Unschooling Homeschooling and the Path to College

Professor, Author

“Unschooling,” a term created by John Holt in the 1960s, is in many respects the epitome of student-directed learning in the homeschool environment. Holt is credited as being one of the founders of homeschooling for supporting some of the first homeschooling parents who wanted to keep their children from traditional school environments.

There is a growing body of literature about unschooling. We reviewed several new books on the subject and as one might expect, both the definition of unschooling and the quality of information about the subject, varied greatly from one book to the next. As with any subject, some authors simply jump on the chance to publish a book using the latest terminology or embracing the latest fad, but they really have no expertise in the subject at all. So, caveat emptor—let the buyer beware!

There is a tremendous book, Educational Fads by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, that reviews a variety of educational ideas to help one understand how they may be properly used and unfortunately, also misused. We say “educational ideas” rather than methods because many of the concepts they review are simply ideas and they shouldn’t necessarily be embraced as teaching methods. For example, multiple intelligence and multiculturalism aren’t teaching methods but rather concepts or ideas that may bring new light to education and thus inspire fresh teaching approaches. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands, these and other ideas can create nightmarish environments that impede, if not prohibit learning, rather than promote and encourage it. Unschooling is one of these ideas that can be good or bad depending on the teacher.

There is really no specific approach to unschooling, hence the term “un-schooling.” There is no specific structure to be followed, no rules to employ, or plans to use with unschooling—unless the child and parent want to create and use them, but then it would be doubtful that they would really be unschooling anymore.

In a true unschooling environment, the child chooses exactly what she wants to study, when, and for what length of time as her interests or curiosity dictate. The parent then provides the supplies or the means to obtain the materials the child may want to use to study a subject, or the child may have to do this on her own. Therefore, every day in every way is strictly up to the child—at least as far as learning goes. The child may simply want to spend the day playing with toys, watching television, surfing the Internet, playing video games, reading books, or doing nothing at all—and it could all “technically” fall under the heading “unschooling.”

From the definition in the previous paragraph, you can see where some school officials may have concerns about this approach; it can easily appear that some might declare they are “unschooling” their children, but they may simply be using the term as an excuse to do nothing at all with them. Of course, some school officials feel that same way about “homeschooling.” Whether unschooling or homeschooling, there are always a few who will bring a bad name to the many who are actually doing a wonderful job!

The unschooling approach can vary widely from being completely child-directed to completely parent-directed, in which case it probably is unschooling in name only. One of the primary ideas behind unschooling is that traditional schools and teaching methods may not only be too restrictive to help children learn, but that they may also affect children in negative and even unhealthy ways, such as causing learning and attention problems. The theory is that children are by nature very curious and learning all the time, especially through play, so that forcing them to learn in structured and segmented ways diminishes or even destroys their curiosity.

There is some truth to this idea, and I see it regularly in the adults I teach. Many describe how grade school and high school were boring to them. They explain how they started out enjoying a subject, like history, only to end up loathing it to the point of losing all interest in the subject—a problem that continued into adulthood and thus affected what they learned and remembered about history.

Many students explain that they felt high school was a major waste of time because they repeatedly learned the same sort of material, such as about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, but nothing else—at least that they could remember. Or, they felt that they weren’t learning anything that would apply to their lives or their interests that would hopefully turn into careers.

For example, some students complained about learning how to diagram sentences, having to take more than one year of algebra, or having to take a foreign language when they would have rather learned about banking, auto mechanics, art, or something related to their interests and talents. In many ways, these students have valid points. You may recall having these feelings yourself or at least can recall learning material for which you had little interest then and probably have long forgotten. With unschooling, these sorts of problems are hopefully minimized—at least in theory.

On the surface, one might see that unschooling during the preschool and even grade school years may be very appropriate for some students if it encourages children to learn and to enjoy it. However, there may be several concerns to consider depending on you, your child, and your situation; here are few questions for you to consider:

  1. How do you ensure that you aren’t choosing the unschooling approach because it sounds easy and/or because it eases your concerns about your teaching abilities?
  2. Is unschooling best for all your children or would some benefit from a more structured approach?
  3. Do you know enough about unschooling and learning to be sure that it will work for your child?
  4. Do you have access to others who unschool to help you overcome any issues that may arise?
  5. Does your child have a learning disability or attention issues that you may not detect through unschooling?
  6. If left undiagnosed and uncorrected will the problem only get worse over time thus tremendously interfering with learning in high school and college?
  7. What if your child isn’t very curious or is curious only about very limited subjects?
  8. Are you going to be able to provide your child with enough materials or access to the necessary materials to satisfy her learning whims on any given day?
  9. How do you keep adequate records to satisfy your local school officials? (Some new books on unschooling try to address this topic.)
  10. By the time your child reaches high school, will he have enough knowledge and adequate learning skills to be admitted and to not only be successful at the secondary level, but to also prepare for college?

During the high school years, complete unschooling may not be in the child’s best interest. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with unschooling, but with the more traditional teaching and learning approaches that are being used by the majority of high schools and colleges/universities. For example, entrance examinations to college (ACT/SAT), as well as the military’s knowledge/skills tests as part of the admission process, focus heavily on formal learning of specified material. Will your child be ready to pass these tests?

Will your child develop the necessary learning skills and discipline required for formal learning in college? Can your child teach himself how to write well? Can she learn algebra, geometry, and trigonometry on her own? Will your child be able to learn chemistry and biology without assistance? How will you keep adequate records through high school to develop the necessary documentation (transcripts) that college and universities want as part of the admission process?

Now, this is not to say that all of this is impossible with unschooling, but it would seem that careful planning and consideration will still be required with this approach. It may well be that a combined approach of unschooling and homeschooling may be beneficial, if not necessary, during the high school years. Or, when your child enters high school, it may be best to leave unschooling behind in favor of a more formal approach to learning. These are all things to consider.

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