Unschooling 101: Definition

In the wise words of Sandra Dodd, unschooling is not a catch-all phrase for all home educating families whose children do not go to school. It is a particular approach to home education, an educational philosophy, and a term originating back to the 1970’s when it was originally coined by the late John Holt, often referred to as “The Father of Unschooling”.

Part of his inspiration for the term apparently came from a fairly funny TV commercial for 7UP, in which they referred to the drink as “The UNcola”. The commercial does a good job of demonstrating how when something is “un”, it isn’t just NOT the other thing; it is an entirely unique thing in its own right.

To the frequently voiced complaint that the word “unschooling” seems negative, it can be helpful to think of the positive vibe surrounding terms such as unharmed, unconditional, unleashed, unpolluted, ungraded, unimpeded, unscripted, untethered, undamaged, unencumbered, understood, unfurled, unshackled, uncontaminated, unspoiled, unlimited, unorthodox, unabashed, unmanaged, unlabelled, unboxed…..

So What Is It?

In some ways, unschooling is as simple as not sending our children to school and not bringing schoolish thoughts and ways into our lives at home. But achieving that is harder than it sounds. And defining it in a succinct way seems to be harder still, because whilst it is in many ways a simple concept, it is complicated by many misunderstandings and myths that have developed, primarily because of our own schooling and the schoolish society we live in.

Myth Busting

  • Unschooling is totally child-led – Unschooling is neither child-led nor parent-led. It is, however, child focussed. It is a partnership. Pamela Sorooshian likens the relationship and interaction between an unschooled child and parent to being “more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in synch with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads, and sometimes the other.” The parent will ask, offer, invite and suggest opportunities and experiences and resources, but will never ever force or coerce the child to say yes (not even subtly).
  • Unschooling is leaving them be – Unschooling is anything but “leaving them be”, which indicates neglect. Unschooling requires connection, engagement and involvement in their interests and passions. It requires the offering of oneself to the child. It requires an immense investment of time, connection and resources.
  • Unschooling is “letting” them do whatever they like – The idea of “letting” them do whatever they like is a long, long way from an unschooling mindset. Firstly, the parent isn’t an all-powerful presence who gives and with-holds permission for the child to do things. It is instead a deep knowing of the child, what makes them tick, what they love and hate, what they need, how they are feeling. The child feels safe, knowing that the parent trusts and honours who they are, so there is really no need for the parent to “let” the child do something. Often the parent will in fact pre-empt what the child wants to do, and provide the resources and opportunity before the child even asks.
  • Unschooling is doing nothing – Unschooling is not for the feint hearted! It is less about what the parent doesn’t do, and more about what the parent DOES. It is connecting, engaging, offering, suggesting, watching, listening, learning, observing, playing, driving, cuddling, questioning, answering, researching, guiding, trusting, loving, providing….. You get my drift!
  • Unschooling never includes any kind of course or formal learning – In the early stages of unschooling, it is usually wise to avoid any kind of formal learning resources, because they often interfere with a parent really getting what unschooling is, and trusting the child’s innate desire to learn. But later, once the trust runs deep, a child may opt to undertake a more formal course of study. It is so incredibly important for there to be a real awareness of the possibility that the child may be desiring a course because they don’t trust they can learn it in any other way. This is why it is usually best for this type of learning to be further along in the unschooling journey, once the child has truly assimilated a deep trust in their own ability to learn whatever they need or want to learn, whenever and however they want to learn it. They will trust that they are already learning so much from living a rich, interesting life, that the course or study materials are merely another resource amongst many that they are freely choosing to undertake.
  • Unschooling is anti-school – Unschoolers will have varying levels of tolerance for school, but for the most part it is less about hating school, and more about feeling sad for those children who do not have a choice, and who have their autonomy taken away from them. It is more the case that an unschooling family values the freedom of educational choice, and does not see the need or value of school in their own lives, instead focussing on the life they are living and what they are doing in place of school. Some unschoolers follow the motto of “Living as though school doesn’t exist” which is easier said than done in our schooled society!
  • Unschooling is relaxed homeschooling – An unschooling parent is different to a relaxed homeschooler, who will choose materials and courses and workbooks that they think their child will like, or that will suit the child’s learning style, perhaps even inviting the child to choose the materials. They may allow their child to practise their times tables whilst jumping on a trampoline or lying in bed, but ultimately the parent is the leader and the one who pours information into the receptacle that is the child.


School can be contained inside a box. It is a tangible thing. A construct of our modern society that is now a multi-billion dollar industry.

Outside of the box is unschooling. It is vast and uncontainable like the universe compared to planet earth.

One of the reasons that unschooling is perhaps so hard to define is because we are all so well “schooled”. It is hard for us to comprehend another way of seeing education and learning. It is hard for us to trust that children can and will learn and in fact thrive in an unschooling environment.

We recognise that our education system desperately needs reform, and yet we often cling to school as a pillar of society without which we would have a society of illiterate children who would not know everything they are “supposed” to know. Many people see the school system as a big safety net ensuring the progress of society, forgetting that a society that raises its children in compulsory educational settings, all being taught the same curriculum, is not a society that is well prepared for an ever changing world in desperate need of people who think in new and different ways.

School is not the only way to gain knowledge and with the advent of the technological age our children today have direct access to the same body of knowledge that schools do. The difference is that an unschooled child is free to learn about whatever takes their fancy, and instead of worrying about what will be on the test, or how the teacher is expecting them to answer the question, they can live unfettered lives, free to think outside the box, pursuing knowledge and new ideas as they go about their lives.

An unschooling parent will primarily engage in LIFE with their child, trusting that children will learn all they need to know from living a productive and full life in the real world. The focus will be on connecting and partnering with the child, bringing interesting things into their world, and providing all kinds of resources and experiences to enhance their natural interests and passions. They see value in whatever the child is interested in, rather than seeking to divide life into subjects according to those that have been deemed the most important by governing bodies and regulatory departments. In fact, it’s not about thinking in “subjects” at all.

Pamela Sorooshian describes unschooling as “Dropping the conventions of schooling, eliminating such things as required subjects, reading and writing assignments, and tests, and entirely replacing those with the creation of a stimulating, enriched environment and lots and lots of parental support for kids in pursuing their interests and passions.” 

If you’d like to read more about the definition of unschooling as I see it, you can read here and here.

And just in case you’ve forgotten about the absolute difference between school and unschool, here is another take on the difference between cola and uncola. Enjoy. 🙂

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