General Education

How Is Unschooling Different From Homeschooling?

How Is Unschooling Different From Homeschooling?
An unschooler’s day is whatever the student wants it to be. Image from Unsplash
Tyler Miller profile
Tyler Miller October 15, 2014

If you are looking for an alternative to the structured environment of traditional education, unschooling might be your answer.

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Every day, parents and students face the challenges of navigating the American school system. More than one parent has scratched her head and wondered if there might not be a better way.

While homeschooling is a fairly well-known alternative, unschooling is a trend that is gaining ground.

Unschooling has been around since the 1970s, brought into vogue by educator John Holt, who advocated its practice instead of public schooling. However, even after four decades, unschooling remains virtually unknown.

Unschooling vs. Homeschooling

Unschooling means learning what one wants, when one wants, in the way one wants, for one’s own reasons," states Mary Griffith, author of “The Unschooling Handbook."

The major difference between unschooling and homeschooling is the approach to learning. In a homeschooling environment, parents act like teachers in the classroom. Guided by state and national standards, they plan lessons, assign homework, and grade assignments.

An unschooler’s day is whatever the student wants it to be.

“Choice and control reside with the learner," Griffith explains.

Unschooling operates with the faith that children are naturally curious and will follow their interests in their own way. Free from the controls and burdens of traditional education, unschoolers take cues from their passions and learn as needed.

While this may sound too good to be true, multiple studies show that there is more than fancy behind this non-traditional approach. Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College, states that traditional schools create an “abnormal environment."

“What you see a child doing until the age of 4 — that is unschooling! Look at what that child has learned. There is no reason to believe that this ability to make mental connections, to ask questions, would disappear by the age of 5 and 6," Mr. Gray told The New York Times.

A study from the University of Colorado supports his hypothesis. Researchers investigated the effect that less-structured activities had on children’s self-directed executive functioning, or the cognitive processes involved in goal-oriented behavior. The study concluded that the more time children engaged in free-play, the better their self-directed executive functioning skills.

What About College?

Parents considering unschooling sometimes assume that their children will not be well-prepared for college. They worry that if their child has no experience in a classroom setting, it will be difficult for her to excel in the most traditional academic setting of them all.

As it turns out, unschoolers have no trouble getting into those hallowed university halls. Recent research reveals that of 232 families who unschooled their children, 83 percent of children transitioned into college. Half of those students completed a bachelor’s degree or higher (or were currently enrolled).

After Unschooling

It is a noted trend that unschoolers tend to gravitate toward more artistic pursuits. Perhaps this is an inherent component of the ability to pick your own learning course. After all, how many of us, left to our own devices, choose to do math problems?

On the other hand, not all unschoolers end up as musicians, writers, and painters. Half of men and 20 percent of women who were unschooled enter fields that require substantial backgrounds in science, technology, or math.

What Works Best for You

Unschooling presents a unique approach to education, and it isn’t for everybody. Only one percent of American children are currently unschooled. For parents looking for alternative options to the traditional school system, consider what form you want your child’s education to take. If you feel more confident with structure, homework, grades, tests, and other more conventional methods, then homeschooling is likely a better option.

If you are confident that your child can direct her learning (with you as a guiding hand), then unschooling may be the option you’re looking for.

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