Untruths about Unschooling

Here in Australia, one of our television stations just aired a segment about unschooling on their show called “The Project”. It went for approximately three minutes, although the online discussion afterwards lasted much, much longer. Reading through some of the comments highlighted with great clarity some of the incredible untruths people believe to be true about unschooling. These thoughts and ideas are, more often than not, based on nothing more than assumption and hearsay, rather than on direct experience or research.

I thought I would highlight a few of the comments here, and give my response, for what it’s worth. Some of the comments stand alone in all their ignorant unglory, yet I will still grace them with a reply to hopefully bring some kind of helpful information to those who truly do seek to understand this strange phenomenon called unschooling. I assume that many of the commenters below based their response on about twelve years of schooling, and about three minutes of hearing about unschooling via a rather poor piece of journalistic ignorance.

My purpose here is not to mock the naysayers, but to inform the truth seekers; nor is it to knock the teachers who try to make a difference in the lives of their students; instead, my purpose is simply to help people who actually want to understand unschooling have access to something better than the misinformation given in comments such as these:

Un-schooling is ridiculous. How do kids know what they like if they don’t get to experience new things? I can’t imagine a kid walking up to his parents and suddenly deciding to study quantum physics.

Okay, firstly, the assumption that unschooled children won’t get to experience new things is ignorance at best. Short of living life in solitary confinement within a prison cell, I find it hard to believe that any human being could possibly experience nothing new. In terms of knowing what they like? Ummmm from the moment of birth I’d say it’s fairly clear that our human nature is completely in tune with personal desire and interest! The late John Holt summed it up perfectly when he said, “By nature people are learning animals. Birds fly; fish swim; humans think and learn. Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do – and all we need to do – is to give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for, listen respectfully when they feel like talking, and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.”

I love this little song by Harry Chapin, which shows something of what can happen to that natural awareness of personal preference, after years of being told how and what to think. To me, it seems fairly clear that an unschooled child is more likely to enjoy the freedom to “know what they like” and do it as compared to a child sitting in a classroom having their time and topics decided by a teacher.

Here is another uninformed comment where someone tries to explain what unschooling is:

The direction the child goes in, is solely determined by the child. The parent has no role (in true unschooling) in providing direction nor guiding. If a child (for example) was interested in only picking their nose for eighteen years, a TRUE unschooling parent would not stop them, try to redirect them or influence them into doing something else. They consider this as being the child determining their path and learning.

In a wonderful post by Pam Sorooshian, the idea of unschooling being “child-led learning” is refuted, stating that unschooling “is 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. Unschooling is not child-led learning. Neither is it parent or teacher-led. It is child- focused. It is child-considered. It is child-supporting.” Yes, the focus is on the child as the learner, but it does not mean the parent is passive. The parent supports, helps, introduces, suggests, researches (unschooling philosophy, learning, ideas, resources etc), offers, strews, encourages, takes, listens, plays, and learns alongside.

The idea that a trained teacher is more equipped and essential than a parent, is indicated by comments such as this one:

I’ve had four years to become a teacher are you seriously going to tell me a parent will be able to describe in detail the educational theorists underpinning their pedagogical practice? No? Than send them to school

Personally, I haven’t found any need to describe in either detail or summary form anything about educational theorists; nor have I felt the need to understand pedagogical practice. I’m assuming that by pedagogical practice, the writer of the above comment was referring to the art or science of teaching (which is actually of little relevance to unschooling, being as the emphasis is on learning not teaching), rather than to the “Greek paidaggi, from paidaggosslave who took children to and from school”. 😉 

A school teacher spends four years at university studying teaching methods aimed at instructing a large group of children, classroom and behavioiur management techniques, and obviously, “educational theorists underpinning pedagogical practice”! A parent spends the child’s entire life with them (give or take a few hours or days here and there) from the moment of conception onwards, they have a vested interested in the individual child, and an intimate knowledge of who the child is, the way they naturally learn best, their dreams, interests and preferences. Whilst a teacher may have a four year degree in educational practice, aimed at teaching in a classroom, a parent has a six-year degree in their six year old child, a ten-year degree in their ten year old child, and so on. Add to that the fact that in our digital age parents and children have access to all the same information as teachers do, and it suddenly becomes evident that school is not, in fact, essential to learning.

