10 minute read

Unschooling Distilled

Unschooling is an education and living philosophy.

As an education philosophy, unschooling is the practice of freedom in education and learning. The basic premise of unschooling is the recognition that all humans are natural learners and learn all the time; that learning happens as a by-product of living; and that learning happens intentionally because of curiosity, an interest or a goal. When this is understood, no ‘learning’ needs to be forced upon anybody. All learning is self-chosen and self-directed. Learning happens by accessing available resources such as other people with the desired knowledge or skills, formal or informal courses, learning co-ops, books, internet resources etc.

As a living philosophy, the basic premise of unschooling is the recognition of the humanity of children, the agency of children and their autonomy. It recognises that children have every right to express themselves, to feel the way they do, and to express their preferences and that they are active agents of their own learning journeys. Parents, facilitators and other adults partner with children rather than dominate them. They partner with children as guides, mentors, facilitators, resource finders and providers, team members, listening ears, cheerleaders, and playmates. The focus is connection rather than correction. And the priority is to support our children to live up to their own images of who they are and who they can be, rather than forming them into what we or society would prefer them to be.

This reframing of both parenting and education is a fundamental part of my activism towards a socially just world because I now understand the relationship between the oppression of children and the broader oppression in society. The normalisation of domination and the seeds of oppression are planted in childhood in the way parents, teachers and other adults dominate children, taking away agency and autonomy from children, and acting on and for them without their consent. Young people are forced to dress in a specific way and to present themselves at a certain place for so many hours with no choice in the matter. The range of things they can learn or be curious about are restricted. And the ways in which they are allowed to learn are limited. How do we expect people to practice freedom, consent and respect when they are denied these for the first 18 years of their lives? That’s why for me unschooling is about social change.

The Origin of the Word Unschooling

The practice of unschooling has always and continues to be practiced by many communities around the world in which children are valued and where their participation in the community is welcomed. Obviously, there was no need for communities to name this practice since it was and is the standard practice.
But the circumstances in which the word itself was coined was completely different. The word was coined in the United States in the 1970’s by education critic John Holt. At the time, families following a natural, consent-based approach to their living and learning were lumped together with homeschoolers even though they differed drastically in practice and philosophy. The word was inspired by the “Uncola” 7UP soft drink advertising campaign that aimed at differentiating 7UP from the dominant Cola market. Some other terms for unschooling are Life Learning, Self-Directed Education, Consent Based Education, Autodidact and Natural Learning.

Since unschooling is so different from schooling and homeschooling, there are some frequently asked questions that most of us have on our journeys and these are the questions we’re often called on to answer. I’m answering seven of them here.

How Does Learning Happen?

Learning happens all the time as a by-product of living: The questions, reflections, interactions with others and our observations that are all a natural part of every human experience are the primary avenues of learning. Learning happens while taking walks, cooking, waiting for the bus, at weddings and funerals, while playing, during conversations, while creating things and doing the things we enjoy and even don’t enjoy.

“There is no difference between living and learning … it is impossible misleading and harmful to think of them as being separate.” John Holt

Learning also happens intentionally when we research topics that we’re interested in or curious about or take a class to learn something specific. This intentional learning is further accompanied by unintentional learning, for example, we learn about ourselves and how we learn, the source we are learning from, other questions our initial searching leads to.

I’d like to invite you to think about how much you have learned over your life that you can’t attribute to classes or studying for an exam. Think about this as you go through your day: What would it be like if you didn’t know some of the things that you know and that are essential to you functioning in society? Reflect on how much of that learning happened incidentally.

We can mostly function without much of the imposed learning from schooling. However, our lives and societies would completely collapse without the invisible learning that is a natural and fundamental part of being human. Like invisible labour, it is invisible learning that keeps us smart, alive and functioning.

This question about how we learn is a reminder to me of how much schooling has undermined our belief in our natural, inherent ability to learn. All the time: Intentionally and unintentionally.

What About Math and Reading?

When my kids were young I wondered whether skills like reading and math are acquired as a by-product of living. To me reading is system designed by humans, as opposed to one designed by nature, and I didn’t think it was possible for reading to be a natural part of the development of a person and that it needed to be taught. I held this belief while I was a self-taught (learned naturally) computer end user and trainer. It is very possible to simultaneously hold two contradictory thoughts.

