While the definition of unschooling is quite broad, its educational uniqueness manifests itself in a student-led learning lifestyle. This means a lot of learning is interest-based, and children are not forced to learn things that don’t interest them. The movement completely rejects school as something that kills the genius of the mind, holding children learn how to do something (or find the resources to learn how to do it) if they wish to. In contrast, homeschooling is much more parent-led than unschooling.
While recognizing the importance of interest-based learning, homeschooling holds that children are not always the best leaders of their education. Many homeschooling parents (depending on the educational method they’re following) believe children need a rough curriculum (if not a set curriculum) to learn the things that will help them through life.
Homeschools are usually more closely aligned with traditional forms of education. And perhaps this is also why they don’t get as much public hostility as unschools.
Indeed, unschooling parents face a lot of criticism, including the accusation that this form of education is neglectful, akin to unparenting, and fails to equip children for adulthood.
However, given the diversity of unschooling educations, it is perhaps talking too soon to label every parent claiming to unschool as a ‘neglectful unparenter.’
The Unschooling Definition
A proper working definition of unschooling is:
Parents allowing children as much freedom to explore the world as parents can comfortably bear. It is a partnership between parents and children where the children are not dominant over the parent’s wishes, and parents are not dominant over the child’s wishes.
This definition is a mix between the that given by John Holt and Patrick Farenga, the two pioneers behind unschooling, and therefore authorities on the topic.
Unschooling vs. Homeschooling
Although homeschools vary widely, there are some significant differences between unschooling and homeschooling. In general, a homeschool parent will:
- have a curriculum; unschools don’t
- usually like a set bedtime; unschooling parents trust their children with this and let them stay up to all hours, trusting their children know best
- sometimes use standardized testing (although others reject its usefulness); unschoolers absolutely reject the notion of their usefulness and may say they’re harmful
In general, unschooling parents:
- reject the concept of traditional schools; many homeschooling parents don’t, and some even recreate a traditional school environment in their home
- are free to forego learning things they have no interest in; homeschoolers are usually made to learn certain subjects like math and literature
- hold children are capable of directing their own education; homeschooling parents don’t believe children will always make good decisions regarding their education
- sometimes believe it is a right of the child to choose their own educational pathway
- never force learning
- believe unschooling graduates will emerge having all the knowledge they need in their life
- don’t worry if their children aren’t reading at 7-years-of-age; many homeschooling parents teach them at age 5
- believe children will teach themselves the things they want to learn and need to learn
- think children will motivate themselves to learn something
- don’t use punishments and rewards; many homeschools do
- let children pick their own food and clothes; homeschooling families can be more strict and
- don’t value one skill or subject over another. i.e., mathematics is no more important than carpentry
These generalities will vary widely among different families.
Given this long list of differences, there are some similarities between unschooling and homeschooling, including:
- they value interest-based learning more than many schools and can facilitate interest-based learning more effectively than schools
- an improved relationship between parents and children because of their more collaborative education compared to school
- plenty of free time to follow hobbies and sports interests
- more hands-on learning and field trip opportunities
- encouraging more involvement of the community and extended families
- the freedom regarding school terms, holidays, and so on.
- (depending on the family and age of the children) parents are more helpers, guides, and listeners
Although not all unschooling and homeschooling families adhere to the above differences, it describes what is generally the case in a homeschool vs. unschool.
Freedom in Unschooling vs. Homeschooling
Unschooling is quite focused on freedom within a child’s education and lifestyle; indeed, parents will say they’re the same.
How much freedom is envisaged in an unschool? The answer is ‘as much as the parents can comfortably bear.’
But, what if you can bear very little freedom and you think your child is making wrong choices all the time and you step in continually? It seems that while a parent might define their education as unschooling, perhaps their ‘comfort’ level is even more strict than a homeschooling parent’s comfort level.
In contrast to unschooling, homeschoolers often follow rough or set schedules or routines. After their set curriculum is finished, homeschoolers often have many hours of freedom to pursue their interests. Indeed, I’ve heard parents talk about how they ‘homeschool in the morning and unschool in the evening’.
Unschooling vs. Radical Unschooling
Education is intrinsically a hot topic, and radical unschooling is the hottest topic within education. This is because some people say it’s really unparenting.
The extreme version of unschooling seems to take parents out of the equation.
Whereas less radical versions say they give their children as much freedom as parents can comfortably bear, radical unschooling seems to give children absolutely unfettered freedom, trusting they will make wise and moral choices when given the responsibility of making those choices.
