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. 🙂

Unschooling (Un)defined


I figured I’d put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and try to explain a little bit about our life outside of school.

It’s easy to define “schooling”, because we all went to school when we were growing up. And yet most people are unaware of the history of compulsory schooling, and might be surprised at its roots!

It’s easy to define homeschooling (although people still often misunderstand it) because in essence it is replicating in the home what is done/taught in schools, often with the mindset that the curriculum can be taught more effectively at home, because of the higher ratio of adult to student.

But what about when kids don’t go to school, or even do “schoolwork” at home? Now THAT is mindbloggling to most people! It is hard to imagine or understand, so therefore it is feared, judged, misunderstood. Funnily, in spite of the fact that the majority of people didn’t really enjoy their school experience growing up, and that most people recognise the shortcomings of the education system, the idea of doing away with it can be terrifying! The idea that children might be able to grow up freely, outside of the structure of the educational system seems preposterous to most people. This, in and of itself, is evidence that schooling worked on most people! Most people have learned that they themselves can’t be trusted to learn what they need to know unless a teacher “teaches” them. In spite of the fact that most people don’t doubt the ability of children to learn at home up to the age of 5, and recognise that people continue learning after the age of 17, we somehow think that between the ages of 5 and 17 human beings are suddenly unable to learn without a school teacher, or school materials!

Call it what you will – unschooling, life learning, autodidactism, self-learning, natural learning, organic learning…. it can seem hard to describe, and hard to understand, but basically it’s living as though school doesn’t exist, similar to what you did before you ever went to school, and after you finished. It’s a form of homeschooling, but it’s not homeschooling because it’s not SCHOOLING at all. It’s living and learning from real life, rather than in a classroom with prescribed lessons and required outcomes. It’s not learning to a schedule or by coercion, because someone else “out there” has decided that all children of a certain age should know a certain thing. It’s learning naturally from the experiences that come your way, or that you realise it would be helpful to know. It’s more about finding out the answers to the questions you’re asking, than trying to answer the questions someone else is asking. Oh, that our children will never stop asking, “Why?”

For me, it has been an interesting and at times challenging process to try to get “school think” out of my own head, in order to create a free unschooling environment in our home. This process, often called “deschooling“, can be much easier said than done, being as most of us were schooled for at least 12 years, and continue to see schools and school-children all around us. It’s so easy to consider the “norm” to be the only, or best, way. For me, my deschooling has been compounded by my childhood desire to be a primary school teacher. In fact, when my older two children first came home from school I was very excited that I could finally be a teacher AND a mum. It wasn’t long before I realised that life was going to teach us all!! I wasn’t going to get to “play schools” with my kids! And I no longer want to! We’re having too much fun living life to limit ourselves to playing schools.

Of course one of the difficult parts of unschooling for most people is that, well…… it just doesn’t look like… school!! And we’ve been raised to doubt our own ability to learn, if it’s not taught to us by a teacher in an “educational” setting. So it can be hard to trust that when they’re living their life (which usually means playing in its various forms!), they’re also learning just what they need right now. And it can be hard to trust that when they find a need to know something they will do what they need to do to learn it! They won’t fear it, or be afraid of “getting the answer wrong if the teacher asks”, or looking stupid by asking questions. They won’t be bored by learning (“But the bell’s gone, Miss! Can’t we go?”) or separate learning into something they only do at school or when they’re doing homework. But trust can be so hard.

And unschooling requires trust. Trust that children have a natural drive to learn, that they are naturally curious (at least until school deadens their senses or dampens their curiosity, as it does for many). It’s not teaching to the test, or even thinking about what would be on a test! It’s delighting in the joy of living, and trusting that a child (or adult) who’s fully engaged in an activity, will be learning. Try going a day without learning anything! John Holt wrote, “To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves … and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

In response to the question “What happens when you grow up and find you haven’t learned something you needed to learn?” one very smart 10-year-old simply said: “I’ll learn it then!” We ALL have gaps in our knowledge. We don’t need to fear them. We can learn what we need to know, when we need to know it. As can children of school age. Why do we fear the future so much? Let’s live this moment with joy, and the next… and the next…. And before we know it, our children will be looking back at lives lived joyfully, and continuing to do so as they move into the next chapter. As will we.

It can be helpful, as adults, to look back on our life and consider what we’ve learned and how we’ve learned it; to compare the way we were taught in school, with the way we learn now. I know that for me, if I want to learn about something or need to know something, I’ll draw on all sorts of resources to find the answers I need to know: people who know more than me, books from the library, magazines, instruction manuals, experience, maybe a course or two if I think it will be interesting and relevant. And …. wait for it, even TV (yes, TV – it is as valid a resource as any other)! Of course, there’s also the internet.

