What Is Unschooling?
Hi friends! I’ve written a few gentle parenting blogs now and it’s been lovely seeing so many people interested and asking questions about the way we do things in our family. I thought I would do a thorough post about where our parenting philosophy comes from, and why our choice to choose home education and the way we parent are two inextricably linked processes. In today’s post I’ll be answering the question, “what is unschooling?”
The term ‘unschooling’ is rarely used in mainstream society and is therefore misunderstood. I hope that this post helps to clarify what unschooling is and isn’t, and how we apply the philosophy in our family. You may be interested in my post “Everything my children learned in an unschooling day”.
What Is Unschooling?
Unschooling is not just about a ‘method of education’, nor a homeschooling curriculum, nor even an academic philosophy. It is a way of being in relationship with our children that means we extend to them the same respect that we extend to our adult friends and family, and a way of learning through every aspect of life instead of primarily a classroom.
Criticism About Unschooling
Unschooling has been used as a term since the 1970s to describe what I outlined above: parent-child relationship that does not arbitrarily force curriculum, institutional schooling or rules, in the same way that spouses do not impose arbitrary rules on each other (more about that in a bit).
Because people often see school and education as one and the same, the term ‘unschooling’ might conjur up images of a complete lack of learning, direction or purpose. However, as school is an ‘institution of education’ and is not education itself, unschooling is simply what happens when we rethink the need for traditional institutional forms of education.
It is learning through life, and trusting that a rich and interesting childhood provides the opportunities and experiences that a child will need to flourish into a happy, resourceful adult.
Is Unschooling Legal?
Unschooling is legal in the UK, although local authorities may not be educated on the term and there is still a stigma surrounding it, so I do not recommend explaining your home education methodology to your local authority in this way. I have other articles: “UK home education law” and “Can I homeschool in the UK” which explain more about your rights and responsibilities as a UK home educator.
What Does Unschooling Mean For Academic Education?
We as parents believe (and there is plenty of science to support) that school is essentially not necessary for a children’s education (given sufficient other resources and a supportive network- this is why it is not possible for everyone and why I think schools are still necessary in current society).
In today’s society, with increased testing and narrower curriculums and reductions in sports and the arts and hugely increased mental health issues among schoolchildren, we believe that school can in many cases be a hindrance to healthy development and education.
We believe that children are natural learners and that given adequate support, guidance and resources, they will learn everything that they need to learn without coercion or force. As ‘unschooling’ parents we spend a lot- a lot– of time with our children, watching what they are interested in, seeking out resources for them to pursue their interests; challenging them and opening up new and exciting ways to explore and learn from the world.
We do not outright reject school-like resources such as workbooks, classes, clubs and the suchlike; this is an unfortunate prevailing ‘myth’ about unschoolers. Rather, we see every resource as just that- an optional resource, to be used in the same way as a puzzle, book, magazine, trip to the farm, computer, digital tablet, forest school session, mud kitchen, hobby and any other experience.
Learning is everywhere in the world. After growing up in a society that equates school with learning, we as adults need to look for it and become used to seeing it (and the value within it), and as unschooling parents that is what we do.
What Is The Difference Between Unschooling & Homeschooling?
The terms ‘homeschooling’ and ‘home education’ are often used in the same way, and refer to any style of home education whereby a child is legally home educated. Some home educators use a curriculum and insist that their children do lessons or study specific subjects, whereas unschoolers do not force their children to engage in any particular method of study.
Unschoolers also apply the philosophy to other areas of life, allowing their children to have more freedom over what the eat, when they sleep and what they wear, for example.
How Do Unschooing Children Pass Exams & Get Jobs?
When children want to pursue careers, we help them in the same way that the parents of school children help their children. We look at different paths to study or employment; we help them enroll in colleges or subject classes or online courses; we pull in tutors if extra assistance is needed; we support the kids as they create portfolios and prepare for interviews or set up their businesses.
The statistics of unschooled children who are unemployed or not studying are lower, nationally, than children who go to school. They are also statistically more likely to end up in employment in their areas of interest- perhaps this is because they have unlimited time to refine their skills in their area of interest, or because they have ample time to figure out what they do and don’t like doing.
What Is Unschooling In ‘Other Areas Of Life’?
As I said before, unschooling means to thoroughly re-think how we learn about things. In unschooling, learning is noted as transcending ‘academic/non-academic’. Children learn all the time about eating, sleeping, social behaviour and other life skills.
As unschoolers we aim to partner with our children to help them make decisions, rather than imposing our decisions on them. We aim to find creative solutions that work for everyone and don’t involve a top-down controlling hierarchy.
Authority is not the same as a dictatorship; leadership is not the same as control. These are what we bear in mind as we help our kids navigate what they eat and when; when they sleep and what resources they use.
We try not to impose arbitrary limits or rules (read about how we live without rules, and what we do instead, here). Allowing children to explore their own limits and experiencing the natural consequences is a vital part of unschooling. We have found that this helps us have a mutually respectful relationship.
If a child eats too many sweets, they may feel sick. If a child watches too much TV, they may feel lethargic. If they stay up too late when they have activities planned, they will be tired the next day and less likely to enjoy them.
As parents we step in if anything is dangerous or unhealthy habits are developing, and we use our experience to help our kids move towards better habits, saying ‘no’ when necessary. Unschooling is NOT the same as permissive parenting; it is worlds away from it.
Autonomy, Support and Guidance Are Essential In Unschooling
‘Unschoolers’ don’t use rewards or punishments, and we try not to force our children to do what we want them to do, ‘just because’. When behaviour needs to be addressed (either ours or the kids’!), we try to talk about the consequences of our actions and come up with solutions together.
We try to live by principles instead of rules– principles such as ‘be kind’ and ‘respect other people and their property’. It makes life more natural to navigate (yes, throw sand, if you are standing by yourself, on the edge of the shore, facing away from the wind! No, don’t throw it when there are other people around!) and helps children develop critical thinking.
They are experiencing real-life situations and making real-life choices; they are practising for adulthood and the responsibilities of it in a supported environment.
We believe that allowing children to make choices that they are able to make, is important in their development, and we have seen the fruit of this in our happy, healthy, curious, confident kids. (The other name for unschooling is ‘autonomous education’, because of the importance of autonomy).
Do you Ever Say “No?” In Unschooling?
Something that repeatedly comes up when ‘unschooling’ is mentioned is the idea of a complete lack of limits. Every family, unschooling or not, has their own limits and we do not advocate letting children do things repeatedly that are inevitably going to lead to poor health or dangerous situations.
In our family our kids have great freedom over what they eat and how they learn, but, for example, we would not let them only watch TV all day every day, or eat only sugar, or stupid things like that. (However, they have never expressed a desire to do these things to a ridiculous excess, certainly at least in part because they don’t see them as ‘forbidden fruit’. If you can have something whenever you want, it becomes less interesting!).
Personally we believe that our experience is something that we need to use to help our kids and occasionally that means saying ‘no’ and dealing gently with the reaction if there is one (here is how we deal with temper tantrums, although we don’t call them tantrums in our home). We do find that because we don’t say ‘no’ arbitrarily our kids are quite accepting when we do say no.
I hope that this has answered the question of “what is unschooling?” We love to answer questions so please feel free to drop us a line, and please share this article on your social media channels using our lil’ buttons!