Monday, June 29, 2020

12 Unschooling Misconceptions (and Why They're Wrong)

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what unschooling is, how it works, what people mean when they use the term... So I wanted to do a post on the topic addressing some of the biggest misunderstandings that seem to crop up repeatedly.

Misconception #1: unschooling is just a synonym for homeschooling.

While unschooling falls under the homeschooling umbrella, it is its own unique approach, lifestyle, and understanding of how learning works and how children should be treated.

While "homeschooling" frequently means school-at-home, unschooling is delight-driven, interest-based, self-directed life learning. It's children owning their own education, learning what, where, when, how, and with whom they want (within reasonable constraints).

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Misconception #2: Unschooling is just educational neglect.

Unschooling does NOT mean abandoning children to their own devices. Adult carers take an active, involved role in the lives of unschooling children, acting as guides and partners in learning, finding resources, and creating environments that foster exploration,. Their role is just collaborative, instead of that of "teacher."

Misconception #3: Parents must just be sneakily "teaching" their kids, then.

Nope! As I said recently on Facebook:
“[That belief] seems to rest on the assumption that children directing their own learning is such an absurd idea that there MUST be a mastermind carefully crafting the process behind the scenes…

And while there is certainly a great deal of parental involvement, it's not through subterfuge.

Unschooling as a philosophy is about respecting children, not tricking them into learning. They WANT to learn, they just need the resources and support to do so.”

Unschooling requires a shift in understanding about what learning is and how children should be treated. Trusting and respecting children is central to unschooling, and trying to manipulate children into doing what the adults want would completely undermine that. 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Misconception #4: You can unschool part time.

The assumption behind this claim is generally that weekends and summer break can be for "unschooling," after the REAL learning has taken place in school. But as I hope is becoming clear, unschooling is a lifestyle, it's a whole different way of approaching living and learning with children. It's not something you stuff into spare moments, and it can’t be done without challenging dominant ideas about schooling.

See Why Can't You Just Unschool Part Time? 

Misconception #5: Unschooling is just a way for parents to isolate their children from the wider world, to keep them away from the "wrong" sorts of people and influences.

I think it's hard to convey to those outside of the community just how wide a schism there is between religious and secular homeschooling/homeschoolers. The ideology is NOT the same.

Members of the fundamentalist and evangelical homeschooling movement often DO want to isolate their kids. Unschoolers, though, tend to fall heavily on the secular side of reasons-for-homeschooling (whatever their personal beliefs or religion are), and do not want their children isolated at all.

I tend to make the distinction between those who want kids to have MORE access to the world than school provides, vs those who want kids to have LESS access. Generally more = good, less = bad in terms of the experience kids have.

See Homeschooling the Right Way: More of the World, Not Less 

Misconception #6: Unschooling means you stay at home all the time.

I mean, right now most people are home all the time. But NORMALLY, and expanding on the above point, that is not at all the case.

Unschoolers usually see plenty of other people, have friends and activities, and spend lots of time out and about. At various points my sister and I had Sparks/Brownies/Girl Guides, nature club, homeschool co-op, Air Cadets, classes on a wide variety of different topics, lots of informal gatherings… Unschoolers are plenty "socialized."

See The Ultimate Unschooling Socialization Post 

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Misconception #7: Kids (and people in general) are inherently "lazy" and won't learn unless forced to. 

I feel like there are two components to address here. The first is "laziness" as a concept, which... I do not think exists

I also think that the fantastic article "Laziness Does Not Exist (but unseen barriers do)" by Devon Price is a must read on the topic. 

But the second part of the misconception is that kids, being "lazy", must be FORCED to learn, with the inherent assumption that learning must be hard, and that no one would willingly do it.

In reality, schooling is the unpleasant thing that many children resist, finding it stressful or boring or de-motivating. That's the part that kids don't like. Schooling and learning are not synonyms, and learning does not have to be that way.

Unschoolers know that living is learning, and that children just need supportive and resource filled environments in which to thrive. As long as their needs are met, they will learn enthusiastically, joyfully, fiercely.

Misconception #8: Children will never do hard things on their own.

Obviously similar to misconception #7, but I thought this one still deserved its own attention. Because obviously... Learning CAN be hard!

Learning new things is often difficult: sometimes it's joyful work, but frequently it’s also frustrating. The thing is though, that people--children included--will do hard things if they feel there's a good reason to do so. If they’re excited, or see how it will be useful in their lives, or they feel it contributes to an important goal of theirs, they will put in the work.

