Definitions of Unschooling

[To the frequently voiced complaint that the word "unschooling" seems negative, this was written years ago and has not been bested:]

"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."

Suzanne Carter

('Zann Carter in 2012)

Pam Sorooshian adds to Zann's list:
And other important ones:
unhurt, unharmed, undamaged, uninjured, uncontaminated, unimpaired, unspoiled, unprejudiced, unbiased
Unschooled sounds like a very positive thing—like the above— to someone who has thoroughly grasped the truly negative effects of schooling. -pam

Just like ALL learning, learning how to live comfortably and happily are really wonderful things. It takes a focus on turning away from what you know you don't like and turning towards something else—that something else that creates happy learning and living. Unschooling really is a shift in thinking and then acting on it.
Jenny Cyphers
on Family RUNning (forum no longer there)

[A reponse to inquiries:]

I think unschooling is the way to go, but unschooling is not being neglectful, not even *healthily* neglectful. If you are having pangs of guilt, then I would listen to that.

But the answer to those feelings of guilt does not lie in giving them schooling. The answer is your investing your life's energy into truly connecting with your children.

When you have time away from your business, that's when you should be going to your children and finding out about their interests ~ sit with them and watch their shows with them, watch them play their games, and ask questions and play yourself. Jump on the trampoline with them.

Unschooling is active, not passive. It's only passive in that you don't *do school.*

But it requires an active effort on your part to shift your own perspective and your old definition of *learning* ~ you need to work on seeing learning happening in what your children love to do.

It requires active effort in connecting with your children as they are right now.

It requires active effort in finding things in the world that you think would be of interest to them.

It requires active effort in giving them as much of the world as you can and letting them choose from it what they love.

It requires active effort in basing your life in Joy and Love.

I think your business is fine with unschooling. Just make sure that when you do have time away from it, it's used to further connect with your children, instead of pushing them away with forced *teaching*.

Be Well ~

If your real question is the difference between radical unschooling and regular unschooling, that took a whole page and is here.

There is an older collection of definitions here.

Some people say "We're not homeschooling, we're unschooling," but if legally one's choices are school enrollment or homeschooling, at that point, in that light, they are either homeschooling or truant. Unschooling isn't *just* a method of homeschooling when people change their entire parenting philosophies to make it work so deeply, but it is a method of homeschooling when they understand it as an alternative to school.

Unschoolers need to be actively involved in things that bring their children into the world, and the world into their children.

The best unschoolers are doing more with and for their children than school-at-home families are. Unschooling parents need to understand MORE about how learning works and keep their family lives rich.

—Sandra Dodd

Building an Unschooling Nest

From a longer Q&A article on getting into college by Alison McKee, here is Alison's clarification on what unschooling is and isn't:

Q: What is unschooling?
A: Unschooling is a term that the late John Holt coined in the late '70s to describe learning that is based on a child's interests and needs. Unschooling does not begin with a parent's notion of what is important to learn and then turn the choices of how to learn the content over to a child. Rather, it begins with the child's natural curiosity and expands from there. Unschooling is not "instruction free" learning. If a child wants to learn to read, an unschooling parent may offer instruction by providing help with decoding, reading to the child, and giving the child ample opportunity to encounter words. If the child is uninterested in these supports, the parent backs off until the child asks for help. The most important thing about the unschooling process is that the child is in charge of the learning, not the adult. Unschoolers often do no traditional school work, yet they do learn traditional subject matter. They learn it as a natural extension of exploring their own personal interests.

Q: Is Eclectic or interest-led learning the same as unschooling?
A: If the terms "Eclectic" and "interest-led" learning describe homeschooling practices which put the child's learning needs before parental notions of what is important to learn, then the term "unschooling" applies. However, if "Eclectic" homeschooling simply means using multiple teaching methods, then Eclectic homeschooling is not unschooling.

Alison McKee

The first part is a quote from an article on unschooling called "'Unschooling unpopular, but it's growing trend" at AZCentral (not available now).
Then follows Pam Sorooshian's excellent response.

Just when I was enthralled by the revolution in education triggered by home schooling, along comes a brand new movement so advanced in its philosophy as to boggle the most progressive mind. The message is startling in its simplicity: Let's let the kids decide what they want to learn.

Let the children set their own curriculum. How can kids ever achieve their all-important self-esteem when adults ceaselessly hamstring their inborn desires and dreams? Would little Mozart have composed anything worth listening to had he been shoved away from his piano to attend Math 1? Would young Shakespeare have dreamed of Hamlet had he been distracted by having to recite how he spent his summer vacation?

