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. ~ John Holt
What is unschooling?
John Caldwell Holt, an education reformer and homeschool advocate, coined the term "unschooling" in the late 1970's, a time when billboards and commercials touted Peter Max pop art of butterfly-winged women encouraging the world to make a change, rebel and go "un" with the "uncola." "Unschooling" described the act of raising and educating a child outside the institution of school without the need to replicate school at home.
Holt, who had no children of his own, was an educator. He began to develop his perspective as he documented his observations and insights in notes and journal entries over the first eleven years of his teaching career. These writings were compiled and published in his first book, How Children Fail, in 1964, and in his second book, How Children Learn, in 1967. Holt's first focus was to understand how to help children adapt to the educational system. His observations led him to the concept that the system should adapt to children because children learn differently, and he became interested in reforming the system. Eventually, he concluded that the system is too inherently inflexible to humanely address the individual ways in which children learn, and he became an advocate for homeschooling. He not only patroned the modern homeschool movement, he patroned children as human beings with rights, as well - a central right being the right to learn with dignity.
Before his death in 1985, Holt authored many insightful writings and books on education that parents, educators, and homeschoolers still refer to today. He also patroned the burgeoning contemporary homeschool community through his groundbreaking publication, Growing Without Schooling (GWS). GWS was the first homeschooling periodical published in the United States, and it was a vital source of information and support for homeschoolers for several years. Holt shaped the landscape of homeschooling through his dedicated efforts to connect and reconnect parents to the source of authentic, dynamic learning - the natural born learner. His legacy lives on in homeschooling and unschooling circles and beyond; his ideals energize those who seek to change the way we think of education today, those who seek to de-school society, and those who seek to reform the educational system as it stands. Holt's work was carried on through GWS by his associate, Pat Farenga, until its last publication in 2001.
The roots of unschooling are embedded in the beginnings of the modern homeschool movement, which began in the late 1960's, and were influenced by progressive educators such as John Dewey and A. S. Neill. Before Holt coined the term, parents chose to educate their children outside the influences of the public school system. Homeschool curriculum vendors did not exist, and many homeschoolers generally did not attempt to reproduce school at home. Helen Hegener, co-publisher of Home Education Magazine, a homeschooled child in the 1970's as well as a homeschool parent in the '80's, recounts, "Unschoolers were the first modern wave, and they came from the alternative movement of the 1960's. In the late '60's to early '70's, the base of the movement were these alternative school dropouts, and they weren't homeschooling from any religious perspective, only from an educational of lifestyle perspective."
Holt brought focus to the concept and the movement by naming it, writing and speaking about it, and by publishing the first newsletter/magazine that supported the idea of parents choosing to educate their children outside the institutional and philosophical restraints of the educational system as we still know it today. He brought insights gained from his practical experience as an educator and theorist that validated the path that many had already chosen to embark upon. He inspired people to re-think education. According to Hegener, Holt brought "calm reassurance" to an already existing community of "unschoolers" who thought of themselves first as homeschoolers. The need or the desire to be known as an "unschooler" did not surface for many until later in history.
In November 1977, Holt first used the term “unschooling” in issue #2 of GWS. He wrote that the publication would use the term, unschooling, "when we mean taking kids out of school." Susannah Sheffer, editor of GWS, noted that "at the beginning Holt simply used it as a synonym for what we now call homeschooling."(1, Greer) By 1979, the two terms were used interchangeably, and in the early '80’s, the term “homeschooling” had become the umbrella term to represent the community, while unschooling became associated with a particular type of homeschooling, although many unschoolers always referred to themselves as homeschoolers. This coincided with the growth of the organized fundamentalist Christian homeschool movement, which was spurred by a change in tax laws that put many parochial schools out of business.
