Unschooling: Does It Really Work?
When it comes to homeschooling, there is no lack of pedagogical philosophies. While some states require homeschool families to conform to a public education curriculum, almost all include or follow some form of one of the six most common styles of homeschooling; Traditional, Classical, Charlotte Mason Method, Unit Studies, Unschooling or Eclectic. Most people are familiar with Traditional and Classical styles and are fairly familiar with the Charlotte Mason Method and Unit Studies. These styles are more relatable to the mainstream education systems as they have an organized, planned curriculum. The Eclectic method of homeschooling is a blend of many different forms of education- the belief being that whatever works best for the student’s learning style is the way to educate. Eclectic style may mean teaching math with a structured curriculum, Unit Studies for history and unschooling for science.
But, what exactly is unschooling? Does it really work? What happens to unschoolers when they become adults?
Unschooling is perhaps the most misunderstood homeschooling style; the concept is not only difficult for the general public and mainstream educators to grasp even a large majority of the homeschooling community fails to completely understand unschooling. Yet, despite the many myths that surround unschooling, it is one of the most effective methods of home education. Unschooling, by Wikipedia definition, is “informal learning that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning.” Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences such as play, household responsibilities, personal interests and other influences such as family, work, travel experiences and social interactions. Merriam-Webster doesn’t have a definition of unschooling; rather, the term “unschooled” is used and defined as “not schooled; untaught or untrained.” The definition continues as “not artificial; natural.” Interestingly, the second definition, although not directly relating to unschooling, sums up the ideology behind the educational style very well. In an Unschooling educational model, children are thought of as natural learners and it is believed that given the opportunity a child will choose to learn what is important to them and will not personally engage in learning something that is “artificial” for them. The philosophy embraces the idea that learning is a natural process and when a child chooses to explore an activity themselves their learning is more personal, meaningful and is better understood.
Most people, even other homeschool families, imagine unschool students playing and lazing about all day. Do they wonder exactly what an unschooler is learning? This type of thinking and the idea that unschoolers do “nothing” all day, are among the most common misconceptions surrounding unschooling. How, many people wonder, could unschooling be successful with the child leading the way? The key to successful unschooling is parents! It’s the job of the student to be curious; to question. It’s the job of the parent to support the natural curiosity and exploration with the tools and resources necessary for a student to immerse themselves in the subject of their interest. George Bernard Shaw summed up the essence of unschooling when he said: “what we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.”
Unschooling, as radical as it is perceived as today, was the first original form of education. Children learned at home through their daily routines with families and communities. Many learned reading, math, science and history through practical applications such as family bible studies or storytimes, planning for and building improvements around homes and farms. Sciences were learned by observations about the environment around them. Formal education was not common and was only for wealthier families that could afford private tutors. While the idea of compulsory education was introduced as early as the mid-to-late 1600s by the Puritans (whose reasoning was more based on the desire to provide religious instruction rather than academic) who established the Boston Latin School in 1635; making it both the first and oldest public school in America today; it wasn’t until the early 1900s that compulsory schooling laws were adopted by nearly 30 states. Education laws moved fairly quickly at the turn of the century and by 1910 72% of American children were required to attend school until the age of 14 and by 1918 it was the law in every state that all children must complete elementary school. Unschooling philosophically questions the usefulness of standardized curriculum, testing, grading and the ability of traditional schooling to address the unique needs of each student. Modern unschool families often argue that public schools can even hinder the ability of students and create artificial limitations.
Ironically, as much interest and talk about homeschooling and all its variations have had within the public education system and in public perception throughout the years, very few studies exist that define the actual long-term impacts. One of the only comprehensive studies done of adults who were unschooled as children (specifically, a 2014 study published in Psychology Today by Peter Gray, Ph.D., and Gina Rilley) found that unschool students not only thrived but excelled as adults. Nearly 83% of students had gone on to higher education; including college, trade or vocational schools. Nearly 45% had graduated with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The adults who responded to this specific part of the survey overwhelmingly stated that they had “no difficulties” merging into higher education settings. The study also indicated that over half (63%) were entrepreneurs and 78% were financially independent.
The 2014 study further revealed that unschoolers were more likely to state that they had a “higher quality of life” Meaning, they were engaged in work and relationships that were meaningful to them and overall happier with their life. Unschooled students also grew up to be more actively engaged in their communities through volunteer and civic work than any other group of students surveyed; including public school students and other methods of homeschooling.
The Gray-Rilley study is one of the only ones of its kind, but anecdotal evidence also abounds online that supports the evidence that unschooled students not only become successful adults in the most traditional sense of the word but also become well-adjusted and more emotionally satisfied adults with strong senses of community responsibility and self-accountability.