The Unschooling Movement: What is it and is it right for my child?

by | Oct 17, 2011 | School Success and Learning, Self-Reliance and Agency

The “unschooling” concept is fascinating. I’ve learned ages ago that there is no cookie cutter approach to educating children. The key is to find what works best to optimize each child’s learning potential. But I’ve also learned that when it comes to “unschooling” it’s a very unique parent who can succeed. (Think of young Tom Edison or Margaret’s Mead’s mom and you’ll get the picture). Here are questions to help you decide whether unschooling is something you want to consider for your child or help you realize that doing this would may lead to a revolution led by your kids.

Note to readers: The TODAY show asked me to appear on a segment about Unschooling. I was all set to appear, sent my notes to the producer, and then the air date was changed. So I agreed to a taping with Dr. Drew on the date, and wouldn’t you know it as soon as I did the Today show switched back to original air date. By then I was  enroute to Burbank to tape for Dr. Drew. So here are my original notes I sent on Wednesday to the TODAY show. (By the way, the Dr. Drew Lifechanger’s show is set to air October 24 at 3 pm. and it was fun!)

What is Unschooling?

“Unschooling is letting kids learning what one wants, when one wants, in the way one wants, for one’s own reasons… choice and control reside with the learner” – Mary Griffin in The Unschooling Handbook

Unschooling is a small but growing fringe of the homeschooling movement. It is based on the educational philosophy that kids-not parents or teachers-should choose what to study. Unschooling puts the child in charge of their learning and does not use a set curriculum or educational standards to achieve learning results.

The unschooling approach is child-driven learning and deeply rooted in the belief that kids are naturally driven to learn and will do so fiercely if left to their own devices and allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and interests.

The “unschooling belief” was developed by John Holt in the 1970s and refers to allowing children to learn through life experiences both in and out of the home and pursue subjects they find interesting. The parent role in unschooling is as an educational facilitator, not teacher.

Unschooling is not the same as homeschooling – it’s really a subset of the homeschooling movement. Perhaps the easiest way to convey the difference is this:

In homeschooling the parents make decisions on how to best educate the child, while in unschooling the child somehow makes those decisions for herself.

Estimates say unschooling is practiced by 10 to 15 percent of the estimated 1.5 million homeschoolers in the United States though the number is unknown. It operates under state laws governing home-schooling, which is legal in all 50 states


Unschooling Needs Near and Far-Sighted Vision

Unschooling is “ideal in philosophy and paper,” but often more difficult to pull off in reality. Though I have seen the philosophy achieve brilliant outcomes, it does not work for every child or every family. I caution parents to think very carefully before making the “unschooling” decision.

This will be a radical and significant decision for both your family and your child. That’s why it is important to have clear vision and be both near and far-sighted-in making a decision.

Near-sighted: Will unschooling work for my child, our relationship and our family in the here and now? Is this the best option for my child’s education as well as social, mental and emotional development at the present time? How will I address my child’s social development with his same-aged peers? Will this really work for my family?

Far-sighted: Will unschooling help or hinder my child’s future? What happens to the child when unschooling comes to an end? For instance, will unschooling help (or hurt) my child’s abilities to assimilate into college or into the workplace? Will my child eventually fit into the work place and possess critical 21st century skills to succeed (such as teamwork, learning to adapt, respect for everything, and flexibility)?

Do know, it is uncertain how unschooled kids fare in the real world. At present there is no real matrix or solid research.

Are You the Right Parent to Unschool?

A certain type of parenting is key to the success of unschooling. I’m convinced that in the end the success of unschooling usually depends more on the parents than on the kids, so do some serious and honest reality checking.

Here are a few “Parent Reality Checks” to determine if unschooling will work for your child and family.

Financial Check

Unschooling is an expense and will cut into some of your income. Add up the carpooling, and all the extra out of pocket resources. Can you afford the extra expenses that are required to be solely responsible for your child’s education? Also, do you have access to the type of resources needed to unschool your child (museums, mentors, libraries, trade centers, networks, etc)?