The influx of fundamentalist Christians into the established and inclusive homeschool community fueled the growth of homeschool curriculum vendors due to the newer homeschoolers’ desire to re-create parochial “school-at-home.” The highly organized fundamentalist Christian "school-at-home" movement began to dominate the homeschool scene within the community and without. To the general public, homeschooling became associated primarily with fundamentalist Christianity and the replication of school at home. The unique, inclusive community that once landscaped the modern homeschool movement became obscured to the public eye and lost within the community as the exclusionary Christian organizations dominated the scene. Homeschoolers became largely known as fundamentalist Christians who rejected the idea of secularized influence in the lives of their families while still embracing the standardized educational model of public and private school systems. Homeschooling became largely associated with the fundamentalist Christian "school-at-home" movement.
Eventually, the term "unschooling" began to refer to a specific way to homeschool, although many who are influenced by unschooling still just call themselves homeschoolers. Unschooling described the specific kind of homeschooling represented Holt's "unschooling," a freeform, individualized kind of learning that can only take place when not replicating school at home, as opposed to "school-at-home." The world is the "classroom," and the emphasis is not on a curriculum, but on the learner’s interests, desires, motivation, and goals. Learning is considered personal and driven by the individual’s natural learning instinct, curiosity, need to feel competent and whole, and even his need to have fun! Learning happens as one is actively engaged in her own life, and it can take on a life of its own. People (and that includes children) can learn without being taught; in fact, "unwanted teaching" can actually interfere with the individual’s natural learning process. John Holt summed it up perfectly when he said, "By nature people are learning animals. Birds fly; fish swim; humans think and learn. Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do - and all we need to do - is to give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for, listen respectfully when they feel like talking, and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest."
People who unschool tend to question just about everything, and that includes experts, authorities, and the status quo. They live and learn outside the box of convention and to the beat of their own individual drums. Individuals may use the services of mentors, teachers, guides, facilitators, but are not bound to any of these. Parents play the roles of guides, facilitators, learning companions, and care-givers who offer advice, support, and encouragement. Learning relationships can be reciprocal in nature: parents can be teachers as well as learners, and children can be teachers as well as learners. Unschoolers live and learn together. Real world experience is valued, and curriculum may be viewed as a tool, if used at all. Unschoolers learn by doing, experimenting, exploring, experiencing, and even by playing. They may also choose to take classes. Unschoolers value self-awareness, self-empowerment, and choice.
Unschoolers even question unschooling. What is it, exactly, and “says who?” The meaning of terms can change over time as people and groups of people create their own niche of understanding. For some, unschooling is perspective, and perspective is always open for interpretation and can be interpreted as loosely as educating a child outside of the school system. Some live as unschoolers by the understandings that they glean from the writings of Holt, other unschooling writers, their own experiences and the experiences of others. Others choose not to associate too closely with the label “unschooler” while incorporating aspects of the perspective as they interpret and see fit. Some define unschooling upon core principles of non-coercion that are extended into all aspects of parenting. Holt took the rights of children seriously and explored freedom for children in his books, Freedom and Beyond and Escape from Childhood. Threads of such run through all of his books, as he championed children living and learning freely, unfettered by conditioned societal fears and misperceptions. Although Holt never defined principles that were to be the foundation of unschooling, he did share rather radical ideas and thoughts on childhood. Unschoolers who attend to these principles of non-coersion are often called Radical Unschoolers. Of course, many of those influenced by unschooling or who call themselves unschoolers or radical unschoolers defy any definition altogether.
Most all who are influenced by unschooling philosophy tend to be non-authoritative in parenting style. Respect for children is often at the heart of unschooling perspective because empowerment is the goal. Arbitrary structure and rules are antithetical to the nature of unschooling philosophy. Unschoolers generally seek to create cooperative, collaborative, individualized environments for all family members. As always, interpretation is in the eye of the beholder: each child, parent, and family system presents with different needs and circumstances and therefore different expressions of unschooling.
(1) Unschooling or Homeschooling, by Billy Greer
A few questions we hope to address
- What is unschooling?
- What is your interpretation of the term?
- How do you unschool?
- Why do you unschool?
Did you unschool in the '60's, '70's and '80's?
Please share your experiences with us:
- Are you familiar with or did you experience John Holt's impact on unschooling?
- Were you influenced by Growing Without Schooling?
- Were you supported by the community that formed around the publication?
- Did you unschool with the support of a community local or otherwise?
- How did you learn about unschooling?