With regards to “Un-schooling” how would children who are not exposed to the outside world know what they wanted to learn?

One of the key tenets of unschooling is bringing more of the world to our children, and taking our children to experience more of the world. It is not about sitting at home all the time staring at the same four walls. And even when they are at home, unschoolers are living in an environment that is intentionally designed to be a smorgasbord of interesting, inspiring things to do, something akin to a living museum. All the same, you are just as likely to find unschoolers at art galleries and museums, shopping centres and movie theatres, parks and playgrounds, zoos and aquariums, concerts and plays, visiting with friends or extended family…..

Here is a question that seemed to actually indicate a potential interest in understanding something of how unschooling might play out in reality:

How does “unschooling” translate when someone applies to university?

Unschoolers are equally equipped and eligible to attend university, if they so desire, as school students are. There are so many pathways such as sitting university entrance exams, attending bridging courses or a foundation year at university, single subject correspondence study whereby the units completed become the student’s admission pathway and also form part of the actual degree, reducing the duration of their course once they are attending university on campus, courses through TAFE Colleges or private institutions, and so on. This article does quite a good job of outlining some of these options, as does Blake Boles’ book, College Without High School: A Teenager’s Guide to Skipping High School and Going to College. Alternatively, it may be worthwhile considering whether university is even essential or desirable for a particular person. Perhaps an overseas working holiday or an internship or entrepreneur based business might even be Better Than College. It’s reassuring to know, however, that if someone really wants to go to college or university, twelve years of school is not the only pathway to get there!

Parents would not be able to teach the dicipline required and expected when you get to university. It’s a shock for everyone. I went through both public and private high schools and excelled, but still was not prepared for the amount or standard of work at university.

Reading this comment, by someone who obviously went through high school prior to attending university and yet felt ill-prepared, it strikes me as absurd that the writer still considers school to be a better preparation for university than unschooling.  It obviously didn’t help her immensely. When my husband was lecturing at university, he discovered that the students who felt most prepared were those who had come through the university’s entrance pathway courses, rather than through the high schools. Many universities seek out unschoolers, homeschoolers and mature age students, knowing that they are more likely to be motivated and self-directed. I remember listening to a speaker at a conference once, who had formerly sat on a university admissions board. He said that you could almost predict which school someone had gone to based on their application, because they were all so similar and uniform. The ones that caught their attention were the different, unique, individualised ones. Why be the same, when you can be yourself?

This one would be really sad if it was true:

I’ve been unschooling myself since I left school at 16 and learnt absolutely Nothing in those, ooh nearly 30 yrs.. Neither should anyone else without the help of a trained educator because the mind just isn’t capable.

finalllll-4Sandra Dodd, one of the world’s most well renowned unschooling advocates, initiated an annual event called “Learn Nothing Day“, to celebrate the fact that it is, in effect, impossible to do so! It is supposedly a “holiday for unschoolers”, but as all unschoolers know, we are learning all the time, even if what we are learning is not what a teacher thinks they are teaching, or what a learner expects to be learning! Many people lose confidence in their ability to learn without being taught, after years and years of being “taught to the test”, having curriculum put into their heads, and then regurgitating the hopefully correct answers afterwards. This led John Holt to say: “To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

It is this loss of confidence in our natural drive and ability to learn what we need to learn, when we need to learn it, that causes most people to find it almost impossible to believe that children raised without teaching and lesson plans and forced curriculum, could possibly learn everything they need to know. If you think logically for a minute about all the incredible things humans have learned since the dawn of time, prior to the invention of “schooling”, and if you are actually privileged enough to know any grown unschoolers, you will realise that we really don’t need to be taught, to learn. The advent of the digital age, with the all the resources of the worldwide web at our fingertips, along with libraries, knowledgeable people, and all sorts of other resources in our communities, also negate the need for schooling for those who are prepared to embrace the autonomous joy of unschooling.

I believe that there are some elements of an education that should not be not-taught just because the child doesn’t want to learn about it, for example news and current world issues. (That is the flip side to choosing to teach what a child does want to learn.)

