When one first hears the term ‘unschooling’ they typically wonder what it could possibly mean.  With a little research, one finds that unschooling is not easily defined.  Controversy within literature about whether unschooling, homeschooling, or traditional schooling are the better fit for children is common.  All sides of the debate are able to cite research on their behalf which supports their stance; however, finding concisive information on unschooling proves difficult.  Parents often rely on current unschooling families to give them more information, if they are so inclined.  Many parents are unaware of the various options that are available to them when choosing an educational platform for their children.  Researching can be difficult, especially when already balancing life, children, work, and other demands; however, I have presented a concise unbiased review of unschooling within the following  paragraphs which should assist dramatically in the understanding of unschooling and what it entails.

How did Unschooling begin?

John Holt is recognized as the father of unschooling, introducing the term in the 1960’s (Curtice, 2014).  While working in the traditional school system for a number of years, Holt kept detailed accounts of how children learn naturally (Rolstad et al, 2013).  He was particularly interested in the strategies that children use on their own in order to learn and likened those strategies to scientific methods (Rolstad et al, 2013).  Holt noticed that children learn to walk and talk, unaided by adults; while children seem to gravitate towards negative learning when teachers directed and controlled them (Rolstad et al, 2013).

Rolstad et al (2013) states that Holt (1981) noted that many children were being home educated; however, home education was and is typically viewed as simply ‘doing school at home’, which simply transferred direction from the teacher to the parent (Rolstad et al, 2013).  Rolstad et al (2013) notes that Holt (1981) saw that child learning was often interfered with by adults attempting to direct their learning and that children did better when they directed their own learning.  Holt (1981) began to promote ‘unschooling’ as an alternative to this interference by adults (Rolstad et al, 2013).  Rolstad et al (2013) describes that while Holt (1981) was not a parent himself, he envisioned that children could be unschooled through nurture and support, leaving them free to pursue individual interests.  Rolstad et al (2013) describes Dodd (2011) as noting that around this same time, breast feeding and attachment parenting were becoming popular as novel approaches to parenting young children and unschooling fit in as an extension of these philosophies.

The term, unschooling, first appeared in Holt’s self-published magazine, Growing Without Schooling (GWS) and was used to denote a way of learning without school (Curtice, 2014).  According to Rolstad et al (2013), Holt (1981) traveled around the US promoting his theories about unschooling.  Curtice (2014) notes that Holt (1977) defined unschooling and deschooling in GWS: “GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people, i.e., to make lasting, official, public judgments about them”.  According to Curtice (2014), Farenga (2013) describes that Holt (1977) tended to use the terms unschooling and homeschooling interchangeably throughout GWS and his book, Never Too Late (1979); however, unschooling practitioners gravitated towards the use of the term unschooling in order to differentiate between the two.  Due to the term homeschooling garnering more recognition, Farenga (2013) noted that Holt (1981) eventually returned to the use of the term ‘homeschool’.

According to Curtice (2014) various nuances of unschooling have developed over time amongst unschooling practitioners, noting that radical unschooling refers to the absence of structure and parental direction while eclectic unschooling allows for some of both (Dodd, 2008; Martin, 2009):

  • free range learning
  • life learning
  • free schools
  • democratic schools
  • radical unschooling
  • eclectic unschooling

Holt (1981) was passionate about “child-led, trust-laden, curriculum-free learning” and believed that children should be allowed to pursue their own interests rather than being constantly directed by adults (Curtice, 2014).  According to Curtice (2014), Holt (1981) was adamant about the fact that children have “rights, a voice that should be heard, and opinions to be counted”.  Holt’s (1981) belief that life is learning was conducive to his belief that school and life should not exist separately.  His intent was that the term ‘unschool’ would encourage people to negate what they already knew about school and consider a new philosophy entirely (Curtice, 2014).

