Friday, September 17, 2010

Misconceptions About Unschooling

This blog was linked on an MSN Lifestyle blog called Embrace The Chaos (in a post about unschooling, of course).  Since then, I've been getting a LOT of hits from there, and a couple of slightly aggressive comments to boot.  But that's not what I want to talk about right now.

Because my blog was linked in the article, I broke my no-reading-comments rule, and of course the comments are filled with the same type of anti-unschooling rhetoric you find in the comments section of any unschooling article directed at the general public (one gem was "how do people have the arrogance to say that parents know what is best for their children?").  There are so, so many misconceptions out there, and most of the time I just let it all slide, but today I felt inspired to address a few of them:

Structure  One of the biggest misconceptions about unschooling is that it's about a lack of structure. It isn't. What it *is* about is choice. The freedom for the learner, the unschooler, to choose more or less structure as
they desire.

Un-Educating  Unschooling is NOT "un-learning" or "un-educating".  It's simply a different way of "getting an education" than most people are familiar with.  School is synonymous with learning and education for most of the populace, but unschoolers totally reject that idea.  Many unschoolers see school as an oppressive institution that turns learning (which should be joyful) into an unpleasant act that is more about memorization to pass the test than true, deep learning.  The word unschooling is used in the same way you'd use unbinding or unchaining.  It's not about getting rid of learning, it's about freeing yourself from schooling.

Unschooling Is Not New  In many articles, and if not in the article itself then in the comments, people refer to unschooling as a "fad": a newfangled idea that is sure to fail when these unschooled kids grow up.  What the people making such statements fail to realize is that learning from life (unschooling) is how humans have learned for the vast majority of our existence as a species.  Schooling, on the other hand, is pretty new, and thus the real "experiment" in education, not unschooling.  And even looking only at the last century, unschooling still isn't a new phenomena.  It's been around in it's modern form (as has the word unschooling) since the 70's, and there are hundreds of grown unschoolers (myself included) who prove that unschooling works.

Educated Parents  Many people, if they agree that unschooling might, possibly, in some situations, work, say that you must have highly educated parents for unschooling to be successful.  Well, my mother has a high school diploma, and nearly finished a nursing program in college, which is the extent of her institutionalized education (of course, she loves to learn things without the aid of school, and is a true life learner herself.).  My father is a university dropout, who for years has worked in jobs that usually require a university degree, proving that skills trump pieces of paper.  So to much of the world, I don't think my parents would look "highly educated".  What they are is very good at learning what they need to know outside of a school building!

To Be a Successful Unschooler, You Have to Be Motivated  Now this one I've heard a LOT.  Like, an insanely large amount of times.  It's right up there for me with the socialization thing (though I think socialization still wins).  This is what I hear most often from people who see how happy, articulate, and socially capable my sister and I are, so are forced to realize that unschooling must work some of the time.  But, to preserve their own vision of the world--and to make the years they spent in school/the years they're forcing their children to spend in school, worthwhile--they have to believe that it would only work in special cases.  That it would only work for special people.  People who are especially intelligent and especially motivated.  Now, as much as this is flattering to me as an individual in a sense ("you're really smart so it worked for you!"), this idea drives me absolutely crazy.  Because here's the thing: unschooling does not work for motivated people.  Unschooling creates people who are motivated!  The act of placing the power over learning and life into the individual's hands is both empowering and motivating.  If learning is never made into something unpleasant, then it continues to be something joyful and fun throughout life.  That's what this "motivation" people see in unschoolers really is: it's a joy in learning that is seen far less often among the masses in school. 

Unschooling Could Never Produce Doctors  Well, I know two unschoolers who are pursuing just such a path.  Know how they're doing it?  By taking the tests they need to get into their chosen program, the same as anyone schooled would!  Just because you're an unschooler and was never required to take tests when growing up, doesn't mean that you're unwilling or unable to study for and take tests when that's what you desire.  Remember, it's all about free choice, not lack-of-structure.

