Approaches to Homeschooling: Unschooling

Dear Reader,

The next educational philosophy I’d like to tackle is unschooling. In New England, where I am, there are a lot of unschoolers. A lot of what I have to say will be based upon what I have heard from them. Unschooling almost by definition is a broad movement with not necessarily a lot of agreement between those who practice it. There is a spectrum among those who call themselves unschoolers from what we might call merely interest-directed learning to the extreme end of the movement in which the parent imposes nothing on the child in education or in discipline. For our purposes I am not really interested in the parenting and discipline aspects but in how education is approached.

Unschooling rejects the use of a pre-set curriculum. It allows the child to choose what to learn and when to learn it. Of course some may use this approach as an excuse for laziness, but many of the unschooling moms I have met are among the most dedicated to their children. It can take quite a lot of effort on the parent’s part to follow the child’s lead and to really provide them with the materials they need when a new topic sparks their interest.

Here are a couple of statements of unschooling philosophy from the unschoolers themselves:

The traditional curriculum is based on the assumption that children must be pursued by knowledge because they will never pursue it themselves. It was no doubt noticed that, when given a choice, most children prefer not to do school work. Since, in a school, knowledge is defined as schoolwork, it is easy for educators to conclude that children don’t like to acquire knowledge. Thus schooling came to be a method of controlling children and forcing them to do whatever educators decided was beneficial for them. Most children don’t like textbooks, workbooks, quizzes, rote memorization, subject schedules, and lengthy periods of physical inactivity.”    [What is Unschooling by Earl Stevens, 1994]

Our primary purpose in unschooling is to keep alive the spark of curiosity and the natural love of learning with which all children are born. We want our children to accept learning as a natural part of living, and an ongoing process that continues throughout life. We want their learning to remain an integrated process in which all subjects are interrelated. We also want to allow them the time to pursue a subject as fully as they want, rather than imposing artificial time constraints on them. We believe these aspects of learning are limited by the traditional implementation of a curriculum, and we choose to homeschool as a way to circumvent those limitations.”    [Family Unschoolers Network]

The questions I said I would ask of each of these philosophies are:

1. What do they assume about how learning works?

2. How do they view children?

3. How do they view human nature?

4. What do they believe is the goal of education?

For unschooling, the first is the easiest to answer. Education should be natural and should flow out of the child’s innate love of learning. It is a process and is done throughout life rather than being confined to certain times and places. What is learned is dictated by the learner not by a teacher. The parent, in fact, is not really a teacher but a facilitator who helps the child learn what he wants to learn.

Turning to the fourth question, we ask what then is the goal of education? It is not, for unschoolers, to learn a certain body of knowledge. There is no set curriculum or body of knowledge that is required of them. I think how the goal of unschooling is phrased may depend quite a bit on the parent(s) and their values. I have heard one mother say her goal is for her children to be kind. This is what she values most highly for them. Another might say that she wants her children to know who they are or to follow their dreams. If you are an unschooler, I’d love to hear what you have to say on this. My supposition would be that for most unschoolers, the goal is something about who the child is. It is not very often going to be about material success or academic achievement.

So how do unschoolers view children? They believe that children are born with a natural desire to learn and to know and that this desire should be fostered and never hindered by the adults in their lives. With this much, I think Charlotte Mason would agree. But unschoolers also assume that the child will seek after the things he or she needs to know and the things that are good for them to know.

And here we touch on the issue of human nature. Unschoolers assume a basically good human nature. In contrast, Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, while it does seem to see that there is much good in children as made in the image of God, also recognizes that left to their own devices they will develop bad habits and often choose poor materials to read or study. Without a good diet placed before them, they will tend towards academic and spiritual junk food as it were. So, as a Christian, I would have to say that I find true unschooling unbiblical. It does not recognize the sinful nature present in each of us.

There is a lot of good thought and intention in unschooling. I like the positive view it has of children’s abilities. But it stumbles on this one (very important) point. My view would be that while children do have an inborn thirst for knowledge, they also need direction to keep them from veering onto bad paths.



24 responses to this post.

  1. I was at a small homeschooling ‘fair’ today and picked up a book about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy which was for sale and it intrigued me. I flicked through it very quickly. A chapter titled something like ‘Children’s sinful nature’ caught my eye. I physically shivered and put the set down as if it was dirty! I was amazed at my strong reaction but then reading this, I realize that I really am an unschooler (I’ve only homeschooled for 4 months and can’t decide what I am) and that I’m not even a Charlotte Mason adherent. But do I believe in the Thomas Jefferson ‘Leadership Education’ model? A friend thinks I do and has given me a book. I’ve only just started it but it seems to believe in the ‘soft’ end of the unschooling spectrum – child-led learning- up until about 12 and then hardcore academics after that – but only because it believes, if you follow the model, that you’ve taught your kids to love learning so much they WANT to do this. I’m fascinated to read more. This sounds like some kind of magic!! And I want some!! Can you research this a bit more and get back to me?!


