The Nuts and Bolts of Unschooling

Unschooling is not really new to us. The idea of a purely learner-centered education has been around since the 80s in response to what was viewed as faulty and inadequate understanding of human development from which the traditional school system was built. Institutionalized learning is viewed as an obstacle children must face to reach the other side; unschooling, on the other hand is more like pathways where children choose their own path to life.

In this article, we will delve into the topic of unschooling – its origin, basic principles, and its implications to your child’s development. We will demystify the so-called formal system of education and open our mind to the realities of authentic learning as well as the challenges that we and our children must face ahead.


unschooling 101



The truth about formal education

This is something educators won’t tell you up-front – that the formal system of education is merely a brainchild of the industrial revolution. What that means is that everything your child learns at school is geared towards industrialization. It’s a system that turns every graduate into a cogwheel inside a gigantic industrial machinery. But your child is more than just clockwork. Your child is unique and special. He doesn’t need to be what someone else told him to be. Learning is all about self-discovery and knowing things that would enable him to do what he does best.


Breaking the mold

One of the failures of formal education is that it doesn’t seem to address the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each individual learner. It’s like trying to fit every child into a single mold and making them look exactly alike. While this could work flawlessly in the assembly line, the same cannot be said in learning institutions because every child is different. Learning has to be more about the child and less about the school. Hence the word ‘unschooling’.


Turning the tide

John Caldwell Holt was among the first educators to propose the idea that meaningful learning could only take place if it was done by choice and at the learner’s own pace. He goes on further by advocating parents to ‘free’ their own child from the restrictions and emotional stress brought about by a highly competitive environment by taking them out of the school and introducing them to a whole new learning environment – the real world they now live in. Hence, unschooling is the closest thing a child can ever get to authentic, realistic, hands-on learning.

Child-centered learning

In an unschooled learning environment, nobody ever forces the child to learn things which the child himself finds little or no interest in learning. Although some people may think of unschooling as a radical approach to education, it’s actually based on sound pedagogical principle that a child learns only when he’s ready to learn.

No amount of teaching can change this universal principle. People who go against it are in fact putting a lot of strain to the child while limiting his capacity to learn. It instead creates an artificial learning where the learner parrots every single word or thing from lessons taught to him by his teacher – exactly the kind of education you get from most schools.

Unschooling does away with school completely. The teacher, in this case mom and dad, moves aside and the child takes center stage. This time it’s his ‘subject’, his time, his own ‘school’. The parents’ role is just to provide him with opportunities to learn whether pre-planned or spontaneously. Parents who unschool their children do it in a very discreet way that it feels very natural and unforced. It’s not like, “Honey, please learn this tonight and I’ll quiz you tomorrow about it.” Nothing like that. That would be absurd in real life. And yet that’s what most schools are doing with our kids.


Curiosity kills the cat, not your child

Every child instinctively learns out of his own curiosity. It’s their ‘thing’ like all kids do. They’d stop at nothing until they’ve satisfied enough of their curiosity. Have you ever been bombarded by questions from a 4-year old child? Unschooling works by taking advantage of the fact that children don’t need constant prodding; they learn things on their own. What they do need is someone or something that could lead them on to the right direction, stimulate their interest, and harness their innate abilities.

Formal education seem to ignore this fact and just throw in every lesson that they can think of hoping they could somehow teach a thing or two that would interest a child. Instead, education should be focusing more on what the individual learner finds relevant and interesting, not like the hit-and-miss strategy traditional schools are known for.


Every child learns differently

Another principle behind unschooling is the fact that not every child learns the same way and at the same pace. Let’s take math for example. Most kids learn them by rote memory. They simply memorize it. But some kids goes beyond numbers and wants to know why two ‘ones’ become ‘two’ and not ‘eleven.’ These are visual-spatial learners and they learn numbers by seeing how they actually ‘look’ like since numbers are really just symbols.

With unschooling, parents allow their kids to learn the way they want to learn. It’s the same principle with Gardner’s multiple intelligences in which children possess more than one (there are eight according to his theory) and they can be tapped to address their difficulties with just one particular method of learning.

Timing is another crucial element in learning that formal schooling just glosses over. Children don’t have much of a choice. They can’t stay with the lessons they like the most and they can’t get away with what they don’t like either. It’s very self-limiting and so out of tune with what authentic learning ought to be. Worse, they can flunk out of school because the teacher is way too fast and they find it difficult to keep pace with the timetable set by the curriculum.



It’s about time we give back our children their right to proper, more realistic, and responsible learning. Unschooling, despite of its weaknesses and imperfections still remains as the most viable alternative to our present educational system which, in the words of John Holt, is ‘broken beyond repair.’

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