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What Does Unschooling Mean and How Is It Different from Homeschooling?

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What Does Unschooling Mean and How Is It

Different from Homeschooling?

Back in 1985, we’d made the decision to become a homeschooling family. No one I talked to knew anything about homeschooling. Despite not knowing anything, they were all, nonetheless, quite certain it was illegal. I was ecstatic when, upon reviewing the latest copy of Growing Without Schooling, I found another homeschooler in my state, and she was only about 150 miles away! Bonus, she started homeschooling/unschooling in 1983, so she was also an experienced homeschooling mom!!
That mom was Katharine Houk, and I’m tickled to share with you her answer to the question that forms our title today. Many thanks, Katharine, for all your help decades ago, and for contributing your wisdom that keeps on giving today.



“Letting go of these ingrained ideas is a recovery process.”

Most people understand homeschooling to mean learning outside of the institution called school, yet some families refer to what they do as unschooling. The term unschooling has been used in a couple of different ways.

Unschooling sometimes refers to homeschooling without a set curriculum, wherein what happens each day is based on the interests and curiosities of the people involved. Sometimes this process is called natural learning, the discovery method, or experience-based learning. Many families, including  my own, have enjoyed this family- and community-centered way of living and learning for many years. To some this may not look like “education” at all because it so closely resembles daily life. And daily life it is – with a focus for both adults and children on exploration, problem-solving, discovering where to look for answers to the hundreds of questions that naturally arise, all intertwined with the tasks involved in keeping a household running smoothly.

Homeschooling to Unschooling Was an Evolutionary Process

Becoming unschoolers was an evolutionary process for our family. At first I was worried about “covering” the same topics that children in school were learning. I borrowed books from my local district but found that my children’s daily explorations at home and in the community went far beyond what they would have learned from those books. Using our home and public libraries, going fun places and meeting interesting people, taking care of home, pets, and the garden, and attending homeschooling gatherings filled our days with discovery. My task as an unschooling parent has been to create a rich learning environment (which has included everything from dance classes to textbooks to travel), provide guidance and direction when appropriate, and nurture interests. This is not to say that a family homeschooling with a set curriculum cannot also do these things, time and energy permitting.

The term unschooling is also used by homeschooling families to describe the process of shedding notions that institutional education has bestowed on us, both parents and children. These notions may include the idea that learning is a chore and must be coerced with rewards and punishments, or that teaching is necessary for learning to take place, or that there is a uniform timetable for learning certain things such as reading.

Letting go of these ingrained ideas is a recovery process, best helped by developing trust in our children and ourselves, which can be nurtured by learning from experienced unschoolers whether in support groups, online, or by reading articles in publications. My children have been my best teachers in my efforts to unlearn what my schooling has taught me and it’s an ongoing task. It’s been my love for them that has opened my eyes to what they really need, to what captures their minds and hearts, to what has helped them grow up to be healthy, knowledgeable adults.

Homeschooling, Unschooling and Educationese

One scary aspect of unschooling, if you live in a state that requires reports, is translating this kind of learning into a form that school officials can understand; therefore my husband and I have put in valuable time explaining to education officials what we are doing and how it is working. Translating our children’s natural learning into “educationese” can be tedious, but doing so has enabled us to keep on with what has been working best for our family. Some unschooling families enroll with a support group such as Clonlara, which acts as a buffer/translator between them and school officials.

See also Educationese for Beginners

The flexibility of unschooling has allowed our children to develop in directions that might not have opened to them had we stuck to the school’s (or some other) curriculum. They’ve become self-directed learners. Unschooling has worked well for our family and for many others, but there is no right way when it comes to homeschooling. You and your children are the experts on what is best for your family.

Katharine Houk, who started homeschooling in 1983, brings people together in groups, learning centers and educational events. She believes that by learning together, we can each become spirited inventors of our lives. She co-founded/directed the Alliance for Parental Involvement in Education (AllPIE), and works as an artist in Chatham, NY.
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