Holt (1964) wrote his first book entitled, How Children Fail, as a response to his teaching experiences from 1953 to 1963 (Curtice, 2014).  While his early books focused on the harm that schools were causing children, they also suggested ways that schools could be improved to honor a child’s “innate desire and ability to learn” (Curtice, 2014).  Holt’s (1964) stance was that the school system needlessly “broke children and bent them to the system’s will” over time (Curtice, 2014). Holt’s (1967) second book entitled, How Children Learn, focused more on the innate curiosity of children and how, when interested, they learn amazing things (Curtice, 2014).  According to Curtice (2014), after Holt (1977) spent several years trying to change the system, he finally realized that schools cant be fixed.  Holt’s (1981) next book, Teach Your Own, dedicated itself to the legalities of unschooling in the 1970’s.  Unschooling during this time was notoriously risky.  In the 1970’s parents had no rights concerning the way in which their children were educated (Curtice, 2014).  During this time, violations of mandatory school requirements resulted in fines, arrests, truancy, and delinquency (Curtice, 2014).

According to Curtice (2014), Farenga (1999) notes Holt’s main influence was Illich’s book entitled, Deschooling Society (1971).  Correspondence between Holt and Illich eventually caused Holt to change his thought from improving schools to removing children from schools (Curtice, 2014).  In his book, Illich (1971) demonstrates how the US system of education produces consumers for the purpose of keeping the economy running (Curtice, 2014).  According to Curtice (2014), Illich (1971) goes on to explain how “the U.S. has exported this system across the world, a system that is unsustainable to the planet’s resources, one that creates far more problems than it solves, and one that must be changed”.

Furthermore Curtice (2014) describes that Gatto (1990), who spent 40 years teaching in the New York public schools, is revered for his New York State Teacher of the Year acceptance speech in which he describes eight ‘pathologies’ school causes children.  Curtice (2014) notes that Gatto’s (2000) Underground History of American Education details the evolution of the US school system, even consisting of “Senate Subcommittee notes from the 1800s documenting the collusion of government and corporations to create a reliable labor pool” (Gatto, 2000).  Gatto (2000) explains this transition “from a fully literate society to one that, because of the need of laborers by Carnegie, Rockefeller, and other ‘robber barons’ of the day, shifts to one of the Prussian system of education where children are taken at a young age and forged to be something needed by ‘society’ which … was the needs of industrialists” (Curtice, 2014).

In an intriguingly juxtaposing nature, while Holt wrote about children’s innate curiosity and ability to learn undirected by adults, Gatto (2000) wrote about the horrors of the US school system (Curtice, 2014).  Gatto’s books, Dumbing Us Down (1992) and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2010) are consistently referenced by unschooling practitioners (Curtice, 2014).  Interestingly, according to Curtice (2014), Gatto had a “disdain for modern technology, especially computers”.  Gatto and Holt agreed that children should be playing and spending time outside but certainly should not spending hours on technology (Curtice, 2014).  However, it is understood by unschooling parents that Gatto and Holt were products of their generation and don’t understand the utility and benefit of technology use today (Curtice, 2014).  In fact, unschooling parents completely agree with the documentation provided by both authors as to the ill effects of the school system and the innate ability of children to learn, undirected (Curtice, 2014).

What is Unschooling?

Wikipedia (2017) defines unschooling as “an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning”, The Natural Child Project  (1994) defines unschooling as “a unique opportunity for each family to do whatever makes sense for the growth and development of their children” and Curtice (2014) defines unschooling as “an educational ideology founded upon the tenets of ‘trust children’ and ‘living is learning'”.  Griffith (1998) states that “unschooling is founded on the principle that children learn best when they pursue their own natural curiosities and interests”.

Rolstad et al (2013) notes that “while schooled children are trained to exhibit behaviors that simulate academic learning and to react to instruction in specified ways so as to make their learning observable, unschooled children are not trained in this way” and instead appear to spend most of their time ‘just playing’ or ‘wasting time’.  It is posited by Rolstad et al (2013) that closer observation “reveals the depth and complexity of much of what these children are exploring through play, and how their play lays a solid groundwork for future, more academic learning”.  In fact, Rolstad et al (2013) notes that unschooling practitioners posit that learning through play should continue even when children are attending traditional schooling, illuminating the fact that the most meaningful learning happens outside of school (Ricci, 2007).

According to Rolstad et al (2013), learning takes place “easily and joyfully” amongst children who are able to freely pursue their own passions.  Unschooling practitioners encourage children “to pursue any interest they may have, to as shallow or deep a level as they like, for as long as they like” (Curtice, 2014).  According to Curtice (2013), unschooling consists of child driven learning guided by the child’s interests while “learning is defined as exploring a topic to the satisfaction of the child”.

