The Growing Trend of “Unschooling”: Do Children Thrive if We Set Them Free?

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” Mark Twain famously once said. His words capture the spirit behind a new movement in education: the idea of unschooling.

Unschooling is the latest, most radical, version of homeschooling. A growing movement of unschoolers believes that standardized testing and indoor activity is stifling our young people and killing creativity, so they are keeping their children away from any kind of formal education and “setting them free.”

What Is Unschooling?

Ben and Penny Hewitt live on a small farm in Cabot, Vt., with their two children: Fin, age 12, and Rye, age 9. The two children have never seen the inside of a school.

Instead, they start their day by doing farm chores, and perhaps reading Gary Paulsen novels. After breakfast, they may strap on pack baskets they wove themselves, carrying small knives at their belts, and head out to build shelters and forage in the woods.

This is what unschooling looks like andhow their dad describes it:

While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month. Comparatively speaking, by now Fin would have spent approximately 5,600 hours in the classroom. Rye, nearly three years younger, would have clocked about half that time.

The History of Unschooling

John Holt, a Yale graduate and teacher at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, is considered the father of unschooling. In 1964, he published “How Children Fail.” Ultimately selling more than a million copies, it was an indictment of the education system, asserting that children are born with a deep curiosity and love of learning, both of which are crushed in school.

He coined the term “unschooling” in 1977 to mean taking children out of school completely. But even though unschooling has been around for several decades, advocates say it’s been gaining in popularity recently as more families turn to homeschooling overall.

Reliable data is hard to come by, but estimates of children and teens homeschooled in the U.S. range from 1.5 million to 2 million. Of those, as many as one-third could be considered unschoolers.

Unschoolers operate under state laws governing home-schooling, which is legal in all 50 states. Such regulations vary tremendously by state: some require standardized tests or adherence to a set curriculum; others mandate an evaluation by an educator; and still others require nothing more than a letter from parents describing what their kids are up to or a portfolio of their students’ work.

Is Unschooling Right For Every Child?

As a teacher, I believe unschooling is similar to virtual learning: it can work well for the self-motivated, mature student. It probably does not work well for other types of students.

In my classroom, I see many kids who really need guidance and discipline. To allow them to simply be in the moment and pursue whatever they get excited about would lead to a whole lot of wasted time.

Unschooling may be effective for younger children, but by the time they reach high school, they need more. How do unschooled kids make it through those teenage years without the many opportunities offered by high schools: chemistry labs, film-making classes, video labs, computer labs, DNA projects, sports teams?

Socialization is also a hugely important part of a teen’s high school experiences; building the skills necessary to work in groups and teams is vital for their ability to succeed after high school.

In short, there are many aspects of high school that I believe our youngsters need to experience.

Naturally, there are examples of people who abandoned their school books and achieved great success. We know that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, all dropped out of formal education and went on to become creative geniuses and to make billions of dollars, but these self-starters are the exceptions. Most kids will not make it on their own without some kind of direction.

So I have my doubts about unschooling, for most young people.

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

129 comments

JL A.
JL A4 years ago

Part of the continuum of options needed based on the reality that one-size will never fit all (if it fits anyone) when it comes to education

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Freya H.
Freya H4 years ago

The trouble with any educational system: traditional schools, "unschools," open go-at-your-own-rate schools - is that every system tries to be one size fits all. Too often it's one size fits nobody. Still, I like the idea of "unschooling." Our normal schools teach kids into grade-grubbers who think that tests are everything. Real life is nothing at all like the SATs. Many forms of intelligence cannot be tested with pen and paper (and I am writing this as a member of Mensa).

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Miranda Parkinson

some children need this type of schooling! each child is so different therefore their schooling needs are so different. socialising a child is all important though. just love

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Sandra I.
Sandra I4 years ago

Auto correct on my phone got the best of me but whoever reads it will get the gist

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Sandra I.
Sandra I4 years ago

We want to unschooled but having a phd I believe I'm qualified to teach my child. We will study science - and learn along with our daughter and put abstract math concepts into para crucial use. We will also allow things to be cross-disciplinary instead of keeping everything separate. Discipline and focus is key - she will do yoga and martial arts like her parents and whatever team sports she wants. I think we can all learn and grow together and she'll still have interactions with her peers and in team settings

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Alexandra G.
Alexandra G4 years ago

interesting idea

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Rhonda B.
Rhonda B4 years ago

I've never hear of Unschooling, but it doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

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Deborah W.
Deborah W4 years ago

Wonder how many individual unschooled kids wind up totally on their own, as most parents (if there are any with parenting skills, have to work) and so eventually wind up in gangs for a feeling of belonging to some sort of structured existence with rules, regulations and immediate consequences if not adhered to.

This one scares me.


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C Bradley
Ch B4 years ago

Kids need some structure and some discipline. They need to learn that the world is not all good and kind. They need to learn "the basics" to survive if they go to higher education. This may be alright for some kids some of the time, it is probably not good for any kids all of the time and needs to be highly regulated to ensure the kids are getting at least a baseline education in the fundamentals. It is great what they are learning, but this needs to be done in conjunction with the structure, discipline, and rigor of some formal education. Unless they are going to be independent farmers the rest of their lives - and most farmers are now becoming highly educated so they can handle all aspects of their businesses - these kids need to learn how to work (and live) in society.

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Jone Cartwright
Megan Cartwright4 years ago

What do I think? I think you're f'n fruit loops. High school, middle school, and elementary school sucked and it makes kids go through unnecessary social UN-norms and I'm sure I would've been much more successful as a person of society if I never went to any of them... and I'm sure I would've learned a whole lot more if I had been able to pursue what I wanted to learn instead of trying to memorize what I was forced to for the sole purpose of passing a test that had absolutely no value to actual Life.

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