This is a GREAT example of someone not "getting" unschooling. He refers to it as "Let the children choose their own curriculum" and "Let's let the kids decide what they want to learn."

I understand why that's what it appears to be, but it is truly off the mark. This is, in fact, what many wonderful, supportive, school- at-home homeschoolers often do. I know many school-at-home, relaxed homeschoolers who work with their kids at the beginning of the year to choose their curriculum - the kids say, "I would like to study ancient Egypt this year," and mom puts together an Ancient Egypt unit study or they choose an ancient history curriculum for that year, etc. As wonderful as that is, it is NOT unschooling.

Unschooling is NOT "letting the kids choose their own curriculum" or "letting the kids decide what they want to learn."

It is like someone asked the question, "Who decides what the kids are going to learn?" and there are only two answers: "parents/teachers" or "the children."

But, the question doesn't really apply to unschooling.

First, nobody in an unschooling family is "choosing a curriculum" - we're not using a curriculum at all.

Second, it ignores a point that is very important to unschoolers. Kids ALWAYS decide what they want to learn! I've taught college for 31 years and I absolutely guarantee that students only learn what THEY choose to learn, no matter what we may choose to teach. It is truly impossible to open up a person's head and pour in knowledge or skill. As teachers, we can choose what to offer them, but we should not fool ourselves that we can choose what they will learn. (In fact, MANY times, probably far more often than not, what they are learning is something very different than what we intend. We may be teaching math, but what they are really learning could very likely be, "Math is confusing" or "I'm not smart" or "Learning is hard.")

Unschooling doesn't mean a "power shift" from parents to kids, regarding their learning. The power to learn or not learn is always ultimately in the hands of the learner, no matter what kind of schooling is done.

Unschooling is dropping the conventions of schooling, eliminating such things as required subjects, reading and writing assignments, and tests, and entirely replacing those with the creation of a stimulating, enriched environment and lots and lots of parental support for kids in pursuing their interests and passions.

LOTS of parents create stimulating environments and give lots of support for their kids' interests; this is not unique to unschoolers. What makes it unschooling is that unschoolers give up the rest of the schooling and trust that their kids will learn what they need to learn by being immersed in the rich and stimulating environment and with parental support of kids' interests.


I stumbled upon a THOROUGH and WONDERFUL definition by QueenJane/Katherine, out on the wilds of the internet:

**This is a post that I wrote for a local HSing list, when the question was asked "What IS unschooling anyway??" Its long, but pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject:**

What is unschooling?

I can't pretend to be an expert on unschooling, I can only say that its been an amazing gift for our family. I've been unschooling my son (who is 10 yrs old) for three years now. Unschooling will look different in different families, and "radical unschooling" simply means extending the philosophy of unschooling (that children will learn what they need to know when they are ready and want to learn it)into every other aspect of life (i.e. children will go to sleep when they are tired, eat when they are hungry, and will learn to be a functioning, helpful member of a family/household without being forced/required to do things like chores, given punishments, limited on tv/videogames, etc.) Radical unschooling could also be called Mindful Parenting, or respectful parenting (although one could be parenting mindfully, and their children attend school). In any case, I cringe when I hear parents say "We unschool except for math" or "we only do two hours of seatwork a day, then we unschool" or "we unschool on the weekends" or "we unschool, and I only require "X" amt of written work each week, but they get to choose the subject!" While all of that might work for a family, its not really true unschooling. Thats like saying you're a "little bit pregnant"...if you're following a curriculum, or requiring work, it may be very relaxed homeschooling, or eclectic homeschooling, but not unschooling.

A couple of excellent websites to learn about unschooling are:

Joyce Fetteroll's site: joyfullyrejoycing

Joyce has a daughter (i think she's an older teen?), and has been unschooling for quite some time. Her site has TONS of info about what unschooling is, how to get started, positive spins on chores, food, sleep behavior, etc. Enough info here to keep a new unschooler reading for some time!

Sandra Dodd's Unschooling page: SandraDodd.com/unschooling

(Click around on the links to different pages, to read interesting essays on chores, college, videogames, and much much more.)

Sandra is a mom whose three children (I think they are 14,17, and 20 now) have always been unschooled. Sandra is a former school teacher, and author of the book Moving a Puddle. I've seen her speak several times at two separate Live and Learn unschooling conferences, and she's really funny.