Again, unschooling is about learning, not teaching. As Joyce Fetteroll says: “Teaching is putting information in; learning is drawing information in.”  With unschooling, life and learning are intermingled and inseparable, and learning takes places wherever the learner is, rather than teaching taking place within the walls of the classroom. When life itself is the learning ground, the playing field, it is almost impossible to keep things like news and current affairs hidden away from curious minds. Children who have not had the joy of learning turned into the chore of lessons and homework, are naturally drawn to finding out whatever their mind desires, to living in the flow of their learning. And parents of unschoolers are always on the lookout for things that might be of interest to their child, or that they think might be helpful for the child to know. The child lives with their eyes, ears, hearts and hands wide open to the world around them; the parent lives in much the same way, and also with a constant awareness of the child’s learning journey. Instead of being concerned that the child might have a gap in their knowledge, there is understanding that we all do, and the joy of unschooling is finding the juicy bits to fill in the gaps, building a beautiful mosaic of a life well lived, where learning is a byproduct of unschooling.

It’s as if we are going to breed a generation of experts in just one topic rather than well-rounded, educated adults.

Does it really matter if every adult doesn’t have a broad based knowledge in all the school subjects?  The idea of a society filled with “well-rounded, educated adults” sounds somewhat … boring!  If everyone has the same broad-based generalist education, we are highly unlikely to progress as a society. We need people who are intuitive and creative, who think outside the square, who follow their dreams and pursue their passions. So many of the world’s greatest thinkers and most successful entrepreneurs have been “school dropouts”. They weren’t by any stretch of the imagination lacking in intelligence or drive; in fact, by choosing to remove themselves from compulsory, co-ercive education, they showed their desire for autonomy and independent thought. Even the Harvard Business Review gives credit to the idea of society’s need for misfits and rebels, and of our need to be true to ourselves, rather than attempting to fit in and be like everybody else, or like what we think everybody else expects us to be.


To learn more about unschooling, I highly recommend these sites:

Living Joyfully
Joyfully Rejoycing
Sandra Dodd

And these books:


7 thoughts on “Untruths about Unschooling”

  1. “I’ve been unschooling myself since I left school at 16 and learnt absolutely Nothing in those, ooh nearly 30 yrs.. Neither should anyone else without the help of a trained educator because the mind just isn’t capable.” was said in sarcasim not literally. Just to clarify that comment. 🙂 Great piece. Thanks 🙂

    1. Thanks for the heads up, Rebecca! In my late night typing, my sarcasm radar was obviously faulty! 😉 I have amended my response to that comment. Gee, we really do learn something every day. 😀

    1. Thank you for your comment. I signed your petition and tweeted it for you, which will also show up on my “A Radical Path” Facebook page. Good luck!

  2. My responses to a few of the comments, as mom of always unschooled kids ages 12, 9, & 6:

    Re: a child asking to study quantum physics — Perhaps not, but we can see in young children an inclinations toward less specific topics. The point is we offer a lot and allow the child to follow her path, walking along beside to guide, help, celebrate, etc.

    Re: picking nose for 18 years — Why do people make up such extreme and unlikely scenarios? It does not help their argument. As for child-led, teacher-lead, etc., the way I’ve long seen unschooling is summed up in one word, “RESPECT.” I think of my children as people, not lesser creatures, who deserve respect. Just like if any adult in my household might express an interest and I might talk with him about it, ask him about it, etc, that’s how I interact with my children. They might be lacking in experience but that doesn’t make me automatically an expert in whatever they’re interested in, nor does it give me a right to choose their interests.

    Re: educational theory — I earned my teaching credential and taught in a classroom for five years before I had children. In retrospect, I realized that what I learned most in my teacher ed program was how to handle 30 children in one room. When we homeschool/unschool we only need to pay attention to our own children and learn about them.

    Re: not exposed to the outside world — We’re in the world a lot more than kids stuck in school.

    Re: expert vs well-rounded — I’ve pondered a lot on this myself. I talk with my 12 year old about it quite a bit. She understands that she’s making choices that affect future options. But she is sure of her path right now and definitely puts a lot of effort into it. Anyway, there are no educational emergencies. There are very few things that would be “too late” to do. If my daughter decided at 25 she wanted to do something completely different, she might be “behind” in a subject compared to others her age, but it’s not like she couldn’t learn it then. And she’d probably learn it much faster and more thoroughly because she would be motivated to do so.

    Okay, this is became so long I decided to turn it into a blog post of my own. http://michelepixels.com/2013/08/24/untruths-about-unschooling/


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