Curtice (2014), Holt and Farenga (2003) provide the following unschooling definition: “This is also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term ‘unschooling’ has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum. When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else—a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an ‘on demand’ basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work. So, for instance, a young child’s interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place, though parents with a more hands-on approach to unschooling certainly can influence and guide their children’s choices … unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept living as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn. However, this does not mean unschoolers do not take traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student, or parents and children together, decide that this is how they want to do it. Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not ‘natural’ processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority. Therefore it isn’t unusual to find unschoolers who are barely eight years-old studying astronomy or who are ten-years-old and just learning to read”.

Therefore, unschooling is a form of student led learning (SCL) and differs greatly from the more traditional teacher centered learning system, used in compulsory education (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) further explains that SCL, built upon the concept of constructivism, allows for the acquisition of knowledge based upon children’s own experiences and intuitions.  This concept, which promotes individual internalization of knowledge, is an essential component in the foundation of unschooling philosophy (Curtice, 2014).

The attachment parenting belief that a “baby sends out signals that attentive parents (defined as those constantly around their children) learn to understand” is simply extended in unschooling families to older children as well (Curtice, 2013).  Unschooling mothers often “value time with their children and family experiences over material wealth” (Curtice, 2014).  Unsurprisingly, Curtice (2014) notes that unschooling mothers in particular enjoy spending vast amounts of time with their children.  In fact, Curtice (2014) describes unschooling families as having very strong parent-child bonds and notes that children in unschooling families respect, trust, and universally revere their parents in favor of other parents whose primary focus is on school, getting good grades, and not being late, etc.

Unschooling mothers are particularly interested in allowing their children to get enough sleep, often an underlying concern for parents contemplating taking their children out of traditional school (Curtice, 2014).  In fact, Grunzek (2010) rates this as one of the most important benefits of unschooling (Curtice, 2014).  Furthermore, unschooling practitioners believe that age segregation is unnatural and that the mixture of older and younger children during unschooling is far more beneficial (Curtice, 2014).  Parents of unschoolers look at unschooling as a gift or privilege and are appreciative of the opportunity to educate their own children (Curtice, 2014).  Furthermore, parents of unschoolers believe that “allowing children to chase their own dreams, curiosities and interests will result in self-development of skills in research, critical thinking, and analysis that will transfer, should the need arise, to any kind of job need” (Curtice, 2014).  According to Curtice (2014) “knowing how to find information, where to look for it, and how to evaluate it, is more important to unschooling parents than simply having them memorize the order of Presidents or state capitals”.  Families who practice unschooling embrace failure and posit that the best time to fail is during childhood, even suggesting that it is a phenomenal way of learning how not to do something (Curtice, 2014).

As Curtice (2014) explains: “Children have real, tangible interests that, when allowed, and encouraged, to pursue can result in spectacular learnings. 99% of the material ‘mastered’ for others in school quickly dissipates. But the material that is of personal interest, that captures one’s attentions, keeps a person up deep into the night out of curiosity, that is the material that stays with an individual for years after”.

The role of unschooling parents includes providing resources, support, guidance, information, and advice in order to encourage experiences which aid children in their own learning experiences (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) describes how unschooling parents support children in accessing, navigating, and making sense of the world by sharing books, articles, activities and even knowledgeable people with their children in order to explore any particular interest in order to meet their goals.  Curtice (2014) suggests that the negative connotation between the prefix ‘un-‘ in unschooling may not be ideal, instead suggesting that the term ‘ownschooling’ seems to better describe the unifying nature of unschooling families.

What is not unschooling?

Unschooling is not a philosophy encompassed by a hands off approach to parenting (Curtice, 2014).  Quite contrarily, unschooling parents are actually more hands on than many traditionally schooled children’s parents are.  Unschooling parents do not agree with separating learning from life and parents of unschoolers don’t believe in institutionalizing children or that compulsary education produces actual learning (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) states that despite criticism, unschooling parents are not against education and are in fact quite interested in providing their children with rich, uninterrupted opportunities to pursue their own interests and dreams.  In fact, Curtice (2014) states that ‘hands-off parenting’ is not considered true parenting by unschooling parents.

How do unschoolers learn?

