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The term unschooling has two meanings. On one hand, it is used to describe methods of education that do not resemble schools, mainly indicating a lack of heavy reliance on textbooks or time at desks. In contrast, unschooling as envisioned by home education advocate John Holt, who coined the term, [1] refers to a type of interest-based education in which the parents do not authoritatively direct the child's education, but instead aid the child in exploring his or her interests. Unschooling does not indicate that the child is not being educated, but that the child is not being "schooled", or educated in a rigid school-type manner.

Holt asserted that children learn through the experiences of life, and he encouraged parents to live their lives with their child. Also known as interest-led or child-led learning, unschooling tries to pursue opportunities as they arise in real life, through which a child will learn without coercion. An unschooled child may use texts or classroom instruction, but these are not considered central to education. Holt asserted that there is no specific body of knowledge that is, or should be, required of a child.

Unschooling advocates believe that children learn best by doing; a child may learn reading to further an interest about history or other cultures, or math skills by operating a small business or sharing in family finances. For example, they may learn animal husbandry by keeping dairy goats or meat rabbits, botany by tending a kitchen garden, chemistry to understand the operation of firearms or the internal combustion engine, or politics and local history by following a zoning or historical-status dispute. While any type of homeschoolers may also use these methods, the unschooled child initiates these learning activities.

Unschooling should not be confused with deschooling, which may be used to indicate an anti-"institutional school" philosophy, or a period or form of deprogramming for children or parents who have previously been schooled.

Home education

Unschooling is generally considered to be a form of home education, which is simply the education of children at home rather than in a school. Home education is often considered to be synonymous with homeschooling, but some have argued that the latter term implies the re-creation of school in the context of the home, which they believe is philosophically at odds with unschooling.

Unschooling contrasts with other forms of home education in that the student's education is not directed by a teacher and curriculum. Although unschooling students may choose to make use of teachers or curricula, they are ultimately in control of their own education.[2] Students choose how, when, why, and what they pursue. Parents who unschool their children act as "facilitators," providing a wide range of resources, helping their children access, navigate, and make sense of the world, and aiding them in making and implementing goals and plans for both the distant and immediate future. Unschooling expands from children's natural curiosity as an extension of their interests, concerns, needs, goals, and plans.


Conventional education

Unschoolers commonly believe that curiosity is innate and that children want to learn what is necessary for them to become competent adults. Some argue that institutionalizing children in what they term a "one size fits all" or "factory model" school is an inefficient use of their time because it requires every child to learn specific subject matter in a particular manner, at a particular pace, and at a particular 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.

Many unschoolers also believe that opportunities for valuable hands-on, community based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences are missed when educational opportunities are largely limited to those which can occur physically inside of a school building.

Additionally, some unschoolers agree with John Holt when he says that "...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." Proponents assert that individualized, child-led learning is more efficient and respectful of children's time, takes advantage of their interests, and allows deeper exploration of subjects than what is possible in conventional education.

Essential body of knowledge

Unschoolers often contest that learning any specific subject is less important than learning how to learn. They assert, in the words of Alec Bourne, "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated", and in the words of Holt:

Since we can’t 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 turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.

This ability to learn on their own makes it more likely that later, when these children are adults, they can continue to learn what they need to know to meet newly emerging needs, interests, and goals. They can return to any subject that they feel was not sufficiently covered or learn a completely new subject.

Many unschoolers disagree that there is a particular body of knowledge that every person, regardless of the life they lead, needs to possess. They suggest that there are countless subjects worth studying, more than anyone could learn within a single lifetime. Since it would be impossible for a child to learn everything, somebody must decide what subjects they are to explore. Unschoolers argue that "Children... if they 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."

The role of parents

The child-directed nature of unschooling does not mean that unschooling parents will not provide their children with guidance and advice, or that they will refrain from sharing things that they find fascinating or illuminating with them. These parents generally believe that as adults, they have more experience with the world and greater access to it. They believe in the importance of using this to aid their children in accessing, navigating, and making sense of the world. Common parental activities include sharing interesting books, articles, and activities with their children, helping them find knowledgeable people to explore an interest with (anyone from physics professors to automotive mechanics), and helping them set goals and figure out what they need to do to meet their goals. Unschooling’s interest-based nature does not mean that it is a "hands off" approach to education; parents tend to be quite involved, especially with younger children (older children, unless they are new to unschooling, will often need much less help finding resources and making and carrying out plans).