An Unschooler Can't Learn Anything Their Parents Don't Know  Where on earth did anyone get the idea that an unschoolers only resource was their parents??  Unschoolers can get the information they need from: the internet; the library; homeschool co-op classes; college classes; people in their community/mentors; cultural and community centers that offer classes...  There are many, many ways to learn every single thing they teach in school plus a million other things, while outside of the compulsory school system.

Now, there are enough misconceptions about unschooling out there to write a dozen posts (at least!) dispelling them, but I think that's enough for now!  I hope this will be helpful to at least some of the people who are just starting to find out about unschooling, and have landed on my blog to do so...


  1. Thank you for providing an excellent article to address all of those frustrating questions and assumptions! It gets tedious always having to explain, especially when so many don't really want to take the time to listen or think about it.

    Mentors and role models seem to be a thing of the past; now it seems everyone expects a drill sergeant to run our childrens' lives.

  2. Yay!!! I radically unschool my daughters aged 14 and 12 and people are gobsmacked that they are so mature, articulate and communicate so well with people of any age. My girls have never ever been to any preschool or school in their lives and would hate to be bound by the frankly silly rules that most institutions are run by. Everything is learning - why can't people in general get that??? How did they learn to speak for example? Sigh.
    Oh yes, and that comment about how would parents be so arrogant to think they know what is best for their children - well duh! Of course that's where we are going wrong the State should just take over from conception shouldn't they, after all THEY are the only thing that would have children's interests at heart and love them!!! As if!!! The State has produced such lovely examples of good citizens with stable lives, that's why we read about so much abuse taking place in places state-run. Duh again!!!
    I think we are too much of a challenge to people who frankly don't want the effort of thinking outside the square they are living in...
    Lynda, Rangiora, North Canterbury, New Zealand

  3. Gush.
    You're a credit to Humankind.
    Big, big loves to you, Idzie.
    And your Mama. And Daddy.
    And the Whole Wide World which aided you.


  4. Idzie, this is an incredible post. Thank you so much for braving the hater/ignorant comments (which sometimes I find amusing, sometimes soul-sucking) and taking the time to respond. You are a credit.

  5. I don't understand what the deal is with sending kids to school. It's been done for years. I went through the school system, sure it sucked "at times" but not everything in life is peachy.

    The blog states, 2 people persuing medicine. Pursuing it is one thing, actually becoming it is another. Besides, all that unschooling and they're studying to enter...a Medical SCHOOL. Funny how they're studying to go to a school where in fact they will have to studying and do tests, kinda like what the whole unschooling is not doing.

    I'm not saying that this won't work, but I don't understand why we are soo against giving students a structured education. I didn't want to learn history or geography or science. I did it and it didn't make me any less successful.

    Why is this new generation of parents trying to dumb-down the youth. Kids complain about going to school and we support their laziness.

  6. Anonymous, why does it matter to you? If you don't like unschooling then don't do it.

  7. Anonymous, unschoolers are not against school; we are against compulsory school: sending people to school who don't want to be there and thinking that we can force a real education on someone. There are even unschoolers who go to public school (or other types of formal schooling). We don't have a problem with it if they choose to be there and they decide it fits their learning styles. Also, for some goals, a degree or some formal education is sometimes necessary. If someone goes to college because it fits that persons goals for him/herself, then great. If they are there because that's what their parents want or because that's what society says one has to do in order to be successful...then they probably shouldn't be there.

  8. @Anonymous
    Oh, dear sir/gentlewoman. I am sympathetic as only a short time ago I operated on similar fallacies - including probably the most sad and tragic of them all, the "poisonous pedagogy": children are inherently flawed and selfish and lazy and stupid and we must train them to being Worthwhile Citizens.

    My children are being "unschooled" (I call it autodidactic homeschooling or self-education). The last thing you'd call them is Underachieving or Lazy or "dumbed-down". At this age they are free to go to school if they'd like. They don't want to, instead pursuing self-education in science and computer programming and reading and writing and drawing and history and music-writing and sports and exploration and geography. The many tools they learn to "educate" themselves are far more varied than any school system could possibly provide. No one is missing sleep and they are getting better-fed than they would be if they were in public school. We are also having a wonderful time, including the afternoons when the whole neighborhood of schooled kids gladly comes over to play with mine.