Unschooling families make it a goal to maximize their children’s opportunities to play, interact with people of all ages, and actively participate in the world of socializing and learning (Rolstad et al, 2013).  Many unschoolers meet in public settings, go on field trips, conferences, dances, campouts, etc. notes Rolstad et al (2013).  According to Rolstad et al (2013), more radical unschooling families allow their children to make decisions about almost every aspect of their lives as far as when and where they sleep as well as what video games to play and for how long.  Most unschooling families tend to experiment with varying levels of restrictions placed upon their children and find the right balance for their family through trial and error (Rolstad et al, 2013).

Unschooling parents are closely attuned to the philosophies of Erikson about children needing to play out their thoughts and fears and often recommend that new unschooling parents read Jones’ (2002) book entitled, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (Rolstad et al, 2013).  Unschooling families commonly posit the increased trust developed between themselves and their children as they begin to trust their children and their decisions in pursuing their interests and experimenting with life (Rolstad et al, 2013).  According to Rolstad et al (2013), unschooling parents understand the “undesirability of a predetermined curriculum, all safely mapped out” and believe in the excitement of spontaneous learning and discovery.  Children in unschooling families often search for answers to their curiosities online and teach each other about the reliability of various websites and sources, including the information discovered (Rolstad, 2013).  According to McGonigal (2011), the importance of play, whether real or virtual is perceived to be a “crucial foundation for social organization” and goes on to state that the future of our society may depend on it”(Rolstad et al, 2013).

Rolstad et al (2013) states that “Play provides opportunities that transcend mere skill building, affording emotional well-being, social cohesion, societal problem-solving and the sort of creative innovations and inventions that we will need if we are to address our current global problems, not to mention as-yet-unknown problems that we are bound to encounter in the future”.

According to Rolstad et al (2013), Weil (2011) points out that involving and encouraging children to participate in addressing global problems develops the skills traditional schools contend that children should focus all their time on while discovering viable solutions to real problems.  In other words, children are able to develop the basic skills that are taught in traditional schooling through the more purposeful means of addressing and solving real life issues rather than seemingly practicing purposeless skills day after day.  Through the engagement in interesting activities, children are better able to grasp their own learning through these authentic activities (Rolstad, 2013).  Rolstad (2013) quotes Shaw: “What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child”.  Unschooled children pursue knowledge with an excitement about learning (Rolstad, 2013).  The primary role of unschooling parents is to provide the materials that are necessary to support children’s interests (Rolstad, 2013).  Unschooling proponents believe that learning takes place during every life experience (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) notes that according to unschooling families, living is learning.  The common belief amongst unschooling supporters is that “learning is best done while experiencing the world and that learners learn best what they enjoy” (Curtice, 2014).

Interestingly, unschoolers are free to attend school when and if they desire and many unschooling families have children who attend college classes at very young ages (Curtice, 2014).  A participant in a study conducted by Curtice (2014) began “taking classes at Mesa Community College at age 10”.  Many unschoolers utilize community resources in whatever ways they desire; the importance lying in the desire to do so (Curtice, 2014).  Unschooling parents are primarily concerned about their children being involved in authentic activities such as building a chair versus watching it being built (Curtice, 2014).  In addition, many unschooling parents would prefer to locate an expert in any specific subject rather than their child attend school and unschoolers often participate in internships within their communities (Curtice, 2014).  Furthermore, unschooling parents posit that if their child decides to pursue an interest and signs up for classes, they will encourage completion; however, given compelling reasons, they would be allowed to make the decision to discontinue (Curtice, 2014).

Parents of unschoolers typically view themselves as a guide or facilitator and prefer to teach their children through ‘modeling’; hence, involving them in daily life (and involving them in discussion) rather than excluding them from it (Curtice, 2014).  Grocery shopping, car and house purchases, etc all become incredibly important learning experiences in unschooling families (Curtice, 2014).  In addition, unschoolers learn through natural life experiences such as (Curtice, 2014):

  • play
  • household responsibilities
  • personal interests
  • curiosity
  • internships
  • work experience
  • travel
  • books
  • elective classes
  • family
  • mentors
  • social interaction

“Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child” (Curtice, 2014).  Fundamental to unschooling is the belief that curiosity is innate and that children want to learn (Curtice, 2014).

Curtice (2014) found that unschooling families believe that “institutionalizing children in a so-called ‘one size fits all’ or ‘factory model’ school is an inefficient use of the children’s time, because it requires each child to learn specific subject matter in a particular manner, at a particular pace, and at a specific time regardless of that individual’s present or future needs, interests, goals, or any pre-existing knowledge he or she might have about the topic”.

