Unschooling is an informal learning method that prioritizes learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschoolers learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Often considered a lesson- and curriculum-free implementation of homeschooling, unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, under the belief that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood, and therefore useful it is to the child. While unschooled students may occasionally take courses, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, fixed times at which learning should take place, conventional grading methods in standardized tests, forced contact with children in their own age group, the compulsion to do homework regardless of whether it helps the learner in their individual situation, the effectiveness of listening to and obeying the orders of one authority figure for several hours each day, and other features of traditional schooling.

Children investigating insect deposits in tree bark as part of an unschooling activity

The term unschooling was coined in the 1970s and used by educator John Holt, who is widely regarded as the father of unschooling. Unschooling is often seen as a subset of homeschooling, but while homeschooling has been the subject of broad public debate, unschooling received relatively little media attention and has only become popular in recent[may be outdated as of April 2023] years.

Critics of unschooling see it as extreme, and express concerns that unschooled children will be neglected; miss many things that are important for their future; lack the social skills, structure, discipline, and motivation of their schooled peers; and not be able to cope with uncomfortable situations. Proponents of unschooling disagree, asserting that self-directed education in a non-academic, often natural and diversified environment is a far more efficient, sustainable, and child-friendly form of education than schooling; one which preserves innate curiosity, pleasure, and willingness to discover and learn new things; invites children to be part of society; shows children how to deal with their surroundings and their existence in a self-determined and responsible manner; makes children understand why certain properties, skills, abilities, values and norms are important rather than just telling them to obtain and adhere to them; rewards and supports creativity, individuality, and innovation; teaches how to acquire new things and find your way in unfamiliar situations quickly; and better equips a child to handle the "real world" outside of school.[1]


The term unschooling probably derives from Ivan Illich's term deschooling. It was popularized through John Holt's newsletter Growing Without Schooling (GWS). Holt is also widely regarded as the father of unschooling.[2] In an early essay, Holt contrasted the two terms:

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...[3]

At the time the term was equivalent to home schooling (itself a neologism). Subsequently, home schoolers began to differentiate between various educational philosophies within home schooling. The term unschooling became used as a contrast to versions of home schooling that were perceived as politically and pedagogically "school-like," for instance in that they used textbooks and exercises at home in the same way as they would be used at school. In 2003, in Holt's book Teach Your Own (originally published in 1981), Pat Farenga, co-author of the new edition, provided a definition:

When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.[4]

In the same passage Holt stated that he was not entirely comfortable with this term, and would have preferred the term "living". Holt's use of the term emphasizes learning as a natural process, integrated into the spaces and activities of everyday life, and not benefiting from adult manipulation. It follows closely on the themes of educational philosophies proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Paul Goodman, and A.S. Neill.

After Holt's death a range of unschooling practitioners and observers defined the term in various ways. For instance, the Freechild Project defines unschooling as:

the process of learning through life, without formalized or institutionalized classrooms or schoolwork.[5]

New Mexico homeschooling parent Sandra Dodd proposed the term "radical unschooling" to emphasize the complete rejection of any distinction between educational and non-educational activities.[6] Radical unschooling emphasizes that unschooling is a non-coercive, cooperative practice, and seeks to promote those values in all areas of life. These philosophies share an opposition to traditional schooling techniques and the social construction of schools[clarification needed]. Most emphasize the integration of learning into the everyday life of the family and wider community. Points of disagreement include whether unschooling is primarily defined by the initiative of the learner and their control over the curriculum, or by the techniques, methods, and spaces used.

Peter Gray suggested the term "self-directed education", which has fewer negative connotations.[7]

Unschooling is often seen as a subset of homeschooling; for example as the freest form of homeschooling.[8] While homeschooling has been the subject of broad public debate,[9] unschooling has received relatively little media attention[10] and has only become popular in recent[may be outdated as of April 2023] years.[11][12]


Parents choose to unschool their children for a variety of reasons, many of which overlap with reasons for homeschooling.

Unschoolers criticize schools for lessening the parent/child bond and reducing family time and for creating atmospheres that are fearful.[13] Some unschoolers argue that schools teach children facts and skills that will not be useful to them,[13][14] whereas with unschooling, children learn how to learn,[13][14] which is of more enduring use. Some assert that schools teach children only how to follow instructions,[13][14] which does not prepare them to confront tasks they have not done before. Another argument is that the structure of school is not suitable for people who want to make their own decisions about what, when, how, and with whom they learn because many things are predetermined in the school setting, while unschooled students are more free to make such decisions.[14]

In school, a student's community may consist mainly of a peer group, of which the parent has little influence and even knowledge. Unschoolers may have more opportunity to share a role in their greater community—including older and younger people—and can therefore learn to find their place within more diverse groups of people. Parents of school children also have little say regarding whom their instructors and teachers are, whereas parents of unschoolers may be more involved in the selection of the coaches or mentors their children work with and with whom they build relationships.[14]

According to unschooling pioneer John Holt, 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.

