Learning outside of traditional schooling is growing in popularity, as our world becomes more like a global village. With technology developing at an alarming speed each day, easier access to the internet has changed many parents’ approaches to their children’s education.
The word “homeschooling” feels like it has been with us for a very long time, and it is not uncommon to find parents who have chosen to homeschool their children. But until recently, homeschooling in Canada has not been as widespread as you might think.
According to statistics, about 60,000 Canadian children were homeschooled in 2016, compared to 2.5 million kids in the U.S. – representing about 1-2% of school-aged children. The number is growing each year, and from 2020 to 2021, the number grew by 6-7%.
Although the pandemic has pushed some families to homeschool out of necessity, whether children learn from traditional schooling or at home, the main goal of most parents is to educate children to meet or surpass the standard curriculum.
But for some families, the choice to homeschool comes from a strong belief that learning outside of school, natural learning and independent study benefit children more than the school board curriculum. They want to give their children more chances to learn through experiences and travelling. A growing number of parents are willing to change their children’s main learning environment from school to homeschooling, or even unschooling.
When I first heard the term, “unschooling”, before understanding the overall concept, it was hard not to connect the word with “unparenting”. Letting children have control over their own education did not seem like a wise choice to me. Children are children, after all. There are logical reasons why they should wait to drive, drink or vote, let alone how many choices they get as to what and how they learn. Unschooling sounds like relaxing the boundaries too far, to the point that there are few or no boundaries left to keep children safe.
So what exactly is unschooling, and what are its differences from regular homeschooling?
Some parents want to give their children freedom to explore their interests rather than confining them to a curriculum. Children can then have the freedom to study based on their own interests, and expand on the areas of knowledge they are passionate about.
Differences between homeschooling and unschooling
Homeschooling generally follows a curriculum similar to schools, and most of the time it is led by parents. There are regular exams and reports to monitor each child’s learning path, based on the curriculum. On the other hand, unschooling is conducted without a defined curriculum and led by children, based on their interests, with parents assisting according to their needs.
Although, with unschooling, children decide what to learn, it is not set in stone that parents have no place to express their opinion. As long as children can find constructive areas to explore and eventually set goals towards a career, unschooling can offer flexibility depending on each family’s situation and ability to adapt to the requirements.
How can unschooling children meet the requirement for a diploma?
Some people(including me) might wonder how these self-led children can achieve all the requirements for a diploma and pass the exams.
This is where the fundamental importance of pedagogy comes into play, where unschooling is concerned. Every parent takes unschooling to a different level, with some parents choosing the extreme of letting their children decide everything, from when to go to bed to what their daily schedule is going to be, and even what they eat and when. In this type of scenario, unschooled kids might stay awake past midnight and fail to develop the ability to read or write, until much later than their more traditionally schooled peers.
But to some parents unschooling is not about letting a child do whatever they want. They respect their children’s passions and interests and are willing to support and let them explore them further, but they also discuss their future, and the basic requirements for primary subjects, and help them to achieve the education they need.
For parents who have decided to take the unschooling path, here are some things they might consider, in order to get the most benefit out of it.
To make unschooling more successful, parents might consider the following:
The appropriate age for children to start leading their own education
The child’s ability to independently handle learning tasks
The child’s understanding of responsibility
Whether or not the child understands consequences
Whether the child shows a strong enough interest in certain subjects
Since parents considering this route are offering their children the freedom to choose the direction of their learning path, there could be a conversation about which core subjects they would need to learn, regardless of the path they choose. Whether these necessary core courses are learned in their own way or online, it is a way for students to prepare for further studies in a post-secondary institution, depending on the direction of their learning path.
In my opinion, unschooling would be more beneficial for older children who have already learned certain guidelines and developed basic competencies such as reading, writing and basic math.
Based on what I have found, children who were in charge of their own learning from too early an age typically struggled to learn how to read and write, and took much longer to master core competencies than children learning in a traditional school setting.
Reading and writing are fundamental skills that are required in order to learn any subject effectively. It is hard for me to imagine a young child who has not learned how to read and write, attempting to independently research through books or the internet, even for a subject that they are passionate about.
Different opinions surrounding unschooling
When all is said and done, if unschooling is adopted responsibly, it offers many benefits to children.
What are the benefits of unschooling?
Generally better grades than kids in traditional public schools
Development of strong executive skills
Independently initiated and finished projects
Development of strong entrepreneurship
Ability to find a more satisfying career earlier
Ability to learn and accumulate deeper and more thorough knowledge in their interested field
Less emotional stress from peer pressure
Less demotivation and stress from learning uninteresting or irrelevant topics
While I can appreciate both sides of the argument regarding unschooling, I cannot agree with unschooling at an early age, before children have mastered basic skills around primary subjects and have developed some measure of self-discipline.
However, unschooling is more suitable for older children, once they have acquired basic skills to carry out independent study. Once children are able to learn independently, unschooling can definitely be beneficial in terms of giving them a chance to immerse themselves in areas of study that interest them and encourage them to find an ideal career path. This will help them decide on further studies with greater independence and certainty, minimizing their chances of dropping out, or graduating with degrees that don’t serve any purpose in their future.
If you want to read further about unschooling, I recommend reading The Philosophy of Unschooling by John Holt.
You might also be interested in reading How do you know whether it is a good idea for your child to skip a grade.