What’s Unschooling And Why Do We Need It?

Homeschooling, unschooling and other unconventional routes to educating children aren’t new trends, nor are they nearly as radical as our modern culture would have us believe.

Much like mindfulness practices and other education strategies that we consider to be “nontraditional,” unschooling is gaining popularity as an alternative to the K-12, highly structured, standardized, state-mandated educational philosophy that’s embraced across the United States.

The Story of Unschooling

Unschooling, sometimes considered a subset of homeschooling, was given its name in the 1970s by author and educator, John Holt. A trailblazer in youth rights theory, Holt saw no distinction between learning and living, and although he felt it unnecessary to label this “natural” way of education intertwined with everyday life, this idea became known as “unschooling” essentially because no better term existed to describe it.

Unschooling embraces children’s natural curiosity and motivation to learn, allowing students to guide their learning experience through activities of their choice. This undirected, organic approach operates under the belief that children learn better, retain an interest in learning, and receive a more meaningful education through daily experiential life lessons, as opposed to structured, teacher-led school curricula.

With no conventional grades or pass/fail ratings issued, unschooled children aren’t pressured to conform to societal norms and state-determined standards. Instead, to summarize some of Holt’s ideas in his book How Children Fail, standardized testing reinforces a sense of defeatism, teaching children to fear failure and the potential of being wrong. Thus, Holt argues that teacher-led schools squash creativity in lieu of fishing for the “right” answers without giving regard to innovation and alternative solutions.

Another major limitation of conventional schooling is that it cannot keep up with the evolution of jobs. According to the World Economic Forum, it’s predicted that 65% of today’s students will end up in a career that doesn’t currently exist. Because unschooling relies on harnessing curiosity and creating lifelong self-motivated learners, unschooled children may have higher capacities to adapt to the changing work landscape, in comparison to traditionally educated children who are taught to depend on a flawed, dogmatic system of learning.

Going back to the idea of names and Holt’s discontent with the need to label such a natural process as unschooling, perhaps his ideas are actually more traditional than the teacher-centered alternative. The belief in children’s need for traditional or conventional education, in its earliest form, didn’t arise until around the 16th century. Even then, it very slowly gained popularity over the next 300 years. Before the spread of formal, mandated education, children were self-educated in the ways of unschooling for thousands of years, making the period encasing teacher-led education a mere blip in the overall timespan of human learning. Flash forward to today and we see an education system plagued by the pressure of cutthroat competition, a phenomenon that would have been completely unthinkable by early formal education proponents.

So, What Do We Do Now?

Admittedly, no form of education is without its limitations, as the biggest concerns with unschooling arise in the unschooled child’s ability to integrate into a society that revolves around conventional learning. And, of course, further complications arise in terms of the equity and privilege surrounding the ability to homeschool or unschool children, as many working, single, and/or low-income parents are virtually denied the option of renouncing conventional education.

However, purely based on the principles of unschooling and the benefits it can have for kids, it provides a fresh perspective on education and instills values that conventional schools simply can’t teach. In case you’re wondering, unschooling is also completely legal in all 50 states, due to its classification as a subset of homeschooling.

Do you unschool your children, or have you considered it? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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