"...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."[citation needed]

Some schools have adopted relatively non-coercive and cooperative techniques, in a manner that harmonizes with the philosophies behind unschooling.[15] For example, Sudbury model schools are non-coercive, non-indoctrinative, cooperative, democratically run partnerships between children and adults, including full parents' partnership, in which learning is individualized and child-led, in a way that complements home education.[15]

Concerns about socialization can also be a factor in the decision to unschool. Some unschoolers believe that conditions in conventional schools, such as age segregation, the ratio of children to adults, or the amount of time spent sitting and obeying orders of one authority figure, are not conducive to proper education.[16]

Unschooling may broaden the diversity of people or places an unschooler is exposed to. Unschoolers may be more mature than their schooled peers on average,[17][18] and some believe this is a result of the wide range of people they have the opportunity to interact with.[19] Opportunities for unschoolers to meet and interact with other unschoolers has increased in recent years[may be outdated as of April 2023], allowing unschoolers to have interactions with other children with similar experiences.[20]

Methods and philosophyEdit

Natural learningEdit

Unschooling may emphasize free, undirected play as a major component of children's education.[21]

A fundamental premise of unschooling is that learning is a natural process constantly taking place[22] and that curiosity is innate and children want to learn.[23] Because of this, institutionalizing children in a "one size fits all" or "factory model" school is an inefficient use of the children's time and potential, 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 they might have about the topic.

Many unschoolers believe that students miss out on valuable hands-on, community-based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences when their educational opportunities are limited to, or dominated by, those inside a school building.[1]

Learning stylesEdit

Psychologists have documented many differences between children in the way they learn,[24]. Unschoolers assert that unschooling is better equipped to adapt to such differences.[25]

People vary in their "learning styles", that is, how they prefer to acquire new information. However, research has demonstrated no evidence[dubious ] of such learning styles and that this preference is not related to[vague] increased learning or improved performance.[26] Students have different learning needs. In a traditional school setting, teachers seldom evaluate an individual student differently from other students,[dubious ] and while teachers often use different methods[vague], this is sometimes haphazard and not always with regard to[clarification needed] an individual student.[27][better source needed]

Developmental differencesEdit

Developmental psychologists note that just as children reach growth milestones at different ages from each other, children are also prepared to learn different things at different ages.[24] Just as some children learn to walk during a normal range of eight to fifteen months, and begin to talk across an even larger range, unschoolers assert that they are also ready and able to read, for example, at different ages, girls usually earlier than boys.[citation needed] Natural learning produces far greater changes in behavior[clarification needed] than do traditional learning methods, though not necessarily an increase in the amount of information learned.[28][non sequitur] Traditional education requires all children to begin reading at the same time and to learn multiplication at the same time; unschoolers believe that some such children will be bored because a topic like this was something that they had been ready to learn earlier, and worse, some will fail because they are not yet ready.[29]

Essential body of knowledgeEdit

Unschoolers sometimes state that learning any specific subject is less important than learning how to learn.[30] 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 must be learned.[30]

Unschoolers suggest that this ability for children to learn on their own makes it more likely that later, when these children are adults, they can continue to learn in order to meet newly emerging needs, interests, and goals;[30] and that they can return to any subject that they feel was not sufficiently covered or learn a completely new subject.[30]

Many unschoolers disagree that there is a particular body of knowledge that everyone, regardless of the life they lead, needs to possess.[31] In the words of John Holt, "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."[32]

The role of parentsEdit

Parents of unschoolers provide resources, support, guidance, information, and advice to facilitate experiences that aid their children in accessing, navigating, and making sense of the world.[25] Common parental activities include sharing interesting books, articles, and activities with their children, helping them find knowledgeable people to explore an interest with (for example physics professors or 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 involve themselves[vague], especially with younger children (older children, unless new to unschooling, often need less help in finding resources and in making and carrying out plans).[25]

Paradigm shiftEdit

Unschooling contradicts assumptions of the dominant culture. This can make it difficult for people from that culture to understand the unschooling philosophy of education without participating in it and adopting a paradigm shift that may result in uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. New unschoolers are advised that they should not expect to understand the unschooling philosophy at first.[33] Many commonplace assumptions about education are unspoken and unwritten. One step towards overcoming the necessary paradigm shift is accepting[clarification needed] that "what we do is nowhere near as important as why we do it."[34]