When I first began unschooling, and was asked what it meant, I would say that it was homeschooling in a child-led, hands-on way. That instead of learning math from a workbook or science from a textbook we'd bake cookies (with all that measuring )and plant a garden (photosynthesis and all that)....and while both of those activities have value, after a few years of unschooling I've come to learn that unschooling isnt really *that*, it isn't really a way to "teach" your child that is fun or hands on. Now I realize that when we bake cookies its because baking cookies is fun and we want to eat cookies, or if we plant in the garden its because we find joy in that. I, as the unschooling parent, TRUST that learning is happening with each activity because children are learning all the time. I don't place any more value in an hour of my child reading a book than I do in an hour of him playing on online computer game or videogame. It's all learning. It's all wonderful. It's my job as an unschooling parent to recognize the learning that is taking place, see its value, and encourage my child's passions.

Homeschooling parents usually say to me "But when left alone, my child will just play videogames all day" or "unschooling is great for a highly self-motivated child, but mine is lazy and needs to be exposed to other things." That's another vital component to a successful, vibrant unschooling home, that gets missed from the definition of "unschoolers don't use curriculum"....the concept of *strewing*. Strewing, as coined by Sandra Dodd, means that an unschooling parent will create a home environment that is rich and interesting, fun and hands-on, an environment that will spark new interests and connections. Unschoolers probably have the same types of materials in their home as most other homeschooling families:maps, globe, microscope, blocks, art supplies, musical instruments, books, games, etc. But unschoolers also see everything else around them as fodder for learning. I can't tell you how many conversations about history, politics, sociology, anthropology, science, economics, etc has been sparked by something in a videogame, online role playing game, tv show/dvd, song on the radio, comic book, etc. And yet these are the very same things that some parents try to limit in favor of more so-called "educational" items. Another vital compotent in an unschooling home is Trust. A parent needs to take a leap of faith, and trust that their child is learning. This is usually the biggest one for many parents to overcome. They have to let go of the "school voice" in their head, the one that wants to tell their child to put down that controller and go do something "educational" or worries that if their child isn't reading, writing, or "doing math" on the same schedule as other kids, they'll never get into college. A new unschooling parent needs to give their child time to deschool, which often looks like sitting around doing "nothing" and they have to deschool themselves as well. I would say another vital component is Joy—how to get it and how to keep it. Its Priority Number One in our household, making sure everyone is happy. My son and I both have to time to follow our interests, separately and together, we have open communication, and a completely punishment-free home. We try to figure out ways that everyone can get what they want. Joyce Fetteroll wrote "Always Say Yes. Or Some Form of Yes" (sandradodd.com/yes.html) and it's a philosophy I try to live by.

Unschooling can look very confusing to those on the outside looking in. It might look like the parent isn't doing anything at all, or it may look like the child is spending "all day" on activities that have "dubious" educational purpose. Often, people will confuse not *requiring* something (chores, reading, bedtimes) with the child not willingly doing those things. (Just because I don't expect/require my son to clean, he quite happily does so. Just because I don't insist my son have "good manners" doesn't mean he refuses to say Please or Thank You. Indeed I have my suspicions that it is precisely *because* I don't require, that I get so much willing cooperation from my son.)

I've seen the positive impact unschooling and mindful parenting has had on my son, such as going from a "nonreader" and one who hates to write, to a child who willingly and passionately does both. I've seen our parent-child relationship go from one filled with power struggles, yelling, stress, and the occasional spanking, to a home filled with respect, love, kindness, and the real sense that we are both on the "same side" instead of me vs. my child.

I've seen what happens when hundreds of kids, all of whom are being raised similarly to my son, are "set loose" in a hotel for four days, to play, learn, and live, and it's a beautiful sight. (Particularly touching that in an entire four-day period in a hotel at an unschooling conference with probably 600+parents and children of all ages, I did not see ONE child spanked, yanked, yelled at, demeaned or talked to disrespectfully. And the children were bright, outgoing, imaginative, friendly, and kind.)

That's unschooling in a nutshell.


Lyle Perry, a unique description rediscovered years later: Definition of Unschooling

Part of it:
It's like the tiny sparks of imagination that arc through a person's mind when they really watch a bird fly for the first time, and the huge lightning bolts of clarity when they realize how that miracle can actually happen, that make unschooling work.

I think one of the most difficult things for people to grasp about unschooling is the time factor that can be involved between connecting those tiny sparks to the huge lightning bolts. It may be days, months, or years between the time a person watches something happen and the time they understand why or how it happened. But the time factor doesn't make the event any less important, and in many cases it's the time factor that makes all the difference. A person understands when they are ready to understand. No time schedule can ever change that.

What is Unschooling?

What Unschooling Looks Like (or what it doesn't)

the origin of the term "unschooling"

Typical Days Checklists for Unschoolers Deschooling