    • That is a good suggestion; I will try to get to the Thomas Jefferson model too. I don’t know much about it yet.

      Do you know which CM book had the section on sinful natures? Charlotte believes children need some guidance toward choosing good materials, but in my reading of her (I am in book 4 of her 6 volume series) I have not found that she emphasizes the sinful nature very much. I guess the parts on habit training assume there is some need for correction, but overall I think she focuses more on children’s abilities.


      • The book I’m reading is called ‘Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning’ by Oliver and Rachel DeMille but this seems to be a ‘system’ based on the Jefferson model. But Oliver has also written books with TJ in the title (published under the name Oliver Van DeMille!) I haven’t yet explored other books/blogs etc…
        I don’t know which CM book had that section, although I think it was the one about her philosophy, but you know, I might buy the 6 volumes from that lady, or at least ask to borrow that one and read more – to be fair to CM 🙂

        Best wishes, Penny


  2. I don’t believe that true unschoolers stubble on this block of yours. Part of unschooling as I understand it and do try to implement it is that you gently point the kids in the direction of the good. Of course, yes, there are those that try to be so very hands off that they tend toward unparenting as well but I believe most are still helping their children find the good and the moral lessons. Any homeschooling method can be biblical if the parent chooses that path as any homeschooling method can be unbiblical for those who choose that path.


    • Thanks for the feedback. I guess what I was trying to say is not that unschoolers don’t want their kids to be good or moral, but that unschooling seems to assume a natural bent in that direction. I am a Calvinist so I would say that apart from God’s work in our hearts, we are not capable of choosing or doing good. Of course not all Christians would agree with me on that. And unschooling is probably one of the most far-ranging philosophies, including under its umbrella people who really have many different approaches.


  3. […] intro to the series is here. So far I have published posts on Unit Studies (and a follow-up), Unschooling, Classical Ed (and a follow-up) and a post on Charlotte Mason is coming out […]


  4. […] series on the different approaches to homeschool (see the intro here; so far I have done posts on unschooling, unit studies, and classical education; more are coming), I have been struck by how the different […]


  5. […] is part of my series on different homeschooling styles. Read about unit studies and unschooling. Still to come are classical education, Thomas Jefferson education, Montessori, Waldorf, and […]


  6. […] on the philosophies behind different homeschooling methods (See the introduction, unit studies, unschooling, classical, and Charlotte Mason entries). I am starting to get further and further from my area of […]


  7. […] on different homeschooling methods. Here are the previously published parts: Intro, Unit Studies, Unschooling, Classical, Charlotte Mason, and Thomas Jefferson […]


  8. […] it is only a matter of degrees but two of the other methods I have looked at thus far, unschooling and the Charlotte Mason method, express the goals differently. It is a bit hard to say for […]


  9. […] and stimuli. I see this as a somewhat middle of the road approach. It is not as hands-off as unschooling. On the other hand, it is not as structured as classical […]


  10. […] who will educate the next generation as well. The one thing that really impresses me about serious unschoolers, those who take it seriously and do it well, is that they must always be on their toes to help […]


  11. […] reading up on it for my continuing series on different approaches to homeschool (see the intro, unschooling, CM education, classical, TJEd, Christian classical, Montessori, and the Puritans’ Home […]


  12. […] to overemphasize one or the other than to find the right balance between them. In my opinion, unschooling, for example, overemphasizes the goodness of the child and their ability to choose the good on […]


  13. […] on Unit Studies, Classical Ed, Christian classical ed, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson Education, Unschooling, the Puritans’ Home School curriculum, Montessori, and the Principle Approach). I am asking […]


  14. […] school subjects, must be let go for a while until the interest is stimulated. Perhaps a more unschool-y mentality that follows the child’s interests is recommended for a while. I also tend to think […]


  15. […] while also acknowledging that they are not perfect and need direction and correction. While true unschooling is anathema to many Christians (and perhaps rightly so) if I couldn’t do Charlotte Mason, […]


  16. […] while back and for the most part really enjoyed it. I like a lot of what he has to say though I am not an unschooler myself. In this article in Psychology Today, Gray presents the results of a study he has done on […]


  17. […] be called conservative Christianity. (You can read an earlier post on my own take on unschooling here.) So the fact that people who adhere to such a branch of Christianity would choose to […]


  18. […] in fact, I have some fundamental theological objections to the philosophy behind unschooling (see here), but I have often thought that if I couldn’t take a Charlotte Mason approach to schooling and […]


  19. […] My post on Unschooling is here. […]


  20. […] I just mean not inherently Christian) approach: Unschooling (see my original post on unschooling here). For my purposes today, unschooling is useful because it is philosophical — it has definite […]


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