Opponents of unschooling say that it cannot ensure that children receive a neutral, comprehensive education. They fear that children may be at the mercy of bad parents, resulting in parallel societies. Many advocates of unschooling doubt that or at least question whether such an education exists universally objectively seen and note that in school, people do not learn a lot of what they are guaranteed to need for their life either and that when unschooled, more efficient and independent learning guided by their own interests increases the probability that children will be well equipped for their future life because they learned how to learn and already roughly know what they are interested in and some things about these areas.[needs copy edit] They also find that children can be at least just as much at the mercy of one or more bad teachers and classmates in school and consider it exceedingly unrealistic that parents would completely isolate their children from external social influences or even criticize school as an institution in which children are fobbed off from the outside world and therefore see school itself as a parallel society.[needs copy edit] From then on, it is only a subjective decision as to where, when, how and with whom education should take place, which those to be educated should answer themselves, or, if necessary, with people directly involved in their education, like their parents or other people who educate them.[needs copy edit][35]

Unschooling compared to other homeschooling formsEdit

Unschooling is a form of homeschooling,[36][14] which is the education of children at home or other places rather than in a school. Unschooling teaches children based on their interests rather than according to a set curriculum.[8][36][37]

Unschooling contrasts with other forms of homeschooling in that the student's education is not directed by a teacher and curriculum.[8] Unschooling is a real-world implementation of the open classroom methods promoted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, without the school, classrooms, or grades.[citation needed] Parents who unschool their children act as facilitators, providing a 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.[repetition]

Unschooling differs from discovery learning, minimally invasive education, purpose-guided education, academic advising, phenomenon-based learning, and thematic learning.[how?][citation needed]


There are a variety of approaches to designing and practicing unschooling. Some of the most popular include the following:

  • Worldschooling, in which families travel around the world and learn through experiencing other places, people, cultures, and activities typical for these locations.[38]
  • Project-based unschooling, which holds that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges, problems, and projects that they can do in their own way and at their own pace.[39]
  • Gameschooling, which employs various games like board and card games to facilitate learning.[40] In addition to developing skills in math, language, history, board games also develop social skills such as interpersonal communication, negotiation, persuasion, diplomacy, and virtues like good sportsmanship.[41]

Complementary philosophiesEdit

Unschooling families may adopt the following philosophies:[citation needed]

Other forms of alternative educationEdit

Many other forms of alternative education also prioritize student control of learning, albeit not necessarily by the individual learner. These include free democratic schools,[42] like the Sudbury school, Stonesoup School, and "open learning" virtual universities.


As a form of homeschooling, unschooling faces many of the same critiques as homeschooling. Criticisms of unschooling in particular tend to focus on whether students can receive sufficient education in a context with so little structure compared with standard schooling practices. Some critics maintain that it can be difficult to build sufficient motivation in students to allow them learn without guardrails, and that some students might be left behind as a result.[43] Unschooled students who do not have enough motivation or interest in critical areas, it is argued, might fare poorly compared with their peers.[1][44]

In a 2006 study of children aged five to ten, unschooled children scored below traditionally schooled children in four of seven studied categories, and significantly below structured homeschoolers in all seven studied categories.[45]