    Are parents who put their kids in public school jerks? That's not my connection at all, neither Idzie's I'd imagine. However if we didn't have leaders like Idzie and others writing, so many parents wouldn't know their options. Meaningful reform in the school system would never happen (and it isn't happening).

    I also did "well" in school (straight As and a full scholarship for an engineering degree) and I can say it's not all it's cracked up to be. Did I experience school as horrific abuse? Nope. Could I have done better outside of school? I am sure of it. My parents didn't know better because they weren't exposed to this growing body of vocal adherents (and yeah... "school" is way, way newer than self-education, you've got it backwards of course).

    I understand the fear and judgment many react with but you're demonstrating a lack of critical thinking by saying it must be BAD and refusing to look into it further. This doesn't surprise me if you were in the school system, which will not strip every child of critical thinking skills but sure does have that effect on most.

  9. Thank you for this post, I found it a very interesting read. I am a public school teacher. I love what I do, and the kids that I teach everyday. My own son goes to public school. I also have a friend who homeschools her 5 children, and does a fantastic job of it. I call her "wonder woman" because of her absolute love of learning and wanting the same for her kids. Plus... she bakes her own bread. :)
    I'm not against homeschooling, or unschooling. I can definitely see that it suits some families. Personally, if it became an issue for my children, that they didn't fit it with the public school lifestyle, I would definitely consider homeschooling. But right now, it works for us, and we are happy.
    Did I mention "Wonder woman" also milks her own goat every morning? :)

  10. "one gem was "how do people have the arrogance to say that parents know what is best for their children?""

    ROFL. That IS a gem.

    Oh the brainwashing. So sad!

  11. Haha! That is priceless! Yeah, never mind the people who love a child more than anything in the world - decisions should be made by bureaucrats they've never met - makes perfect sense! tuh!

  12. Question to my home unschooled son by visiting guest on the topic of wood carving: "Did you know that Indians especially in the pacific north west were excellent carvers?" my son "I read in a book that Native Americans didn't even have metal knives. They made stone knives by smashing to rocks together." he just turned eight.

  13. I love you. That is all :)
    Jenn-Connected Mom

  14. @anonymous...I'll bet you that you didn't actually learn a lot from history or geography or science then.

  15. Love your article!

    My two completely unschooled-from-birth children are now 20 and almost 18. One has completed an accelerated commerce degree in 2 years and has been accepted into law school. The younger one was just accepted into an engineering program. All this from their early years spent dreaming, reading, building, learning, debating, thinking at their own pace and choice. I am fascinated to see how easily and naturally they have both embraced formal "higher" learning, and delighted that our educational choices have made it possible for them to follow their hearts' desires.

  16. Whether I agree with this or not is hardly the point. Being a parent gives you the privilege of making the best choices for your kids. If you truly believe that not sending your child to school is the best choice then you have the right to do it. Just as the rest of us choose to send our kids to school; this is our right. NOBODY has the right to tell you you are doing the wrong thing by your children, unless it is unlawful, unmoral or dangerous. Its certainly not for me and my kids, but I commend you all for making a choice which you believe is in the best interests of your children. Good luck.

  17. Thank you thank you THANK YOU for writing this post! =) I'm an unschooler/aspiring writer and botanist, and I have faced more of these comments than I care to remember. I'm now attending the community college for my Honors Associate in Arts degree (I'm 15), and plan to go on to a 4-year university; but I really hope that I can consider myself an unschooler the rest of my life. EVERYONE is an unschooler in some way or other, unschooled kids are just getting a head start. =) So thanks again, you have inspired me!

  18. I love it when I start the day reading an effective and articulate article on unschooling! You RocK!!!!
    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective... feel free to continue to dispel further myths in future posts. :) I will be reading!