Experience is often the best teacher and my doubts were pleasantly laid to rest when my eldest son taught himself to read. My other two did too. And I have personally met and read about many young unschoolers in whom reading happened naturally and without, or with minimal, instruction.
Children generally learn to read anytime between the ages 4 to 12. And their learning process differs. In order to acquire reading skills, children need to be read to regularly when they want to be read to and without compulsion, and to engage with the written word. This engagement happens easily through living and in playing trading card games, board games, video games, in using text messaging apps etc.

Nobody really knows exactly how learning to read happens. There are theories though. Every now and again there is a new ‘breakthrough’ in the understanding, usually accompanied by a new range of products or programs to sell to parents and educational institutes. While the experts battle it out whether the phonics, whole word or psycholinguistic approach is best and the markets battle it out for a share in the profits of the accompanying reading programs, unschoolers quietly get on with learning to read as part of living in a word dominated world.

Math is no different. Many people are concerned about how we would learn math naturally. Learning the everyday maths that we need to function in life happens naturally when sharing our treats with loved ones, wanting to budget birthday money, buying things online, or playing card and dice games etc. Numbers, like words, are a huge part of our world. Many children go through a phase of exploring numbers and patterns which they enjoy thoroughly. In the meantime, so many of us have learned that math is really difficult to learn or that we are not good at it. In reality, we were probably forced into learning maths when we weren’t curious about it, ready to learn it or the math was presented to us badly and in a way that was irrelevant to our lived experience. Again, the incidental, unfortunate learning that accompanied those math lessons were that we’re not smart and math is boring and difficult. What a travesty to such a rich and exciting discipline. Sure, there are concepts in math that we won’t necessarily learn naturally because we are unlikely to encounter it in our day to day living, like how to divide a fraction by fraction. That would need to be intentionally learned. The question of whether all children have to know this for an exam, even at the expense of a healthy relationship with math or their self-belief, is a topic for another article.

What About Assessments?

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
“If we learn something and nobody has evaluated it, have we learned it?” 

I can never decide what makes people more uncomfortable about unschooling: That people self-direct their education or that young people aren’t assessed on that self-direction. “But how do we know they’re learning?” parents protest.

When we reflect on the role of assessments in learning, two good questions to ask is who needs to know and why do they need to know.

As much as we like to believe in the value of assessment, uninvited assessment does not really benefit the assessed. In fact, the function of assessment in the school system has very little to do with children’s learning or improving the environment for learning. School assessments are to measure, categorise and rank the performance of a young person for teachers, parents and peers to pass judgement on. They monitor teachers to ensure they are doing their ‘jobs’ and monitor and rank schools according to the results they ‘produce’ and in the case of private schools to also justify the prices they charge.

Assessments inform the assessed about their relative position in relation to the others being assessed. It plays a minimal role in their learning needs. As Munir Fasheh writes in The Trouble with Knowledge:

‘Giving a number or a letter to measure a human being is dishonest and inhuman; it is degrading to the human mind and to human beings.  Grading, in this sense, is degrading.’

I remember my frustration at school when I would get back my piece of weekly writing—we called it composition back then—from the teacher and all I got was a number out of ten. I really wanted detailed feedback on my composition, something to work towards in my next submission. All the school wanted was a number to put down towards my year mark. Does this resonate with some of you?

Evaluation, when it is not asked for, and when it has consequences as it does in school, is a threat.
“It narrows the mind … it inhibits new learning, new insights, and creative thought—the very processes that some people think school is supposed to promote.” Peter Gray

The role of assessment in unschooling has a different function from that in school. The better word perhaps is feedback. When unschoolers ask another person, who may be a friend, family member, mentor or teacher, for feedback, the intention is to get back information that can be used towards improvement of the particular skill. Unschoolers tend to set their own internal standards and assess themselves as part of their self-directed journeys. So, an external ‘well done’, whether honest or as a means of encouragement, means little to unschoolers if their output falls short of their internal standards.

Unschoolers also seek out and welcome feedback and assessments when they have consented to and entered into a learning relationship with another person such as a tennis coach, pottery teacher, writing mentor etc. Or they seek out individuals and invite feedback to meet their personal learning needs. My son did this a while back: He found a Dota2 caster that was open to helping young up and coming casters, sent him his works, got feedback and now uses that to improve his own casting.

