‘Unschooling’ – education fad or real alternative?

Let children run wild, run free: that’s the message of a new education movement called “unschooling”. Children image from www.shutterstock.com

What do you think about the idea of allowing your children to stay at home all day and do whatever they like? Do you think you could trust them to learn without teachers or parents telling them what, when and how?

Unschooling” – a radical style of education – does just that and is becoming increasingly popular among parents in Australia. While the media has raised awareness about home education, and some media stories have even referred to unschooling, you’re unlikely to have heard about it before.

So what is unschooling and how does it work?

What’s unschooling?

The term “unschooling” was coined by American educator John Holt and is used interchangeably with natural learning, interest-driven learning, child-led learning, organic learning, eclectic learning or free range learning. It was defined by Holt as “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear”.

This philosophy of education is characterised by allowing children to choose the direction of their learning, its content and context. The role of parents is to act as facilitator, sourcing and providing access to resources and then getting out of the way. Unschooling is about children making their own educational choices.

Unschooling often begins with a process of deschooling for both parent and child. Deschooling is the free time given to children after their removal from school/traditional homeschool. It is a time when both parents and children unlearn school approaches to education.

Not surprisingly, this approach has its detractors. After all, it’s hard to know whether meaningful learning is taking place. In spite of this criticism, the philosophy is popular with many professionals, including university academics and career advisers devoted to unschooling their own children.

Why would parents choose unschooling?

While it’s difficult to characterise a set of reasons for a disparate group of parents to choose any educational path, I am currently researching the ways unschool parents describe their choice. So far, there seems to be two common pathways to unschooling and three common reasons given by parents to explain why it’s working for them.

For the parents of my study, the first pathway to unschooling was through the attachment parenting community. Attachment parenting is understood to be about developing a strong attachment bond with children.

It focuses on fostering a sense of security in the relationship between children and their significant others. Attachment parenting is also about trusting the child.

From this perspective, parents may choose to unschool because they believe their child knows what and how to learn.

The second common path to unschooling is a gifted child, who may be 2E (twice exceptional) and thus be both gifted but perhaps on the Autism Spectrum, have a Sensory Processing Disorder or perhaps an Attention Deficit Disorder. These parents, often after trying multiple schools, become frustrated and take their children out of schools altogether. They find, through trial and error, unschooling works for their child.

The real unschooling experience

The parents of my study are generally very positive about their experiences with unschooling. However, as one participant so eloquently put it, “it’s no panacea”.

It can be problematic, particularly when there are so many questions: “is this legal?”, “how do you know they’re learning anything?”, “what about all the content they’re missing in school?” and, every one’s favourite, “what about socialisation?”.

It’s also expensive as, in many cases, one parent stays home.

The majority of my participants also acknowledge that it isn’t going to work for every, or even very many, families. But the families that do choose to unschool their children, also argue for its many benefits.

For some families, they chose unschooling because their children have struggled with school and, after trying a more structured home education approach, the children are described as happier now that their education is flexible and child-led. These children are said to embark on multiple, very complex, child-led projects.

But for others unschooling aligned with the parents' philosophy, particularly a sense that the institutionalisation of children is a negative experience. These parents generally argue that schools are inflexible, autocratic, and dictatorial and this conflicts with their view of how learning happens.

For others, the main benefit is flexibility, leaving more time for family, for the child to be able to think and be bored. Many of my participants argue that being bored is important because it allows children to develop their imaginations and their abilities to think.

A valid choice

Unschooling is not a new phenomenon, it’s often described as a return to more traditional learning models.

It’s also not as rare as you may think, with estimates of up to 15,000 children being illegally home educated (including those who are unschooled) in Queensland alone.

However, it exists and its existence suggests that the voices of parents who unschool their children should be more widely considered in current discussions of educational choice.