Unschooling parents believe that many opportunities for learning are missed when educational experiences are limited to those inside a school building (Curtice, 2014).  Often noted by unschooling proponents is the fact that psychologists have documented numerous differences in children and the ways in which they learn, asserting that unschooling is more capable of adapting to these varying needs (Curtice, 2014).  Also, children vary in their physical development, as Curtice (2014) notes, developmental psychologists have described the differences in development and growth as also being representative of varying differences in learning readiness.  In addition, many unschooling proponents state that learning how to learn is more important than focusing on specific subjects (Curtice, 2014).

 “Since we cant know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance.  Instead, we should try to turnout people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever must be learned” (Curtice, 2014).

Unschooling proponents assert that a child’s ability to learn on their own increases the probability that, as adults, these children will be able to continue to learn what they need to learn in order to adapt to changing needs, interests, and goals; therefore, making it easy to return to any subject of their choice in order to learn more (Curtice, 2014).  Most unschooling families disagree with the idea that there is any area of specific knowledge that every child should be taught (Curtice, 2014).

Unschooling families quote Holt in stating that “If children are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than anyone else could make for them” (Curtice, 2014).

How can technology be used purposefully for unschooling?

Many unschooled children use social networking sites to transcend barriers in communicating with people of differing nationalities and languages (Rolstad et al, 2013).  According to Rolstad et al (2013), children should be trusted to know what interests them most and trusted to naturally explore those interests in order to develop the skills needed to pursue them as well as trusting in their ability to ask for assistance when needed.  Its interesting to note the differences in unschooling over time since technology has made a big impact in the lives of us all since the 1970’s when unschooling was first introduced (Rolstad et al, 2013).  While unschoolers during the 1970’s had access to a wide variety of books, maps, manipulatives, and other materials, todays unschoolers have the internet, which contains a menagerie of resources (Rolstad et al, 2014).

Unschooling families of the past are reminiscent of times when unschoolers weren’t exposed to technology; however, unschoolers today proclaim that technology is an invaluable resource that shouldn’t be dismissed (Rolstad et al, 2014).  Rolstad et al (2013) notes that Papert, who invented Logos in the 1970’s in order to enable children to program computers, was disappointed that schools failed to permit children to do so.  Rolstad et al, 2013 states that Papert (1993) offers a compelling argument to the reluctance to embrace technology in stating that “we are experiencing an epistemological revolution caused by our ability to personalize how we learn as individuals through the use of technological media” (Rolstad et al, 2013).  In fact, children born after the advent of technology advancements are labeled the i-Generation (the i signifying both ‘information’ and ‘individualizable’ due to the fact that they are greatly influenced by these advancements in these ways) (Curtice, 2014).

Unschooling is a revolutionary type of schooling and changes the way that parents and educators think about education.  This change is running parallel to the current revolution in internet-based information sharing (Curtice, 2014).  I-Gen children are able to engage in the world in ways that are similar to that of the “highly successful learning principles that guide video game design” which Gee (2003) states are superior to principles which underlie traditional school instruction (Curtice, 2014).  According to Gee (2003), I-Gen children have always been capable of seeking and receiving information ‘just in time’ and ‘on demand’ unlike the way information is pushed in schools: ‘just in case’ and ‘in advance’ (Curtice, 2014).  In fact it is ironic that I-Gen children who attend traditional schooling have access to information in every aspect of their lives except during the many hours they are at school (Curtice, 2014).

Curtice (2014) posits that when I-Gen children are freed from the limitations of traditional schooling, they spend their time learning about their own interests and engaged in purposeful learning, more tailored to their individual needs.  Unschooled children use technology in many ways.  YouTube videos provide endless opportunities to learn endless subjects from ‘how to gut a fish’ to ‘how to speak ancient Greek’ to ‘calculating angular refraction’ to how to apply anime-style make-up (Curtice, 2014).  Also interesting is that many of these videos are created by children themselves (Curtice, 2014).  Although many adults bemoan children’s fascination with technology, there has been no clear evidence of the negative effects of such use (Curtice, 2014).  Much of this assumption is based on popular belief without sufficient evidence, such as the following quote presented by Curtice (2014) by Consumer Affairs (2007): “Think your kids spend too much time playing video games? You could be right. From toddlers to tweens to teens, more than one-third of kids in the United States are spending more time playing video games today than they did a year ago”.  Despite these fears many researchers have documented the extremely positive effects of unlimited video gaming (Curtice, 2014).