Kid Check

Do you know your child well enough to understand his unique learning styles, interests, talents, and weaknesses? Is this the type of learning environment your child really needs to thrive?

The unschooled child has an unprecedented amount of control, autonomy, responsibility over his education. Will your child be able accept boundaries, give and take, failure later on in life? Does unschooling create the more self-reliant, inner-motivated, creative child or the more entitled, “me” operating child? Those are questions many educators wonder.


Are you competent and confident you will succeed in unschooling? Are you willing to put in an enormous amount of work and commitment? Do you have the personality to pull this off? Can you be a facilitator instead of a teacher? Can you allow your child to lead you instead of you leading or micromanaging your child? Are you ready for the “full-time” role of assuming control or your child’s total education?

If you have any doubts, you may want to begin with a less radical approach –homeschooling-or do a trial run of “unschooling” with your family during the summer.

Belief Check

Unschooling involves giving your child freedom to learn what he wants to learn at his own pace.

  • Do you agree with that belief and could you do so without micromanaging your child?
  • Have you studied John Holt’s philosophy?
  • Have you checked with other parents who unschool?
  • Do you trust the unschooling philosophy that your child will learn without a set educational curriculum?
  • Can you let your child “learn” while you let go of those educational standards (“This is what he should be learning”?)
  • Can you let go of developmental milestones and educational guidelines and not compare your child’s performance and ability to other kids?
  • Are you at all concerned that unschooling might this put “holes” in your child’s education? The purpose of liberal education is exposing kids to fields and interests they normally wouldn’t investigate. Might unschooling limit your child’s education so he ends up knowing a lot about dinosaurs and Roman History but miss the Civil War and Jane Eyre? Will the unschooling approach close a door that could have lead to an exciting endeavor in science, medicine, technology but because he wasn’t exposed he’s not aware?

Family Check

Large chunks of time and personal resources are involved in unschooling.

  • Is your family (spouse, siblings) ready for this full-time learning venture?
  • Are you comfortable spending enormous amounts of time living and cooperative learning venture with your child?
  • Do your have a stable family or community support to help your kids flourish?
  • Do you have an enormous patience to be with your kids day in and day out?

Is Unschooling Right for Your Child?

Not every child learns the same way, and not every child thrives in public school (private, charter, homeschool, or unschool). The key is to identify how your child learns best, and then provide the type of education that comes closest to the “ideal match” for your child.

Here are characteristics of kids who usually do better in an unschooled environment. Still please keep in mind what we all know — every child is different (thank heaven!)

1. Self-directed. Is my child a self-starterand inner-motivated?

Does my child have a strong work ethic and self-directed? If your child is “praise-aholic” (and always needs rewards and external recognition), needs to be jump started or pushed to work by you, unschooling may not be the right choice.

2. Curious with identfied talents and interests. Does my child have an identified talent or strong interests? Is my child precocious, creative, or original?

Unschooling can be ideal to draw out talent or creativity in a child. Not every child is a Bill Gates, Steven Jobs (or a Thomas Edison or Margaret Mead who were unschooled). Be honest about your child’s learning strengths and weaknesses.

3. Learns best without Boundaries. Does my child learn best where structure and boundaries are unclear?

Some kids need structure, a clear agenda, and specific time lines. Is this my child?

4. Solid parent-child relationship. Does my child have the type of relationship with me to pull off?

Is your relationship solid enough to pull this off so you will still enjoy being with your child at the end of each day? (If so, more power to you! Seriously. Hats off!)

Final Thoughts

Unschooling is a huge and significant commitment. While it can be right for some families and children, careful consideration must be made before deciding to unschool.

Keep in mind that a core goal of good parenting is to nurture our children’s mental and emotional well-being to the best of our abilities. Providing rich experiences for your child, extra curricular opportunities are part of good parenting. Are you confident that that best way to help your child be enriched and educated is through unschooling? If so, I wish you well!

So now what do you think? Is unschooling right for you?

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

Follow me on twitter @micheleborba