Ah, the internet….. an unschooler’s best friend. It really has opened up the world of knowledge to the masses. It was amusing, and yet hardly surprising, when my daughter, at the age of about 4, said, “Let’s just ‘Google it’, Mum!”  So many universities have lectures by their top professors available for free online. If you want to learn about something, you’re sure to get a pretty good head start on the internet. Even the school curriculum is available for free on there if you’re really interested in finding out what school kids are apparently supposed to be learning during their 12 years of confinement. It’s all nicely set out year by year, so you can make sure your child is “keeping up”, not “getting behind”. As if that really matters in the grand scheme of life.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”  One night we happened to be watching it on TV and I said to the kids, “Do you realise that the kinds of things they ask on this show are pretty much basic facts that you can just look up the answers to if you really want to know?” So I did a little experiment. I opened up my trusty Google page and raced the contestants each time a question was asked. Every single time I had the answer before they did. There wasn’t one thing I wasn’t able to find out really easily and quickly. Sometimes the answer even popped up as I was typing the key words into the search engine! I didn’t even have to open the site.

I don’t think heads need to be stuffed full of knowledge just in case it’s needed one day. It’s far more joyful and exciting and normal to learn what you need to know when you need to know it, because you want to know it or appreciate the side benefits of knowing it. Have you ever tried to learn about something you’re just not interested in? A friend said to me recently that her son is really into a particular type of computer game. He likes to tell her about it, and she really really tries to listen to what he says with interest, but lo and behold the next time he talks to her about it, it becomes painfully obvious that she just hasn’t retained much of the information he told her last time, so he has to repeat it again. She just isn’t all that interested in the game. Even though she adores her son and tries to be interested in the game because it matters to him, it’s really hard for her to absorb and retain information about subject matter that doesn’t relate to her life and that she sees no need for or has no interest in, outside of her love for her son.

Some people think unschooling is “doing nothing”, just because you’re not “doing school”. But far from that! Unschooling isn’t doing nothing – it’s doing anything! And everything! Whatever your heart desires (both parent and child)! Finding ways to follow your passions, finding out what you need to know along the way; learning by doing, rather than before doing.

As a parent, my responsibility is to provide a rich, exciting, wonderland for my children to explore, both within our home, and in the world outside. It’s up to me to find resources to support them in their interests, to suggest opportunities to them that they might not stumble upon by themselves. To engage with them, observe them, delight in them, listen to them, REALLY listen, talk with them, watch the 700th rerun of their favourite TV show or movie with them, validate their passions rather than undermine them or worry about “broadening their interests”, share the things I love with them and share in the things THEY love with them too. To give them time and space to just “be”. To appreciate and delight in who my child is, rather than put all my effort into preparing for a future that may never come. To bring wonderful things and people into their lives. And to be fascinated by life myself! It’s not about just focussing on what they’re doing, but living it myself, alongside them. It’s being their partner as they journey through life, pursuing my passions too, not just watching passively and disconnectedly while they pursue theirs. That can make it all sound very glamorous. It certainly is a priveleged life; one which I feel blessed to be able to live. But it isn’t perfect! It’s just life, warts and all. It just doesn’t have school in it.

It’s been said, “Homeschooling: the whole world is our classroom”.
I prefer to say, “Unschooling: the whole world is our PLAYGROUND!”

When I first started blogging I was going to have one blog for social justice issues, one for ethical/environmental issues, one for unschooling, etc. But then I realised that I just couldn’t separate our unschooling from everything else that we do, because it’s all part of one big connected whole. We don’t separate living from learning. We don’t separate life into subjects.

You probably noticed from my heading for this post that it’s really hard to think of the best word to use to describe this philosophy of learning. In reality, it existed long before schools were ever thought of, and the human race did pretty well up to that point. Some people feel that unschooling sounds negative, and in some ways it does, but on the other hand some things are so undefinable that the easiest way to say what it is, is simply by defining what it isn’t. So unschooling is like everything outside of the school system, outside of “school think”. School, by its very nature, has a fence around it. So unschooling is everything outside the fence. The trick is seeing the fence that is in our thinking too – the invisible fence. And finding the courage to climb over it and be free!

I thought it’d be good to finish off with some validation by a few famous people from times gone by, whose wonderful words give credibility and validation to this grand adventure called unschooling… natural learning…  life learning….

“If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” William Hull
“Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” Plato! (428-348BC)
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Elbert Einstein