See alsoEdit

Persons of interestEdit

Adult unschoolers of noteEdit


  1. ^ a b c "Readers share heated opinions on "unschooling"". NBC News. 2006-10-31. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  2. ^ Greer, Billy. "Unschooling or homeschooling?". Archived from the original on 2013-11-15. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  3. ^ Holt, J (1977). "Growing Without Schooling". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Holt, J. (2003). Teach Your Own.
  5. ^ "Unschooling & Self-Education". Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  6. ^ "Is there a difference between a radical unschooler and just an unschooler?". Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  7. ^ "Differences Between Self-Directed and Progressive Education". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  8. ^ a b c "Unschooling - letting children grow up without school or teachers". dpa International. Retrieved 2020-12-02.
  9. ^ Weller, Chris. "Homeschooling could be the smartest way to teach kids in the 21st century — here are 5 reasons why". Business Insider. Retrieved 2020-12-02.
  10. ^ "Understanding the Concept of Unschooling". Yorktown Education. 2020-04-22. Retrieved 2020-09-05.
  11. ^ Miller, Tyler (2014-10-15). "How Is Unschooling Different From Homeschooling?". www.noodle.com. Retrieved 2020-09-04.
  12. ^ "Unschooling: No Tests, No Books, No Bedtime". ABC News. Retrieved 2020-12-03.
  13. ^ a b c d "8 powerful reasons why I 'unschool' my kids". Motherly. 2017-10-12. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  14. ^ a b c d e f "The Beginner's Guide to Unschooling". zenhabits.net. 4 October 2012. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  15. ^ a b J. Scott Armstrong (1979). "The Natural Learning Project" (PDF). Journal of Experiential Learning and Simulation. Elseiver North-Holland, Inc. 1979. 1: 5–12. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-20. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
  16. ^ Bunday, Karl M. "Socialization: A Great Reason Not to Go to School". Learn in Freedom!. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  17. ^ Shyers, Larry Edward. "Comparison of Social Adjustment Between Home and Traditionally Schooled Students". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ Liman, Isabel. "Home Schooling: Back to the Future?". Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  19. ^ Bunday, Karl M. "Isn't it Natural for Children to be Divided by Age in School?". Learn in Freedom!. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  20. ^ "Peer Unschooling Network (PUN) - Unschooling Teens Unite!". Peer Unschooling Network (PUN). Retrieved 2017-09-29.
  21. ^ Rolstad, Kelly; Kesson, Kathleen (2013). "Unschooling, Then and Now" (PDF). Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning. 7 (14): 33. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  22. ^ Ingram, Tyshia (2020-07-17). "The case for unschooling". www.vox.com. Retrieved 2020-07-18.
  23. ^ "I Live Therefore I Learn: Living an Unschooling Life - The Natural Child Project". www.naturalchild.org. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  24. ^ a b Vosniadou, S. (2001). "How Children Learn?" (PDF). The International Academy of Education.
  25. ^ a b c Hunt, Jan. "Evaluation". Natural Child. Retrieved 6 January 2013.
  26. ^ Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. (2009). "Learning styles: Concepts and evidence". Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9 (3): 105–119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x. PMID 26162104.
  27. ^ Learning through home education Retrieved 2011-02-20
  28. ^ J. Scott Armstrong. "Teacher vs. Learner Responsibility in Management Education" (PDF).
  29. ^ Holt, John C. (1982) [1964]. How Children Fail. Classics in Child Development. ISBN 978-0201484021.
  30. ^ a b c d ChildLedHomeschool (2010-08-14). "Planning for Child-Led Learning | CLH". Archived from the original on July 8, 2011. Retrieved 2014-01-16.
  31. ^ Noll, James Wm. (2008). Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues 15th ed. McGraw-Hill. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0073515205.
  32. ^ David Gurteen. "On children and learning by John Holt". Gurteen Knowledge. Gurteen.com. Archived from the original on 2013-05-13. Retrieved 2014-01-16.
  33. ^ "Unschooling: An Introduction and Beginner's Guide". Homeschool Base. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  34. ^ Koetsier, Cathy. "Paradigm Shifts". Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  35. ^ "Rise of the home 'unschoolers' – where children learn only what they want to". the Guardian. 2016-10-11. Retrieved 2020-12-30.
  36. ^ a b "What Is Unschooling? A Parents Guide to Child-Led Home Education". Parents. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  37. ^ "Unschooling - letting children grow up without school or teachers". dpa International. Retrieved 2020-12-15.
  38. ^ Alyson, Alyson (2020-06-29). "What is Worldschooling?". World Travel Family Travel Blog. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  39. ^ "Homeschool with Project Based Learning | Hess Un-Academy". 2019-05-21. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  40. ^ "What is Gameschooling?". Orison Orchards. 2020-02-09. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  41. ^ "The Ultimate Guide to Gameschooling". Oct 3, 2017. Retrieved Jun 6, 2020.
  42. ^ "Democratic Schools". Alternatives to School. Retrieved 2020-07-13.
  43. ^ A new chapter in education: unschooling, by Victoria Clayton. NBC News, October 6, 2006
  44. ^ Erbe, Bonnie (27 November 2006). "Unspooling 'Unschooling'". U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved 11 February 2022.
  45. ^ Martin-Chang, Sandra; Gould, O.N.; Meuse, R.E. (2011). "The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from home-schooled and traditionally-schooled students". Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. 43 (3): 195–202. doi:10.1037/a0022697. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  46. ^ "Schooling: The Hidden Agenda". Retrieved 2014-01-09.
  47. ^ Gestel, Nanda Van; Quinn, Daniel; Hunt, Jan (2008). The Unschooling Unmanual. USA: The Natural Child Project. ISBN 978-0968575451.

Further readingEdit


Essays and articlesEdit

External linksEdit