Unschool vs. Homeschool: A Guide to Choosing What's Best for Your Family

Posted in Homeschooling on July 11, 2017 - by

Unschooling vs Homeschooling

When deciding what method of home education to employ for your family, you have likely come across the term unschooling. Like homeschooling in the 80s and 90s, unschooling carries a stigma of uncertainty and doubt and yet so many families choose to unschool their children and do so with success.

To decide what approach is best for your family, take a moment to learn about homeschooling, unschooling, deschooling, and what it all means.

What is homeschooling?

A brief history of homeschooling

The beautiful thing about home education is how timeless it really is. Although parents like mine who re-pioneered homeschooling in the 80s and 90s were met with resistance and disbelief, homeschooling is more foundational to human existence than most modern educators are willing to give credit. Parents Magazine referred to homeschooling as a progressive movement.

For the greater part of human history, the basics of education (rudimentary math, natural science, and eventually foundational literacy) were taught by parents in the home to the extent they held those skills. Socialization occurred in the church and community. Agricultural communities educated their children on the seasons, seed germination, and husbandry. Laborers and merchants taught their children basic geometry, math, and craft-specific skills.

The introduction of the public education system drew children out of their homes and into standardized curriculum, scheduled learning, and a “proper” education. The faults of public school, and even private school for that matter, are obvious and bleak. Decades of funding and initiatives have done little to improve the prospects of public school students.

Modern-day homeschooling

Homeschooling, as we understand it today, is the return to an education that occurs at home without the cumbersome restraints of the public-school system. Beyond that definition, the details of each homeschool are as unique as the children taught within them.

The unique feature of modern homeschooling that empowers students and teaching parents to even greater success is that although historical homeschooling was about parents teaching their children what they know, technology today allows parents and students to learn whatever they have access to.

What is unschooling?

Unschooling is a type or form of homeschooling. Thus, in some ways, the title of this post is a little misleading. The question of unschooling is what methodology you want to employ for home education. Unschooling at its core is learner-driver education. The student rather than the teacher determines the direction, pace, and extent of learning activities and subject matter. It is natural, relaxed, organic, and unstructured.

Unschooling is not a new idea. It has existed for at least several decades with the published research of John Holt (1923-1985). An author, educator, and critic of the public system of education, Holt is widely recognized as an advocate for homeschooling, specifically unschooling. His published works How Children Fail and How Children Learn are still popular reading resources on home education.

But unschooling has an even older history than the 1960s. There were proponents of “child-centered” education as early as the 1700s with the philosophies of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Johann Friedrich Herbart.

Practically speaking, unschooling is an education by and for the student. While traditional education, even at home, includes assignments, curriculum, schedules, and standards, unschooling is a departure from all of these elements.

Can an unschooled student get into college?

The short answer is yes! The state-by-state requirements for high school transcripts are different but each state has a process for graduating children taught at home. If an unschooled child’s transcript passes the state’s muster, there may be some hurdles at the college level. The student and teaching parent may be asked to present a portfolio of learning, interview, and demonstrate basic competencies.

Even with the additional steps, many unschooled children are admitted to college without issue. In fact, many unschooled students, just like other homeschool students, are admitted to college earlier than traditional high school graduates from the public school system.

An unschooling student can choose to learn by any variety of methods on any variety of topics at his own pace. The methodology gained a lot of traction with traditional homeschool families when Logan LaPlante, a 13-year-old unschooled student, presented a TedTalk entitled Hackschooling Makes Me Happy. His presentation gave parents and educators a better understanding of how unschooling could work.

Differences between unschool and homeschool

Traditional HomeschoolingUnschooling
StructuredVery unstructured, free-flowing
Curriculum-basedInterest-based
Student is expected to participate and pay attention to prescribed learningStudent chooses topics that interest him and applies himself until his interest is satisfied
Students follow a schedule both daily and yearlyNo schedule or time parameters to satisfy learning needs
Teaching parent provides topics, curriculum, and resources that guide learningTeaching parent provides opportunity to learn, access to learning resources, and outings of interest
Teaching parent sets milestones of learningLearning on any topic begins and ends naturally without emphasis on completion
Student must learn what is important and not always what is interestingStudent must be given freedom to learn what he will, when he will, and how he will because interest and engagement are primary to learning
Student is encouraged to memorize facts and complete worksheets to commit information to memoryStudents are expected to understand stories and teaching parent must trust student to learn to meet their needs, wants or goals
Students follow instructions and directions for learningStudents learn to think for themselves

Unschooling requires the teaching parent to be patient, creative, indulgent, permissive, and trusting. An indirect benefit of this approach is that the teaching parent often learns just as much as the student! You may find yourself discovering new interests and learning about the world through your child’s eyes instead of the other way around.

As you can tell, unschooling is a radical approach to education and a small (but growing) number of families will choose and maintain this approach. Because this approach is so radical, you and your student may need to go through a process called deschooling.

What is deschooling?

If your child has already been in the public school system or traditional homeschool scenario, transitioning to an unschooling method can be extremely difficult. As a teaching parent, you may feel like you are giving up on your child’s education or somehow being negligent. Without all the parameters of structured education, your student may choose to do NOTHING for days, even weeks. Your first step into unschooling may look more like Summer break.

Most unschooling parents recommend a deschooling period to transition your student into a new way of thinking (and consequently, you will have time to adjust as well). Consider drawing your transition time out to equal one month for every year in public, private, or traditional home education. Use that transition time to phase out symbols of structure and to integrate new ways of learning.

For example, phase one might be removing tests and homework from your curriculum but still requiring attention to certain topics. During phase one, you might add trips to places of interest to your student (zoo, modern art museum, local newspaper, or post office). Phase two might begin with asking “What would you like to learn today?” instead of prescribed topics for the day.

And so on…

It’s a good idea to tell your student what the deschooling process is all about and what the end goal is. Help your student understand that you value his interests and that you want his input during this process. Watch Logan LaPlante’s TedTalk together and ask your student if he can imagine the education he would design for himself.

Also, connecting with other parents who are deschooling and unschooling is a critical element to your success and the success of your student.

What does it all mean?

I want to be clear that I am not advocating for unschooling over any other homeschool method. The advantage of homeschooling is that families can determine what is best for both the teaching parent and the student. Some parents choose to create in-home classrooms with chalkboards, worksheets, grade books, and subject curriculum. Some families opt for a relaxed approach with fewer subjects, less emphasis on testing, and experiential learning. And some families find that a child-centered approach with the sky as the limit and the world as a classroom is the best course (pun intended).

Do your research, ask questions, consider all the options, weigh your needs and resources, and open your mind to more possibilities. When you have done these things, make an informed decision for your family, proceed with confidence, and evaluate your experience at intervals to determine if the solution is actually working for your family.

Homeschool Alumni

About Amanda Davis

Amanda Davis is a former homeschool student and advocate. She works as an instructional designer and contributor to parenting and motherhood blogs including her own blog, MarbleCityMoms.com. Amanda and her family live happily in the shadow of… Full author bio

One Response to “Unschool vs. Homeschool: A Guide to Choosing What's Best for Your Family”

  1. Bailey Francis says:

    I found the table and the TED.com video to be quite helpful! I'm still figuring out the nuances of unschooling, and this was a great down to earth article 🙂

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