Many unschooling parents play video games alongside their children and encourage discussion about them, involving themselves heavily in their children’s game play (Curtice, 2014).  Shockingly, Rolstad (2013) notes that the concerns expressed today regarding technology were also expressed many years ago in regards to reading (Gee, 2003).  Rolstad (2013) states that many children were told that reading books was bad for their health, mind numbing, anti-social, and thought to be a waste of time (Gee, 2003).  Reading gradually became recognized for its educational value; however, literature that wasn’t educational was still discouraged (Rolstad, 2013).  It is posited by Rolstad et al (2013) that children learn about an amazing array of topics through video gaming and discussing their game play with others, often following tangents which lead to even more learning.

According to Rolstad et al (2013), video gaming involves children in “highly sophisticated and specialist language varieties” (Gee, 2004).  Gee (2004) suggests that the video game world eliminates all achievement gaps; access to technology is the only requirement.  Gee (2004) goes on to state that children of poverty, children of color, as well as girls and boys all participate and learn during gaming in the same ways (Rolstad et al, 2013).  Children acquire new vocabulary and reading ability through being engaged in video gaming in the most authentic of ways (Gee, 2004; Rolstand et al, 2013).  Video game play also encourages interest in special domains; therefore, children typically gravitate towards affinity groups within their sector of interest of video game play (Rolstad, 2013).

Skogen (2012) states that children who have not yet learned to read through instruction often achieve high levels of literacy through game play, due to high demands upon literacy skills in the world of gaming (Rolstad et al, 2013).  It is common that unschooled children who enjoy video games also become interested in game design and begin to modify games, share computer codes, and redesign and rebuild their own computers (Rolstad, 2013).  By replacing the 150 year old traditional school system with this new world of learning, which is augmented by real life experiences and technology, learners’ curiosities are more readily and efficiently satisfied (Curtice, 2014).

Unschooling families tend to rely on technology heavily in order to empower their children in pursuing their interests (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) explains that Gatto argued that children learn best when they are interested and believes that it is impossible for schools to cater to children’s individual interests in this way.

Curtice (2014) states that Gatto cited an unnamed IBM vice president as stating that: ” … this country became computer-literate by self teaching, not through any action of schools. 45 million people were comfortable with computers who had learned through dozens of non-systematic strategies, none of them very formal; if schools had pre-empted the right to teach computer use we would be in a horrible mess right now instead of leading the world in this literacy”.

Holt (1981)states that: “What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out”.

Holt and Gatto are both known to be supporters of self teaching.  Unschooling families posit self teaching and intrinsic motivation as pillars of the unschooling community (Curtice, 2014).  Unschooling families believe that attaining vast knowledge in one subject as a child will easily transfer to any subject of interest (Curtice, 2014).

Interestingly, Curtice (2014) notes that many unschooling mothers are opposed to violent video games and place restrictions on such; whereas, unschooling dads don’t share in their sympathy (Curtice, 2014).  In the event that unschoolers engage in an activity for a period that parents deem as too long (such as video gaming), unschooling parents redirect and encourage their children to engage in other activities (Curtice, 2014).  Although restriction isn’t the typical practice presented by the unschooling philosophy, unschooling parents posit that “their job is to help guide their children towards healthy, nutritious options when possible” (Curtice, 2014).  Unschooling families acknowledge the benefits of video gaming, many of them having read Gee’s (2007) book on video games and learning (Curtice, 2014).  However, although many studies acknowledge the benefits of video gaming, they don’t usually advocate them being played 8 hours a day (Curtice, 2013).

Curtice (2014) further notes that unschoolers tend to use technology more than their traditionally schooled counterparts; YouTube and Khan Academy being the two most used websites documented with Wikipedia coming in at third.  Unschoolers tend to use these websites in response to real life needs in trying to find out the answers to problems rather than as regular curriculum (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) notes that Minecraft is a popular game amongst unschooled children and posits that unschooling parents state that their children are amazingly creative during their Minecraft sessions.  Unschooled children posit that Minecraft teaches them about resource management, teamwork, and creativity (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) notes that Minecraft in particular offers a very in depth sophisticated level-editing experience.   Terraria was noted by Curtice (2014) to be another popular game amongst unschoolers.  In addition, Netflix is commonly used by unschoolers to watch educational shows (Curtice, 2014).

Other commonly used programs amongst unschoolers include (Curtice, 2014):

  • Photoshop
  • Cheat Engine
  • Skype
  • Powerpoint
  • Notepad
  • Word
  • World of Warcraft

Interestingly, Curtice (2014) notes that the female unschoolers in his study had no interest in video gaming.  In addition,  none of the unschooling families in his study watched television as it was primarily used for Netflix and video game use.  Internet safety in unschooling families is primarily based on trust between parents and children and the close bonds formed within these unique family units (Curtice, 2014).  Unschooling parents posit that video games teach math and money concepts, history, and literary concepts as well as references that lead children to further research diverse topics such as Greek Gods, ancient civilzations, ancient as well as modern weapons, as well as various religions and monarchies (Curtice, 2014).  According to Curtice (2014) unschooling families attest to the power and utility of the internet for unschooling uses and posit that the ability to look up facts and figures often start larger family discussions that lead to more contextualized learning.

How is unschooling different from Homeschooling?

Curtice (2014) posits that the difference between unschooling and homeschooling is simple in that homeschoolers use a curriculum and unschoolers do not.  However, there tends to be a continuum on which homeschoolers and unschoolers exist in which relaxed homeschoolers and more rigid unschoolers overlap (Curtice, 2014).  Radical unschooling parents state that their children have no rules, no boundaries, and no edicts; whereas, the most strict homeschoolers follow a rigid curriculum (Curtice, 2014).

What is wrong with traditional education?

Rolstad et al (2013) quotes Holt (1989) as stating that the unschooling philosophy believes that the traditional schooling belief which posits that “children’s predicted possible needs should be canonized in a predetermined curriculum and taught to children on a standardized schedule based on age, with concomitant expectations that specific milestones be met, is misguided at its core”.  While some children meet expectations within the traditional schooling paradigm, many others find themselves either bored or falling behind resulting in bad behavior and low self esteem when in all actuality the problem lies within the school system that expects all children of a particular age to adhere to the same level of learning among other things (Holt, 1989; Rolstad et al, 2013).  Because the fundamental problem remains unaddressed, the current school system cannot be fixed through the use of rewarding and or penalizing schools, teachers, and children (Rolstad et al, 2013).

Institutionalized schooling makes learning unenjoyable, which turns children against the idea of learning altogether (Gatto, 2005; Holt, 1983, 1989; Rolstad, 2013).  However, Rolstad et al (2013) posits that learning is not the only problem with traditional schooling; in fact, many of the problems arise with other issues that cause undue stress to children such as high stakes testing, classism, bullying, etc.  Unschooling families believe that the traditional system does not encourage the innate curiosity of children (Curtice, 2014).  Tests, grades, curricula, and teachers all label and discriminate students while also ignoring their personal educational desires, making children feel unimportant and broken (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) further posits that “the decontextualized nature of academic content, assessed via methodologies celebrating rote regurgitation of facts, to unschooling parents is inferior to contextualized, in situ, learning that occurs naturally while pursuing one’s interests”.  Unschooling parents believe that by placing “conformity to curriculum and standards ahead of individual interests” the current school system was designed with the purpose of shaping children into what is expected of them for the future benefit of the economy (Curtice, 2014).

Unschooling eschews the formal, organized educational model that limits and restrains children to pursue knowledge on their own terms (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) notes that Holt (1982; 1983) suggests that because many children are reading and doing basic math prior to entering school, children can simply continue to learn in this way if left without interference.  Curtice (2014) states that Illich, Holt, and Gatto imagine that a system without tests, compulsory attendance, and mandatory subjects would be superior to the current system.  Illich (1971) believed that the current system was created to raise a population that would be subservient to society, arguing that this “western system of education should be abolished and replaced by a system that allowed people of similar interests to meet and learn from one another” (Curtice, 2014).  The teacher centric model allows the teacher to control all aspects of education, deciding how it will be taught, how it will be assessed, and what is important to study, many times using coercion, public humiliation, and intimidation as motivators for learning (Curtice, 2014).  Unschooling philosophy believes that students in the traditional school system become nameless and faceless as they are slowly molded into what others want them to be (Curtice, 2014).

