What is Unschooling? And what does it mean?

In the world's most-watched TED talk, Ken Robinson poses a simple question to the audience at TED's 2006 conference: do schools kill creativity? He then shares the moving story of Gillian Lynne, a prominent English ballerina, dancer and choreographer best known for her work on the musicals Cats and Phantom of the Opera. In his own words:

“The school wrote to her parents – said we think Gillian has a learning disorder. She couldn't concentrate, she was fidgeting. Anyway she went to see this specialist...she was there with her mother and she was led and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hand for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it – because she was disturbing people and her homework was always late and so on, little kid of eight –the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said "Gillian I've listened to all these things that your mother has told me. I need to speak to her privately". He said "Wait here, we'll be back, we won't be very long."
And they went and left her. But as they went out the room he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room he said to her mother "Just stand and watch her". The minute they left the room, she said she was on her feet, moving to the music.
And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and he said:
"You know Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick – she's a dancer. Take her to a dance school."

(You can watch the full TED talk here)

 Two weeks ago we made the decision to unschool our 13 year old Malaika Rose and go another route with her education. Not an easy decision, but the right decision for her.

What is Unschooling?

Unschooling is one step further away from standard education than homeschooling. In homeschooling, children don’t attend a traditional school, but they still follow a curriculum and complete formal assessments. 

According to local unschooling community, Growing Minds, the basic premise of unschooling is the recognition that all humans are natural learners and learn all the time; that learning happens as a by-product of living; and that learning happens intentionally because of curiosity, an interest or a goal. When this is understood, no ‘learning’ needs to be forced upon anybody. All learning is self-chosen and self-directed. 

The focus is connection rather than correction. And the priority is to support our children to live up to their own images of who they are and who they can be, rather than forming them into what we or society would prefer them to be.

So, unschooling does not simply mean not sending your kids to school. It's much more specific than that, and is an approach to homeschooling that generally means learning without prescribed lessons, textbooks, or the school-like methods many other homeschoolers use.

Unschooling can also be called delight-directed learning, child-led learning, autodidactic, natural learning, life learning, autonomous learning, non-coercive learning, or interest-led learning, but the basic premise stays the same.

Unschooling vs. Deschooling

The similarity in the words can make people think they mean the same thing, when in fact, there is a big difference in unschooling vs. deschooling. Deschooling is recognized as a transition from school, and even normal homeschoolers  recognize that the need "to deschool" is important. We don't need to follow school rules at home, and even parents need to come to grips with the idea that homeschooling is not school.

Unschooling, on the other hand, can be seen as one of many styles or approaches to homeschooling. Sometimes, as a result of deschooling, families land on unschooling as their approach to homeschooling. (That said, many will argue unschooling is a lifestyle rather than a homeschooling style.) This typically means that children will learn naturally, according to their own curiosity, with active parent partners to facilitate their learning.

The parents won't prescribe textbooks, curriculum, quizzes, worksheets or tests, but they will support real-world learning that naturally occurs outside of school: projects, reading, writing, creating, experimenting, observing, and more. Parents don't coerce or require academics if they are unschoolers, but they do provide rich experiences such as library visits, read-alouds, things to build with, opportunities to pretend, resources other than curriculum, and more.

 A large component of unschooling is grounded in doing real things, not because we hope they will be good for us, but because they are intrinsically fascinating. There is an energy that comes from this that you can't buy with a curriculum. Children do real things all day long, and in a trusting and supportive home environment, "doing real things" invariably brings about healthy mental development and valuable knowledge. It is natural for children to read, write, play with numbers, learn about society, find out about the past, think, wonder and do all those things that society so unsuccessfully attempts to force upon them in the context of schooling.

But what happens to unschoolers later in life?

In 2011, Boston College research professor Peter Gray and colleague Gina Riley surveyed 232 parents who unschool their children. The respondents were overwhelmingly positive about their unschooling experience, saying it improved their children’s general well-being as well as their learning, and also enhanced family harmony. Their challenges primarily stemmed from feeling a need to defend their practices to family and friends, and overcoming their own deeply ingrained ways of thinking about education. (The results are discussed at length here.)

This led Gray to wonder how unschooled children themselves felt about the experience, and what impact it may have had on their ability to pursue higher education and find gainful and satisfying employment. So, in 2015, he asked readers of his blog to disseminate a survey to their networks, and received 75 responses from adults ranging in age from 18 to 49.

Almost all said they benefited from having had the time and freedom to discover and pursue their personal interests, giving them a head start on figuring out their career preferences and developing expertise in relevant areas. 70% also said “the experience enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed individuals,” Gray notes on his blog.

What stood out, he adds, is that “many more said they felt their social experiences were better than they would have had in school.” 69% were “clearly happy with their social lives,” he says, and made friends through such avenues as local homeschooling groups, organized afterschool activities, church, volunteer or youth organizations, jobs, and neighbours. In particular, “they really treasured the fact that they had friends who were older or younger, including adults. They felt this was a more normal kind of socializing experience than just being with other people your age.”

Overall, 83% of the respondents had gone on to pursue some form of higher education. Almost half of those had either completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, or were currently enrolled in such a program.

Several themes emerged: Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction. “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.”

The range of jobs and careers was very broad—from film production assistant to tall-ship bosun, urban planner, aerial wildlife photographer, and founder of a construction company—but a few generalizations emerged. Compared to the general population, an unusually high percentage of the survey respondents went on to careers in the creative arts—about half overall. Similarly, a high number of respondents (50% of the men and about 20% of the women) went on to science or technology careers.

What Gray found most striking is the complete absence of “the typical person who gets an MBA and goes on to become an accountant or middle manager in some business. People with these educational backgrounds don’t go on to bureaucratic jobs. They do work in teams, but where there is a more democratic relationship within the team.”

Where to find out more

In South Africa there are not many resources available on unschooling. The best starting point is either Growing Minds or their Unschooling in South Africa Facebook page.

It is not an easy journey to go on, and one has to consider the legal implications of taking your child out of school. This post doesn’t even touch on all the steps you have to go through to start. But, for us, seeing the difference in Malaika’s anxiety levels already, it is worth the effort.

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