Get Schooled on Unschooling

Today I was meandering around Twitter and came across the same conversation I see all the time. School is horrible. School makes kids hate life. School is the devil. Some of these people rail against school yet still profit from it. I personally subscribe to the school of thought that he who takes the king’s gold sings the king’s song. Those who rail against the system and aren’t doing anything to change the system seem hypocritical to me. If you hate school so much why aren’t you opening your own school? There are plenty of charter or private schools that don’t have the philosophy of public schools. Ok back to school is horrible.

These people who believe that school is horrible do have a solution though. That is a positive. The only thing worse than people complaining all the time is people complaining all the time without solutions. Their solution is unschooling.

Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students 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. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. (link)


Unschooling is a cool philosophy. The best part of unschooling is that families have full control over what or if their kids learn. The idea that natural curiosity can lead to learning is solid. This natural evolution doesn’t worry about test scores, scope or sequences, or learning objective. As an adult, I choose what and when I want to learn. I am constantly reading, taking MOOCs, or listening to webinars. I learn because I want to not because someone is going to test me in the future.

Data comparing unschooler’s math and reading scores to each other shows that students score slightly lower on math and slightly higher on verbal/language. (link) This makes sense to me. Everything involves reading. No matter what you want to learn you will have to read about it. You only do math at a higher level if you like math. 

The million dollar question is how do unschooled children compare to public school students?

“A variety of studies of homeschooled students’ academic performance have conclusively shown that homeschooled students can succeed academically. However, there have been no studies of homeschooled students’ academic performance that have used representative samples rather than recruiting volunteer participants. Further, study participants are inevitably from wealthier, better educated, more intact families, meaning that they likely would have scored well above average regardless of the educational option their parents chose for them. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that the homeschool population is significantly more diverse than the samples commonly used in studies of homeschool achievement, meaning that these studies likely miss whole swaths of homeschoolers. What these studies show is that homeschooled children in wealthier, better educated families with driven and motivated parents (the sort that would volunteer for studies of their children’s academic performance) tend to score well above the public score average, as should be expected.” (link)

What I understand from the above is that wealthy homeschoolers score well on tests. There is not a lot of data about students from lower income households taking standardized tests. That doesn’t show me that unschooling is the solution to our educational woes. It also makes sense that those who volunteer for studies on unschooling are going to be the subjects that have a positive association with it and have flourished under it. 

Here is my issue with the unschooler agenda. Not everyone can or wants to unschool their child. There is no data showing that unschooling would work for parents who do not have a higher education. Leaving kids alone to learn does not actually occur. Unschooling needs adults who can help their child pursue their interests. Everyone seems to act like we just let kids loose and they will learn. Children will always need adults to help them achieve their goals. The utopia of let them be and they will fly is garbage.

Unlike some of the people on Twitter who talk a good game, I have had the pleasure of being around kids who aren’t forced to do anything for long periods of time. I run a summer camp where our only goals are safety and fun. There are no standards and no pressure to do anything other than finding a way to create joy and delight for children for nine plus hours a day. We actively ask our campers what they want to do. (they are our clients) We do everything within our power to take what they want to do and create an opportunity for them to do it. We tailor their camp experience to them. If they want to play soccer we will play a boatload of soccer. If they want to play chess we do that as well. The only limitations we have are time and money.

This has given me a unique view and philosophy on kids. They want to be shown new and fun things. Most kids don’t want to sit around and do nothing. They love to be engaged and active. Kids want to be around other kids they like. Kids like adults who are fun and want to be around them as well. Here is the crazy part. Sometimes kids are happy after they are coaxed into doing something they were uncomfortable with. Yes, you read that right. Kids don’t always know best. That is what some people gloss over. Kids don’t know everything.

Here are some final thoughts on unschooling:

Public schools can learn a boatload from unschoolers.

Allowing children to pursue their passions is what public schools should be doing.

The results of standardized testing are killing our educational system.

Non-standardized testing areas should embrace their freedom and use that freedom to keep their subject fun and student-centered.

Students can benefit from adults exposing to them what they don’t know.

Kids don’t know everything and acting like they do robs them of opportunities to learn.

Not every house is meant to nor should unschool their children. 

Public schooling is still needed.


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