Certain things need to be in place to make hard things more manageable (a topic I’ve gone into more thoroughly in the past), but ultimately, it doesn't require force. It just requires support.

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

Misconception #9: Kids will "rule" the household if adults aren't busy controlling their every move.

This one... Well, it seems to be coming from people who have a wildly different, very negative view of human nature in general and children in particular as compared to unschoolers.

If you see the world through a starkly hierarchical and authoritarian lens, if you think people need to be ruled, and that homes should be run like miniature dictatorships, unschooling might seem like it could never work (respect and trust children?? Surely not!).

The fact it DOES work, that there are lots of parents trying to undo their own authoritarian conditioning and create non-hierarchical models based on consent in their homes instead, which children then thrive in, shows that those doubters do not understand human nature as well as they think they do.

Unschoolers of all backgrounds (including those whose parents made the decision and those who left school themselves as teens) show that not only do parent-child relationships not have to be based on control, but teacher-student hierarchies can also be disrupted

People of all ages really are capable of cooperating, collaborating, and learning together in ways that aren't based on coercion and control.

Misconception #10: Unschooling means no teacher, textbooks, classes, or structure.

Here is where it's important to emphasize the self-directed aspect of unschooling.

The idea isn't to do away with any and all school-like trappings, it's to respect that the learner gets to call the shots in their own education. This means unschoolers are absolutely free to utilize a variety of resources, including classes and teachers, which many choose to do.

At various points I was in classes ranging from French, to history, to principles of aviation, to doll making. Structure is in no way incompatible with unschooling, as long as that structure is freely chosen by the learner.

This is probably a good time to point out that unschoolers can also choose to go to school! It's not at all uncommon for unschoolers to move in and out of the school system over the years, sometimes trying out school briefly, sometimes going and staying. The important part is self-direction/choice.

See No Classes, No Teachers, No Books? The Reality of Structure in Unschooling 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Misconception #11: Unschooling will only work for "motivated" children.

Honestly, I hate this one SO much. I hate the hierarchy, the division it creates between the supposedly "smarter" or "more motivated" and the supposedly... Less. As if there are some children who deserve more respect, trust, and freedom, and some who don't, which seems like such a profoundly broken way of looking at other people.

All children, if given the needed support--a safe environment, caring adults, access to a variety of resources--are capable of self-directed learning. There isn't some special type of kid who deserves to learn more freely than others.

Access is a whole different thing: because we live in a capitalist hellscape, most people don't have the financial means to unschool. Because our society does not value children, they are segregated from the rest of society instead of being a crucial, integral part of daily life.

But all children can and should be trusted and respected, and in any revolutionary vision of a different society the needs and rights of children should be considered of utmost importance.

I also think there are a lot of models (agile learning centers, homeschool co-ops, free schools, etc.) that provide inspiration for what could be, if they were fully publicly funded and accessible to all children who don't have the option of unschooling.

Misconception #12: Unschooling is elitist and incompatible with "social justice".

I feel like I started to address the issue of privilege in my previous point, and now I want to shift focus a bit and point out that schooling is incompatible with social justice. 

I don't personally see unschooling as any type of solution in a vacuum: I think the necessary changes to create a truly just society (societies?) are revolutionary. I don't think any tweaking of the current system will ever be enough.

However, I absolutely agree that unschoolers (along with everyone else) need to understand how power, privilege, and oppression function in order to start chipping away at their own oppressive views and actions, and take steps towards greater justice.

I just feel very strongly that treating children badly, in controlling and disrespectful ways, is, you know, bad. Ageism is an oppression that needs to be addressed, and I think unschooling can be a way to combat that.

I also think it's completely counterproductive to try to teach children to be anti-authoritarian and anti-oppression by treating them in authoritarian and oppressive ways.

I talk a lot more about my understanding of the ways unschooling and "social justice" relate in Yes There ARE Things Every Kid Should Know

Photo by Rachael Henning on Unsplash

Okay, I think that covers it! I hope this clarified some issues you may have been wondering about, and gave you a better understanding of what unschooling can be all about. It’s an approach to living and learning with children that I think can provide a lot of inspiration if people simply understood it better.


  1. As per usual, an excellent piece! <3

  2. Good to read!!!! I've learned a lot!

  3. This is a great post... thank you so much! It put into words so many of my own thoughts....

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed this and couldn't have said it better myself!

  5. I cannot wait to free myself and my child from the public education system