- Why did you unschool?
- How did you unschool?
- What did unschooling look like in your home?
- Did you think of yourselves as homeschoolers or unschoolers or both?
- What is unschooling from your experience and perspective?
- Were you unschooled and what was your experience like?
I started unschooling my son before I even knew what unschooling was. From the time he was born I talked to him like a being, not a baby. I gave him choices from the time he could reach and touch what he wanted. I counted, described and named colors and objects as I passed them going through our day.
I have always followed his interests and found materials to cover his interests until he finds a new interests; even when that meant eight months of insects. Some days are spent at the computer, the video machine and others outside. I never know what the day will bring. There are some constants… we eat breakfast together and not in that rushed we have to get out of the house way. Lunch is usually served with a movie break.
I have my doubts every once in a while, should I force more worksheets, should I do this, should I do that. My son knows more about his world (at this point a very local level) then most high school students do. He can tell you amazing things about bugs, bats, birds and is become quite a story teller and teacher.
My daughter is following his foot steps but loves cards and is stronger in reading where my son is stronger in math and science. There is a few years age difference between the two but they still work like a team which I see grow every day. A bond that would never have happened if they went to school.
Unschooling is called unschooling because it cannot be defined but if I have to really describe it I would say it means learning from life. Yes, there are times we use workbooks or worksheets because the children choose and ask to use them. When we cannot actually go see something they are interested in, I find DVDs and live online webcams.
I do not spend time reading how others do homeschooling or unschooling. I spend time educating myself about the world past and present. I am influenced by my children not by what someone else is doing with their children or what someone else thinks I should do. My children know what they need and I help them get there.
~Shannon Bonafede, Maryland
Have you ever described 'red' to a person who is colorblind? Sometimes, trying to define unschooling is like trying to define red. Ask thirty unschoolers to define the word and you'll get thirty shades of red. They'll all be red, but they'll all be different. Generally, unschoolers are concerned with learning or becoming educated, not with 'doing school.' The focus is upon the choices made by each individual learner, and those choices can vary according to learning style and personality type. There is no one way to unschool.
~ Helen Hegener
In short unschooling is letting learners learn what they want, when they want and how they want.
John Hold did coin the term but it was inherent in Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society." Illich held that society was shaped the the education system. It perpetuated the status quo. In both education and work participants were directed to do what someone else wanted. They went to school and to work to earn future rewards. Not for the love of either. Illich proposed that both learning and work should be convivial. That is should be enjoyed with friends and colleagues. Illich and Holt were colleages working toward the same goals. Freedom for all.
You can do anything you like. :) There are no Unschooling Overlords who come to your house to critique how you do it. You just get up in the morning, proceed through your day in the way that is most useful to you (jump through whatever hoop your state requires, unless you want to be a revolutionary), and fall into bed at night to sleep the sleep of the just. ;>
You can be as intellectual as you like. Buy whatever books you like, and leave them on the coffee table. Go see art movies and talk about them. Hang out at museums on the weekends. Subscribe to the Wall Street Journal before Murdoch buys it. Buy French cookbooks and shop at Whole Foods. Smoke pipes and wear tweed. ;>
The beauty, to me, is that you get to live your own adventure.
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, i.e. 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.
~ Pat Farenga, from Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling
When I first discovered the philosophy of unschooling, I felt I had finally found my place in the world of homeschooling. Following a curriculum and even creating one for my daughter was not working for her or for me. She was determined to follow her own personal learning agenda, and she spent over two years immersed in dinosaurs and insects before she branched out into other interests. She was resistant to being taught anything by me, but she was very open to sharing and conversing about her interests. (I explain more about how my daughter learns in my post Living Unit Studies.) Around 2006, after a few years of identifying myself as an unschooler, I decided that I preferred not to identify with a philosophy no matter how loosely it can be interpreted. Although I do not consider myself an unschooler, I do use the term to help describe our lifestyle. We do not re-create school at home. We focus on our individual desires, drives, needs and goals, and those always involve learning more about life, feeding our natural born learner drives, and developing our life-long learning skills.