This means radical unschoolers let their children:
- eat what they want (whether it’s healthy or not)
- study (or not study) what they want
- go to bed and wake up when they want
- choose play activities as they want
As Wilke said, this assumes a four-year-old is mature enough to make those decisions. It also assumes children are good in their hearts and will make wise, moral choices.
I don’t know about Martin’s children, but my children don’t make good choices when left to themselves. If they do, it seems like it’s because I’ve drilled a good habit into them.
Many articles on the internet attack unschooling. But, many more defend unschooling from criticism. Lorraine Devon Wilke is one of the former parties. She wrote the following in an article called The ‘Unschooling’ Movement: Good Parenting or UNparenting?:
When does “unschooling” become “unparenting”? In my view, the Martin’s [radical unschooling advocates and influencers] broad-based strategy appears an abdication of their role as parents. When Dayna says, “The kids come and go as they please, because who am I to tell them when they have to go to bed?” my answer to her is: you’re their parent, Dayna, that’s who. Their mother. It categorically is a part of your job description to guide, mentor, teach, discipline, and show love by your involvement and investment in their decisions and learned responsibilities. Yes, even to tell them when they have to go to bed. A four-year-old child is not mature enough to know that, any more than he knows that eating ice cream all day is not healthy; any more than a 13-year-old stepping into puberty has enough wisdom and experience to make all his own decisions without the guidance and wisdom of the adults in his life. It’s swell to have loads of “weekend” fun with your unencumbered kids, but you’re the adult; the parent. Be one.
…I wish the [Martin’s] children well. Their success as adults, however — assuming they achieve success as adults — will be no proof that “unschooling” works. More likely, it will be evidence that the children survived, overcame, and transcended the deficits of their upbringing, as the children of many parenting-challenged homes do. [Huffington Post]
Unschoolers vigorously defend their position. This is evident when you see Google’s first three pages filled with unschooling blogger diatribes against their critics. For example, in response to a critic who claimed unschooling was unparenting, Sue Patterson said:
Unschooling actually requires MORE from parents than other more rigid homeschooling methods! It’s a 24/7 approach.
Maybe this statement assumes traditional schooling and homeschooling do not require 24/7 approaches.
The Intrinsic Goodness of Children
Today’s educational theories are stuffed with Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s idea that children are intrinsically good and noble at heart.
These theories, stemming from Rousseau’s arguments, say that although children are good at heart, they are corrupted by the evil influences of society.
As such, they reject the Bible’s position that children are sinful at heart. Here are a few verses that illuminate the Bible’s stance on a child’s heart:
- ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.’ Psalm 58:3
- ‘Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.’ Prov 22:15
- ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ Psalm 51:5
In my experience, the biblical position seems to square with reality infinitely better. I recently heard a friend jokingly say it seems that anyone who believes children are intrinsically good must never have had one.
A Note on Christians, Christian Freedom, and Unschooling
Although I have not decided whether I love or hate unschooling, I know I don’t like it when I hear moms saying they unschool because they’re ‘free in Christ,’ a phenomenon I’ve seen not too infrequently on unschooling blogger sites. It seems the ‘Christian Freedom Wagon’ gets taken for a bit of a ride here.
In Justin Taylor’s paper, Why Christians Need to Stop Citing “All Things Are Lawful” in Cultural Arguments, Taylor explains why we should not be citing ‘All things are lawful’ quite as much as we do. Namely, the people in Corinth were abusing this line and abusing their freedom in Jesus. They used it to justify their immoral behavior:
[T]he Corinthians had twisted Paul’s law-free gospel to justify bad behavior. Thus the phrase “all things are lawful” is not an expression of Christian freedom from the apostle Paul but rather an expression of antinomianism from fornicators! Paul’s aim in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is to correct the Corinthians’ misunderstanding. [Denny Burk cited in the above article]
Unschooling seems the most relaxed of all educational methods – if you can call it a method. Compared to homeschooling, unschooling can be pretty unstructured and relatively hands-off. But, there seems to be a sliding scale between parents who heartily believe in the absolute hands-off philosophy of learning and those who are more moderate. For this reason, it’s difficult to say whether it’s a movement that should be encouraged or discouraged, followed or unfollowed. And perhaps it depends on the children more than anything. This is a topic that’s stumped me, and I’m willing to be a fence-sitter in this instance 🙂