Schooling, homeschooling and unschooling – a brief what’s what

Enrolling in a short non-fiction writing course recently, I was struck by how thrilled I was to be back in a learning environment. I sharpened my pencils, did my pre-course reading, and wrote my name inside a brand-new sleek notebook. I arrived early, took copious notes, and was the last one to leave. Thankfully I managed to resist taking an apple for the teacher. How had I ever thought school tedious? Memories of trying to stay awake in double Latin, or developing a sudden severe headache to get out of conversational French came flooding back. Why hadn’t I made the most of every single second of my education?

The truth is that a lot of children find mainstream schooling deathly dull. My daughter wants to know why she has to learn Ancient Greek – a dead language, and the trade history of Crete in the Bronze Age. Chatting to her today, she suggested that children be taught all the core subjects until the age of 12, but then be allowed to choose to continue only with 5 subjects that interest them – Anna tells me she would choose Maths, Music, English, Art and Home Economics. Apart from Maths, which she says she finds useful, it’s easy for anyone who knows Anna to understand her choices – she has always loved music, read books, drawn pictures and enjoyed being in the kitchen with me.

Almost all of us have been schooled – that is – attended scheduled regular subject lessons that follow a strict syllabus, together with other children born in the same year. It works for most children, despite the boredom, but not for all. You’re probably already familiar with the notion of homeschooling. Parents, often but not always trained teachers themselves, teach their children at home. They find out what the local educational laws and regulations are, set up a space in the house dedicated to learning, define specific curricula, and identify their child’s reading level and learning style so as to tailor the learning to the child. Homeschooling is quite common in rural areas in particular, where the nearest school is too far away for a daily commute.

Coined by John Holt in the 1970s, unschooling is a form of homeschooling that is entirely child-led, following their curiosity and interests. There are no syllabi – learning is not divided into discrete subjects but is seen as part of everyday life and experience. It is participatory and active. It requires the parent to be a keen observer of their child, able to seize every learning opportunity that presents itself. Unschooling parents are anything but lazy – on the contrary they have to often go the extra mile to help the child learn something thoroughly. Although not true 100% of the time, unschooling can be the natural progression of an attachment based parenting approach.

So, does unschooling actually work? In a study of 75 grown unschoolers, 83% said they had gone on to some formal higher education; 44% had completed or were completing a bachelor’s degree. The unschoolers who did not pursue higher education did so because they felt it was not required for their career choice and felt that they could learn what they needed to know independently or via an alternative route. A high proportion of them had chosen careers in the creative arts; a high proportion were self-employed entrepreneurs; and a relatively high proportion were in STEM careers. Most felt that their unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their sense of personal responsibility, selfmotivation, and desire to learn[1].

Unschooling then, seems to nurture the natural human instinct for lifelong learning, an instinct that mainstream schooling seems to suppress… There is clearly still a lot of room for improvement in today’s educational system. Perhaps we need to listen carefully to what Anna has to say?

by Emma Parker, Vice President – hyphen SA International Development Director – CEO hyphen Publishing Services, hyphen SA

[1] Grey, P. & Riley, G. (2015) Grown Unschoolers’ Evaluations of Their Unschooling Experiences: Report I on a Survey of 75 Unschooled Adults. Other Education. The Journal of Educational Alternatives.


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