Concerns about socialization are often a factor in the decision to unschool. Many unschoolers believe that the conditions common in conventional schools, like age segregation, a low ratio of adults to children, a lack of contact with the community, and a lack of people in professions other than teaching or school administration create an unhealthy social environment.[3] They feel that their children benefit from coming in contact with people of diverse ages and backgrounds in a variety of contexts. They also feel that their children benefit from having some ability to influence what people they encounter, and in what contexts they encounter them. Unschooled children are often reported to be more mature than their schooled peers, [4] [5] [6] and some people believe this is a result of the wide range of people with which they have the opportunity to communicate. [7]

College admission

Unschoolers have been admitted to most universities (including Ivy League schools). [8] [9] The article Homeschooling: Back to the Future? states that "in the absence of a transcript or high school diploma, applicants can submit samples or a portfolio of their work, letters of recommendation, and CLEP and Stanford Achievement Test scores." Some universities consider unschoolers to be an asset because they tend to love learning, be self-motivated, and know what they want to get out of their college experience. According to Johnathan Reider, an admissions officer at Stanford university, speaking of home educated students in general, "The distinguishing factor is intellectual vitality. These kids have it, and everything they do is responding to it." [10]


The following are common opinions and concerns of people who are critical of unschooling.

  • Most children lack the foresight to learn the things they will need to know in their adult lives. [11] [12]
  • There may be gaps in a child's education unless an educational professional controls what material is covered. [13]
  • Because schools provide a ready-made source of peers, it may be more difficult for children who are not in school to make friends and develop social skills than it is for their schooled peers. [14] [12]
  • Because schools may provide a diverse group of both adults and students, it might be more difficult for children who are not in school to be directly exposed to different cultures, socio-economic groups and worldviews. [12]
  • Some children are not motivated to learn anything, and will spend all of their time in un-educational endeavors if not coerced into doing otherwise. [15]
  • Not all parents may be able to provide the stimulating environment or have the skills and patience required to encourage the student's curiosity. [11][13]
  • Because they often lack a diploma from an accredited school, it may be more difficult for unschooled students to get into college or get a job. [13]
  • Children who direct their own educations may not develop the ability to take direction from others. [16]


Resource centers

A relatively new phenomenon is the unschooling, homeschooling, or self-directed learning center. [17] Some centers are created for (and often by) existing homeschoolers or unschoolers, while others, such as North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens[18] in Hadley, Massachusetts, often attract people who aren't currently unschoolers (and may never have heard of unschooling), but are interested in using a new form of education.


Not Back To School Camp (see NBTSC)[2] is an annual gathering of over 100 unschoolers ages 13 to 18. The camp is directed by Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How To Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.

Other forms of alternative education

Many other forms of alternative education also place a great deal of importance on student control of learning. This includes free schools, like the Sudbury Valley School, and 'open learning' virtual universities. Unschooling differs from these approaches in that unschoolers do not believe that an institution is necessary to facilitate learning. Many believe that 'educational' institutions actually limit learning by removing people from the larger world, where they believe the most valuable learning occurs.


  1. John Holt Biography, http://www.holtgws.com/johnholtpage.html
  2. The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn
  3. Socialization: A Great Reason Not to Go to School, http://learninfreedom.org/socialization.html
  4. Comparison of Social Adjustment Between Home and Traditionally Schooled Students, a thesis by Larry Edward Shyers
  5. Socialization: A Great Reason Not to Go to School, http://learninfreedom.org/socialization.html
  6. [1]
  7. Isn't it Natural for Children to be Divided by Age in School?, http://learninfreedom.org/age_grading_bad.html
  8. Homeschooling: Back to the Future?, http://www.educationatlas.com/home-schooling-information.html
  9. Colleges That Admit Homeschoolers, http://learninfreedom.org/colleges_4_hmsc.html
  10. In a Class by Themselves, http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2000/novdec/articles/homeschooling.html
  11. 11.0 11.1 Unspooling Unschooling, by Bonnie Erbe, in "To the Contrary" blog on US News and World Report website, November 27, 2006
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Common Objections to Homeschooling, by John Holt, originally published as Chapter 2 of Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education. New York: Delacorte Press, 1981.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 A new chapter in education: unschooling, by Victoria Clayton MSNBC, Oct 6, 2006
  14. Readers share heated opinions on unschooling, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15148804/
  15. Unschooling Leads to Self-Motivated Learning, http://www.homeschoolnewslink.com/homeschool/columnists/mckee/vol7iss2_UnschoolingLeads.shtml
  16. Readers share heated opinions on unschooling, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15148804/
  17. Homeschool Resource Centers
  18. , North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens website