidance to get to that future place where they will be steering their own ship.

We discipline, we exhort, we teach – continuously. We do not encourage acting out, temper tantrums or otherwise bad behavior and neither do we justify it.

As such unschooling is not letting them run wild and figure things out on their own.

It is however arranging things, ideas, subjects, even our home, in ways that they can learn, in the course of our daily lives, how stuff works, how people and professions, countries, governments, environments, history, God and geography interact with each other on an ongoing basis.

Unschooling is interacting with my children in the minutiae of daily life while pointing to the larger picture and reminding them to find their place in it.

Non Traditional Teaching Methods

Unschoolers are known for their distaste for worksheets and textbooks. As someone who hates clutter, I am one of them. However, my children love online drills and I do have a daughter who loves stationery. Let’s just say I don’t stand between her and her passion.

With that said, I have an affinity for non traditional teaching methods and include them as often as we can. These include hands-on workshops in cooking, field trips, Netflix videos, TED Talks, experiments, talking to specialists, and so forth.

For us, unschooling comes into play most often when subjects mingle one with another. Science leads to history, to language arts, to math, to the Bible and back to cultural studies. This fluidity is one of the attributes of a good education, because the more connections you make, the better the learning.

Unlike some radical unschoolers, though, I do not make a rule out of this. If the children prefer to read a book about butterflies rather than go out and look at them, I won’t stop them. And I have gradually begun to read more to them as well.

So there you have it. The way I see it, we have the best of both worlds. If I’m not unschooler enough or homeschooler enough, it doesn’t matter. I see unschooling as a spectrum, not a box. We’re on it, somewhere. I’m certain of it. 

What do you think? What method works best for your family and how closely do you align with it?

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Author: Purva Brown

Writer / blogger at http://TheClassicalUnschooler.com - unapologetically blending two seeming opposites.

5 thoughts on “Unschooling: What It Is and What It Is Not”

  1. I love this article! It is very helpful. I have two small children that we want to homeschool. Right now I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Unschooling sounds great! My state requires that all homeschooled or alternative schooled children take a standardized test every year to ensure that are making “reasonable progress.” How do you fit this in to unschooling?

    1. Thanks! Glad you like it. I agree the tests do make it harder, I’ll have to admit. So far, I haven’t had to deal with that issue because my state has no such requirements. But if it did, I would find a way to find out what the test measured and work that in to our daily life somehow. Maybe find some sample tests and do them for fun but keep unschooling in general? The great thing about homeschooling is that we really do have ALL day and a lot can get done in a day!

  2. This is going to be a highly unpopular response to Linsey ‘ s question, but I live in a state that also requires annual testing. I didn’t care and notified no one of my homeschooled children and they have never participated. I know for a lot if people that’s crossing a comfort line, but for me – I wasn’t looking for their permission or approval. I decided that if they “discovered” me I’d deal with it then. Well, they didn’t ever say a word & 2016 they have discontinued any testing in my state. This being said, I was also very unconcerned that my children would struggle on the testing if we were forced to take it at some point. Good luck on your journey, because it’s definitely a journey 🙂

  3. This is one approach to unschooling, an eclectic view. It’s not necessarily unschooling… there are many different versions,. This is the first time I met an unschooler that decided what their kids needed to learn. Unschooling is about putting the kids I n charge of their education . My two older were unschooled, they taught themselves and let me know when they needed help. When my oldest was 9 s he decided she wanted to be in grade 6, picked up a grade 6 text and taught herself algebra. Then realized she didn’t know multiplication so I got her the game timezattack and she learned them. Her favorite show was digs 101, and I actively showed them on the map where a movie was set. This is unschooling. Not eclectic.

  4. Purva,
    Thank you for your posts. Yes I think it’s all a spectrum, while radical unschooling for my family doesnt seem to be the answer a inbetween method seems like the approach that will work for my family. We are a cross between/ unschooling/ Charlotte Mason / and classical…and every method of homeschoolning is naturally the right fit for the family, that’s why we chose to do it our way, right ?

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