Carol Black recently wrote an insightful piece on the Evaluative Gaze of School that resonated with many of us and our schooling experience. I would highly suggest both Carol’s piece and Peter Gray’s Unsolicited Evaluation Is the Enemy of Creativity in order to rethink your understanding of assessments.

6 February 2019 Edit: 
There’s a brilliant twitter thread on Education, Context and  Power.  This tweet from that thread adds another dimension to the thinking around assessments and grades:

How Does One Get a Certificate or a Matric Without Assessments?

The first thing to get out of the way is that not everybody needs a certificate. Many young people carve out careers for themselves without ever needing it.
Certificates are for external use. Sometimes we need them to allow us to enter other learning spaces or employment opportunities. The good news is that unschooling doesn’t foreclose on the option to get a certificate if needed. Unschoolers who need those pieces of paper register with a recognised institution, study for and write the exams to get those pieces of paper.

Unfortunately, here in South Africa, our education department thought it prudent to make acquiring a matric certificate/university exemption for independent candidates as difficult as possible. Since the options and requirements of the university institutions and USAf are constantly changing, each individual weighs up their options in relation to their goals and the regulations at the time.

The important thing to know is that unschoolers who choose to pursue a certificate are able to do so without much difficulty from a learning perspective because they are self-motivated.

What Happens to Grown Unschoolers?

Many different things. Some start their own businesses, others hack their careers while others study and write the exams to get into higher education. Here’s a presentation by two sisters who chose two very different paths.

What About the Right to Education?

Yes! to the right to education. It is a right I treasure and will always defend.

There­­­ are multiple ways to get an education. I support and advocate for all the ways in which the right can be exercised, all the different kinds of spaces that provide a variety of resources and mentors to meet children’s interests and passions. The right to education is the right to access to well-equipped libraries stocked with books, and to makerspaces, arts and craft spaces, workshop rooms and to humans who are available to encourage free exploration and to share their passions. The right to education is the right to large open spaces to grow food, build treehouses and other structures, to play in safety and freedom. The right to education is the right to explore our own thoughts and curiosities.

Compulsory schooling on the other hand says NO to all these rich ways in which learning happens. NO to exploring our curiosities and thoughts. NO to equipped public libraries. NO to open spaces. Public schooling confines and restricts humans to classrooms and limits the range of knowledge we can access. Compulsory schooling is a violation of our right to education.

Clearly, education and schooling are not the same thing. Furthermore, a right is only a right when we can choose to exercise the right. It ceases to be a right as soon as it becomes compulsory to exercise. To put it another way, there is no such thing as a compulsory right. We either have a right or a compulsion. And a compulsion, or the absence of choices, is oppression – to use bell hooks’ articulation of oppression.

In terms of the child rights framework and ending the oppression of children by our domination of them, children’s consent is fundamental. If they can’t say yes or no, then they haven’t consented to being in school or to the learning material. And that is a violation of their rights as human beings and their right to an education of their choosing.

Freedom to learn in the way that best suits us is as fundamental as freedom of speech.

Where Can I Learn More?

Learning about unschooling goes hand in hand with understanding the issues around education and schooling.

There are some wonderful thought provoking videos to work your way through in this Getting Started Guide to Rethinking Schooling and Education

There’s a great deal of reading in this Deschooling Reading List

Akilah S. Richards Website if also filled with thought provoking reads and the Raising Free People Podcast

These links below will bring you closer to understanding the basics and the nuances of unschooling:

Defining Life Learning/Unschooling: What it is and What it isn’t

What is Unschooling


Unschooling Isn’t Parental Manipulation

The Difference Between Unschooling and Relaxed Homeschooling Explained with Cookie Baking

Let’s nix the distinction between ‘educational’ and ‘non-educational’ activities

So, You’ve Started Unschooling … Now What? Tips on not Stressing out As You Start Your First Unschool Year

Pam Laricchia’s Guide to Unschooling – This is a resource rich website with free downloads, blog posts and a series of podcasts

And For Inspiration

Read these stories by young unschoolers about their unschooled lives  in the Living Unschooling Series

To connect with other Unschoolers

If you need to connect with other unschoolers online there’s the Unschooling in South Africa Facebook page that you can like, follow and find the groups that it links to.

Good luck on your learning journey!

%d bloggers like this: