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Unschooling is different from homeschooling

by Vijay Garg
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Unschooling is a broad term that encompasses a range of labels, definitions, and practices unique to each person or family. At its core, it’s the opportunity — and often for new unschoolers, the challenge — for children to explore their own interests rather than adhere to the criteria and curricula predetermined by school boards or other entities. Unlike the traditional homeschool model which often seeks to mimic the classroom or follow a defined curriculum usually with parents acting as teachers, in unschooling, children take the lead. Adults, sometimes (but not always) parents, typically offer support, assistance, and guidance when needed.
Allowing kids to shape their own education
It can be helpful to think of unschooling not as an educational approach but as the philosophy that learning is a natural process constantly taking place. . After working as a teacher in a conventional setting for several years, Holt realized the motivating factor for many of his students wasn’t a love of learning but a fear of failure and criticism. He noted a marked difference between the natural creativity in preschool-age children and the lack of excitement and curiosity in elementary school students and beyond. Over his lifetime, his writings on unschooling inspired many to reexamine the state of America’s public schools and our rigid expectations of children.
Today, unschooling is practiced by people across the world for all sorts of reasons, even within their own families. For us, it’s an opportunity to release expectations and observe what learning looks like naturally for our youngest son, age 7. For our middle child, age 11, the driver is independence: the ability to choose which projects to pursue, books to read, and even languages to study. And for our eldest, 15, who was attending traditional school before the pandemic, our decision to unschool this coming fall will allow him space to dive deep into the subjects he’s most passionate about.
Our days typically look like a mix of scheduled activities, some guidance or instructional assistance if needed, and a dedicated amount of time for exploration or personal projects. We have some expectations, such as using technology to support a project or interest rather than endless scrolling, or setting goals that we regularly check-in on, agreed upon together as a family. Not all unschoolers do this, but this is what works for us. A tool we picked up from our unschool community is the use of contracts to outline those expectations and requests. We use them for everything from resolving conflicts to requests to use certain tools and resources (this can help with ensuring healthy use of the internet).
There’s daily reading, their pick — for one that’s an audiobook, another a comic. They may have a virtual class in the morning, something they may request on their own or something we noticed they were naturally drawn to. They each have projects or interests they’re actively pursuing, so in the afternoon they could be doing that on their own or with our assistance. For example, our eldest is currently on scene four of his animated film, so you’d find him working on that, while our youngest is eager to read “bigger books” like his brothers, so more structured reading assistance could be happening then. Before the pandemic, for two days a week they would attend Natural Creativity, a self-directed learning center featured in the documentary Unschooled, where facilitators would help support, guide, and assist them in their endeavors (program costs are fairly reasonable, and there are financial aid options). 
Unschooling as a working parent can afford more freedom
For working parents, any kind of homeschooling isn’t easy, but unschooling gives a different sort of freedom. Think about it this way: With a defined curriculum, your role is teacher. With self-directed learning, that shifts to a more supportive role, or as we’ve liked to view it, a sort of partnership. Children take the lead, explore subjects that interest them, play, and read; you support with assistance, help connect ideas, or introduce new material that builds on those topics.
On the days where more support, structure, or scheduled interactions are needed, especially for younger children who may need more assistance, there are platforms like Outschool, which offers countless live online classes with teachers and other students. A current favorite is Storybook STEM class, an hour each day that occupies a busy first-grader with a story and a project in science, technology, engineering, or math. Self-directed centers like Natural Creativity continue to offer virtual community and weekly afternoon activities. There are also co-ops where parents rotate during the week to lead a lesson or activity for a group of children — virtually or socially distanced, of course.
The concept of unschooling can be a lot to digest, especially in comparison to what we’ve come to expect from traditional school. But remember, school is designed for efficiency, to educate large groups of students. Homeschool is a different strategy altogether.
If you’re considering homeschooling in general, it’s important to read your state’s laws so you’re clear on what’s expected of you. And while reporting requirements may vary from district to district, unschooling is a perfectly acceptable homeschool method in all 50 states. Even in the most strict states , there aren’t benchmarks students are required to reach. You can unschool and make the transition back to traditional school if your child’s needs and preferences change.
Meanwhile, for older unschoolers interested in college, it’s a great practice to get in touch with the admissions office of their desired schools to find out what their requirements for homeschooled students are. You might be surprised to learn that in lieu of traditional transcripts and test scores, colleges welcome the creative learning experiences from unschoolers and homeschoolers of all backgrounds.
Just like traditional school, college is one of many paths for unschoolers. In fact, in the absence of the high stress and rigid structure of high school, many unschoolers are quite successful in college. Not only have they had ample practice in taking the lead in their education, they’re also used to the freedoms in college that students in traditional schools aren’t necessarily familiar with. While unschoolers frequently do go on to college and grad school, they also pursue vocational schools and other special skills. It’s common for high school-aged unschoolers to explore internships that align with their interests, start businesses, or pursue large-scale creative projects that assist them as they navigate life beyond school. 
Unschoolers often find careers they enjoy and that support them. I’m not saying unschooling is right for every child, and I understand the hesitation that comes with such unstructured learning for your kids. As for heading back to school next year, I would simply encourage all parents to remember that even though it might be different from what we are used to, learning is still happening all around us. Uncertainty is the theme for everyone right now. But as we’re gathering research, looking over the data, and waiting to hear some sort of plan, perhaps you could consider a different approach to manage it. Take the year into your own hands, let your children take the lead, and watch what happens when you learn without school.

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