Unschooling Defined

From the Mouth of Holt Himself, in 1980:

I think that learning is not the result of teaching, but of the curiosity and activity of the learner. A teacher's intervention in this process should be mostly to provide the learner with access to the various kinds of places, people, experiences, tools, and books that will correspond with that student's interest . . . answer questions when they're asked . . . and demonstrate physical skills.
I also feel that learning is not an activity that's separate from the rest of life. People learn best when they're involved with doing real and valuable work, which requires skill and judgment.
These concepts are my basic philosophy of learning--and are mirrored in my magazine, Growing Without Schooling --but I'm in favor of having people teach their children at home and don't insist that they have my reasons for doing it or even follow my methods. As a result, the readers of Growing Without Schooling, or GWS, include a variety of people . . . ranging from leftist counterculturists to right-wing fundamentalists.



Unschooling is following your children's lead. Allowing them to learn from a wide variety of experiences and resources. Start right from where you are and enjoy.


Unschooling isn't a method of instruction, it's a different way of looking at learning. (LindaWyatt)


An unschooling moment of realization (one of those things that you know, but
have a moment of knowing it even more):
Learning is learning whether or not it's planned or recorded or officially on
the menu.
Calories are calories whether or not the eating is planned or recorded or
officially on the menu.


Unschooling is like the old Open Classroom research and theories. If kids
are given an interesting and rich environment they will learn. (All kids
learn anyway, all the time.)


Unschooling doesn't mean not learning - it means learning without the
trappings of school. Its not unlearning or uneducating. Its only unschooling
- it points out a contrast in approaches to learning. My unschooled kids are
learning as much or more than their schooled friends (and that includes home
schooled or institution schooled).


I think John Holt's ending in the book "How Children Learn" is a great
definition of unschooling. "Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns.
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
bring as much of the world as we can into the school and classroom (in our
case, into their lives); give children as much help and guidance as they ask
for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the
way. We can trust them to do the rest."


I don't rely upon a curriculum, for there is no question that curriculums
came from the public school model. If I home school because I see the
fallacy of public education, then I discard the entire model and start from
scratch. Along the way, I may find something in the model that does work,
but I haven't found it yet.


I think ideas are easier to wrangle with if we can nail them down, get at the
essence of them, put them into a box. Trying to get at the essence of
unschooling is like trying to get at the essence of life.
For us, unschooling *is* life. Our lives are a balance of needs and desires,
hopes and fears, love and tears, peace and upheaval - you name it, and it's
there. Learning is a part of all of it, not separate from it.
When I require something of my children, it is usually because there is an
immediate and very real *need* for it - to keep them healthy and safe, to
keep the family functioning, to respect someone else's needs or feelings,
etc. Certainly there are things I think would be useful, even essential for
them to know in order to function independently as adults. These things are
so obviously practical and useful in our everyday lives that I can't fathom
them not seeing a need to learn them at some point.
There are many, many more things that I hope they will explore, and these I
will certainly open doors to for them. But I believe that by far the most
valuable things for them to know are what they themselves find interesting
and useful. I trust them to choose and pursue what they will, and I trust
that they will become competent, capable and knowledgeable adults in the
I respect their needs, feelings and desires. I believe that young children's
needs include being shielded from the responsibility of making decisions they
do not yet have the knowledge and experience to make - things for which they
should not have to bear the consequences - and this is my job as a parent.
It is a tricky to job to balance our children's needs with their desires,
especially when they can't yet see that they are sometimes different, or when
they are diametrically opposed. I don't see it as coercion or conditional
freedom, but rather as a real-life lesson in making decisions, guidance,
parenting. From the time that they are able to understand the choices, they
are part of the process.
Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. What responsibility I take for
my children limits their own, and thus limits their freedom. They are
*dependent* upon me. As an example, before they can cook, I prepare their
food, and they eat from what I prepare. Their choices are limited to what I
supply, *though I always do my best to meet both their needs and likes*. I
in turn am limited by the household budget, and bound by my responsibility to
look after their health. When I do choose contrary to what they *desire*, I
explain my choice, and I respect their feelings about it, no matter how
As children are ready for more responsibility, they gain more freedom. They
are maturing, growing up, learning to make good decisions. This is life. It
is a process, a work in progress. Unschooling.
Laura (LADerrick)


"There was a debate about whether someone could use schedules and textbooks
and still be considered unschooling. The consensus was that textbooks and
unschooling are not mutually exclusive. Most unschoolers have textbooks in
the house - sometimes lots of textbooks. The schedule part is less
cut-and-dried. You see, there's the coercion part of the equation, too.
There's the trusting your child's innate ability and interest in learning. I
think the strongest and truest statement was something along the lines of,
'Until you completely trust in your children and unschooling you won't get
the full benefit.' I didn't believe it at the time, and I don't think most
people do until they try it. I believe it now, because I see it working in
my own family."
Lisa C (LisaCaryl)


In response to the question, "Wouldn't the term 'natural learning' be more
affirming than the use of the negative in the term 'unschooling'?" Suzanne
Carter (Matreshka@aol.com), a poet and homeschooling mom, wrote:
"Lots of people make this point, but I never see the negation as negative in
a value-judgment sense when I use the word--to me unschooling is as positive
as unchaining, unbinding, unleashing, unfolding, unfurling, unlimiting....
"All mean freedom and growth and vast possibilities to me."


Unschooling is trusting in a child's natural curiosity to teach them what
they need to know. The parent is there to answer questions, talk, infect the
kids by their own curiosity about life! (though curious about what you're
interested rather in what you think would be good for the kids to be
interested in!), bring in cool resources (that the kids can feel free to
ignore if it just isn't the right moment for their interest to ignite).
The hard parts are
* trusting natural curiosity to draw your child to what they need to learn
when. (Math is fascinating. Kids only get turned off to it by the boring
way school approaches it.)
* trusting a child's natural schedule rather than the school imposed one (eg,
that the child will read eventually even if they aren't doing so at 7 because
reading is always a pleasurable activity not an imposed tedious one, they
will multiply even if they aren't doing it at 9)
* trusting that it's okay for kids to learn things out of order! It doesn't
bother kids at all to pick up interesting tidbits about Thomas Jefferson,
knightly armor, Egyptian mummies, WW2 combat planes. They make their own
connections as they get more and more things in place. (Later, an orderly
approach will be fascinating to them as they can make even more connections.)
* seeing real learning that is right there all around you, for example, the
things that need sorted, the cookies to divide, the planning for a party that
are all real live math. And it's especially tough to trust that those few
minutes of real engaged figuring are worth 20 pages of worksheet practice.
Joyce (Kiriena)


It's like "just say no."
Just say no to school years and school schedules and school expectations,
school habits and fears and terminology. Just say no to separating the
world into important and unimportant things, into separating knowledge into
math, science, history and language arts, with music, art and "PE" set in
their less important little places.
Most of unschooling has to happen inside the parents. They need to spend
some time sorting out what is real from what is construct, and what occurs in
nature from what only occurs in school (and then in the minds of those who
were told school was real life, school was a kid's fulltime job, school was
more important than anything, school would keep them from being ignorant,
school would make them happy and rich and right).
It's what happens after all that school stuff is banished from your life.
(Sandra Dodd)


Ya know... when folks decide to unschool they think they are choosing an
educational method. They aren't. They are choosing to re-examine most
everything they thought they knew. Most everything that seems obivous.
As you begin to put sleep schedules, grades, busywork, happiness, and
success under the microscope the intensity can be overwhelming. Miracles can
occur, but most folks are scared of miracles happeing within inches of their
face. <G>
Unschooling doesn't mean never learning anything from a textbook.
Unschooling doesn't mean never scheduling an activity. Unschooling means
making conscious choices about EVERYTHING. It means being mindful of why you
are choosing what you are choosing....and being mindful of why the children
are choosing what they are choosing. It means that everyone is free to make
their choices and that freedom is what, in reality, life really is.