Unschooling parents agree that traditional schooling methods take far too long to teach specific concepts to children since the same concepts can be taught at home in a much shorter time at a time when the child is ready and interested (Curtice, 2014).  Traditional schooling is, interestingly, the only time in a person’s life in which they work within one’s own age group (Curtice, 2014).  Traditional schooling, according to unschooling families, decreases the parent/child bond, reduces family time, and creates an atmosphere of fear or at best, atmospheres which are not conducive to learning (Curtice, 2014).

As posited by Curtice (2014), according to Holt, “…the anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know”.

Curtice (2014) states that the school environment is another sore spot for unschooling families as according to Brain Rules by John Medina, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would create something like a classroom….”.  In fact, Curtice (2014) states that there are numerous studies which demonstrate how the physical environment affects student achievement: “There is sufficient research to state without equivocation that the building in which students spends a good deal of their time learning does in fact influence how well they learn’ (Earthman, G 2004:18)…research has acknowledged that ‘student achievement lags in shabby school buildings…”.  However, unschooling parents point out that some schools do attempt to recreate an unschooling scenario at school such as Sudbury model schools which are “non-coercive, non-indoctrinative, cooperative, democratically run partnerships between children and adults, including full parents’ partnership, where learning is individualized and child-led, and complements home education” (Curtice, 2014).

According to many studies, Curtice (2014) states that success and schooling have not been shown to exhibit much correlation.  Curtice (2014) further states that “highly successful people, including US presidents, scientists, actors, writers, inventors, and educators were home-schooled or dropped out of school, suggesting that education is a matter of curiosity and desire rather than academic achievement”.  Its clear that as long as educational institutions continue to marginalize children and constrain their desire to learn, families will increasingly flee the system, opting for their own-school in unschooling instead (Curtice, 2014).

Is Unschooling legal?

Curtice (2014) states that homeschooling laws vary greatly by state.  Homeschooling was illegal in 48 states until the late 1970’s when Holt began politicking for legality in homeschooling (Curtice, 2014).  In 1993, Michigan,  was the last state to finally join in the legality of homeschooling.  there is no legal difference between homeschooling and unschooling in all 5o states (Curtice, 2014).  Curtice (2014) states that some states require some form of curriculum and standardized testing while other states are more lax.  Some require annual meetings with government officials in order to validate that learning is taking place at home (Curtice, 2014).  Minimal requirements are mandated in other states such as Arizona where the only requirement is the notarization of a document proclaiming the parents commitment to educating their child (Curtice, 2014).  Unsurprisingly, unschooling families are often forced to resort to telling people and other authorities that they are homeschooling their child for fear of unwanted judgement and interference (Curtice, 2014).

How many families practice unschooling?

Curtice (2014) notes that Ray (2014) estimates that there are over 100,000 unschooling children in the US today.  Unschooling is one of the least studied educational phenomena as unschooling families prefer to stay somewhat hidden due to the fact that “not all local government agents understand homeschooling laws which can cause unwanted difficulties” (Hill, 2000; Lines 2000; Gaither 2008; Curtice, 2014).  Unschooling families are not typically interested in recruiting new members or creating converts (Curtice, 2014).  Nonetheless, unschooling has experienced much growth in recent times (Curtice, 2014).  While its impossible to know for sure how many people are actually unschooling their children, Curtice (2014) a Google Adwords Trend analysis shows that the terms ‘unschool’ and ‘unschooling’ from 2012 through 2014 are flat with increases often taking place prior to the start of the traditional school year.

Where can I find more Unschooling resources?


Curtice, B. (2014, November). Ownschooling: the use of technology in 10 unschooling families . Retrieved February 7, 2017, from https://repository.asu.edu/attachments/140837/content/Curtice_asu_0010E_14317.pdf

Griffith, M. (1998). The unschooling handbook: how to use the whole world as your child’s classroom. Rocklin, CA: Prima Pub.

Rolstad, K., & Kesson, K. (2013). Unschooling, then and now. Retrieved February 7, 2017, from http://jual.nipissingu.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2014/06/v72142.pdf

Shaw, G. (1994). What is unschooling? – The Natural Child Project. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/earl_stevens.html

Wikipedia. (2017). Unschooling. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unschooling

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