  19. Can anyone share any more articles on homeschooling and such. Its something Ive been thinking about and would love to read more on the topic, how parents do it...etc....Thanks for this article! It has come at a time where Im so scared about sending my children into the current school systems...and wonder if I will be doing better by them to stay home and teach them through experiences and world living. Just so unsure, so would appreciate any info my way :) Thankyou!

  20. I feel like I want to respond to each of you lovely people individually, but then I feel like all I'd be doing would be saying "thank you so much!" a bunch of times. So what I will say instead is that I appreciate you guys SO MUCH! Your encouragement is truly wonderful! And I'm so very happy that you like what I write. To know that I'm being successful in sharing my passion about unschooling with others is so wonderful and validating! So a big big thank you to all commenters (besides unfriendly Anonymous, of course). ♥ :)

    @Mekayla_R: I'm afraid I don't have anything on homeschooling more broadly, but you can find a pretty long list of resources on unschooling on my links and resources page: Hope you find it helpful!

  21. great article! so articulate and well written. congratulations

  22. @Mekayla
    Try this link for more information on homeschooling in general.

  23. Unschooling creates people who are motivated! I love that! My other favorite from a bumper sticker is "Learning is natural. School is optional." Once I posted those two sentences on FB and it created quite a frenzy. You are a great beacon for us all. Keep it comin...

  24. Very well written, you have helped subdue my fears of unschooling my unborn family.

  25. I'm in a career that a teacher once suggested to me. Had I been homeschooled or unschooled I'd probably never have found my calling. thank you to that Grade 12 Art teacher. I am forever thankful to you.

  26. Awesome explanation. My daughter attends a public Montessori and many people are very confused how you can give these kids so much "freedom" to learn what they want when they want that they will just become slackers. that may be true at home, after all who really wants to pick up after themselves and clean if that isn't their interest? All the kids in her school are rock stars and it is just amazing to watch kids understand they are in charge of their learning and how it frees them. My daughter has picked up on chemistry this past summer studying rocks/gems and each page had the chemical make up so she needed to understand what the chemical symbols were, she was in 6th grade.

    Learning at your own pace has got to be the BEST thing ever. Too bad too many people don't get that.

  27. I really enjoyed this article. Am unschooling my three youngest children (being a bit of a routine-and-structure freak I occasionally try to impose something before learning my lesson) and it really helps to read this kind of positive blog.

    Please, keep up the good work - I'll be visiting you whenever I have a wobble :-)

  28. All the things people say about unschooling....once you strip it down to its most base, it's so simple: I know a guy working on his mechanical engineering degree who likes reading about history and reading classic literature in his spare time. He's been mistaken as an English major several times.

    I've been feeling down about being unschooled because of the fact that I didn't learn the same things as everyone in school, but after reading this I realized I really don't care.
    To hell with the one size fits all school program!
    Keep writing, cuz your blog is awesome.

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  31. I know this is just paranoid of me, but the one thing that keeps nagging me is that you can see the successful unschoolers telling their stories on the internet, but I just keep wondering if there are some/many unsuccessful ones, still living in their mom's basement, unhappy with their life, and they're just keeping quiet. While everything you've written really sits well with my own philosophy and experiences, I have to have be skeptical and thorough about it, because I don't want to just experiment on my kids and (sorry, I know you get this a lot) possibly mess up their life.

    1. Well, there are plenty of unschoolers doing things that aren't flashy or Big Impressive Things, just living their lives quietly, as many people (no matter their education) do. In my personal experience, most people I've come across who have negative things to say about unschooling in their lives, sound more like they were neglected than actually unschooled. It seems that either their parents appropriated a term they didn't really follow, or that their parents never even used the term, and those grown kids just think that, on the surface, unschooling sounds like the neglect they experienced.

      I can't say more than that really. I'm sure there are unschoolers who regret they were unschooled. There are also lots of people who regret that they were sent to school. And actually, I just published a whole post addressing essentially this subject: is unschooling really "riskier" than school, or is it just less conventional?

      I hope that helps, best of luck in whatever decision you make!