Stories & Commentary
Checklist for the New Unschooler, by Becky
Fall is in full swing around here and it's hard not to notice the changes. Friends and neighbors that we played with all summer have long disappeared back into school rooms ...
Carol's Kids, by C.M. Lewis
In May of 1979 I was 14, my sister was 12, and my brother was 8....
Unschooling philosophy is intertwined in many posts on this blog.
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Back to REAL STORIES: REAL LIVES
Unschooling or Homeschooling, by Billy Greer
Defining Unschooling, by Helen Hegener
History of Homeschooling: John Holt and GWS, by Helen Hegener
John Holt and the Origins of Contemporary Homeschooling, by Pat Farenga
A. S. Neill and John Holt, by Encyclopedia of World Biography
A Brief History of Homeschooling, by Pat Farenga
A Brief History of American Homeschooling, by Linda Dobson
Running a Home in A Schoolhouse, by Phil Carden
Homeschooling Comes of Age, by Patricia M. Lines
The Humanism Behind Homeschooling, by Theresa Willingham
The Ravage of Home Education Through Exclusion, by Dr. Raymond Moore
Battling for the Heart and Soul of Homeschoolers, by Helen Cordes
HSLDA's "History" Erodes the Foundation of Our Freedoms, by Larry and Susan Kaseman
The Politics of Survival, by Scott W. Summerville
The Seelhoff Articles, by Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
Who Stole Homeschooling, by Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
Response from Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff regarding Who Stole Homeshooling?
The Truth About Cheryl, by Shay Seaborne
Interview with Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, by Helen Hegenger
News Watch Special Special Report: Seelhoff vs Welch, by Linda Dobson
Gentle Spirit Law Suit, by Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
The Early Days of AOL Homeschooling Forums, by Ann Zeise
What is Unschooling?
What is Unschooling, by Karen Gibson
What is Unschooling, by Luz Shosie
What is Unschooling, by Pat Farenga
What is Unschooling, by Unschooling.com
What is Unschooling, by Earl Stevens
What is Unschooling, by Beverely Paine
Unschooling Undefined, by Eric Anderson
Defining Unschooling, by Helen Hegener
Unschooling is a Type of Homeschooling, by Jeanne Musfeldt
The Unschooling List FAQ, by Kathy Wentz
On Unschooling, by Mary Griffith
Unschooling: Taking A Closer Look
Unschooling High School & Beyond the Homeschooling Years
What is Deschooling?, by Homeschool Zone
What is Deschooling?, by Lenore Colacion Hayes
Deschooling for Parents, by Sandra Dodd
Deschooling, by L.S. King
Deschooling Gently, by Tammy Takahashi
The Six Lesson School Teacher, by John Taylor Gatto
By John Holt
How Children Fail
How Children Learn
Instead of Education
Learning All the Time
Teach Your Own
Never Too Late
Freedom and Beyond
Escape From Childhood
About John Holt
A Life Worth Living: The Selected Letters of John Holt, by Susannah Sheffer
Homeschooling our Children, Unschooling Ourselves, Alison McKee
McKee, Alison. From Homeschooling to College and Work, 1997.
The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child's Classroom, by Mary Griffith
Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don't Go to School Tell Their Own Stories, by Grace Llewellyn
The Teenage Liberation Handbook, by Grace Llewellyn
Guerilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School, by Grace Llewellyn
The Unprocessed Child, by Valerie Fitzenreiter
Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, Naomi Aldort
Christian Unschooling, by Teri J. Brown and Elissa M. Wahl
And What About College, by Cafi Cohen
Homeschooling the Teen Years, by Cafi Cohen
Homeschoolers' College Admissions Handbook, by Cafi Cohen
A few quotes by John Holt
Children are hard-wired to learn.
People should be free to find or make for themselves the kinds of educational experience they want their children to have.
To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves...and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.
To parents I say, above all else, don't let your home become some terrible miniature copy of the school. No lesson plans! No quizzes! No tests! No report cards! Even leaving your kids alone would be better; at least they could figure out some things on their own. Live together, as well as you can; enjoy life together, as much as you can.
It's not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It's a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.
More quotes by John Holt.