Unschooling: Revolutionary or Ridiculous?

By Meriem Cherif

Since the 1970’s, a teaching system—or rather, the lack thereof—has intrigued the world of child education: unschooling. Introduced by famous author and educator John Holt, unschooling is defined as “the natural way to learn.” Revolving around the belief that traditional school systems stifle the curiosity of children, the informal approach places learning in the hands of the student. 

In practice, unschooling falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, which is legal in all 50 states. As a result, each household differs in their implementation of the learning for their child. While some students learn under a hybrid form—taking classes at traditional schools while unschooling at home—other children learn purely through the latter. In an unschooling environment, the student dictates which subject they want to spend time on, wielding full freedom to refuse learning the subjects that do not interest them. Ensuingly, unschooled children learn in a non-linear process, often delving into STEM and nuanced subjects long before developing basic skills like reading. Although many skeptics of unschooling cite this lack of a math and reading foundation as concerning, proponents say otherwise. Explains Holt, “Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not ‘natural’ processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority.” 

With the pandemic leading many parents to consider integrating unschooling into their child’s education, one question remains in the minds of many: does unschooling do any favors to children who will eventually enter a job market dominated by the need for hard-skills?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t too clear. In a survey led by Boston College researcher Peter Gray, 75 former ‘unschoolers’ recounted their experience and its effect on their professional life. Gray found that 83% of the unschoolers eventually pursued higher education. In addition, over half of the respondents achieved financial self sufficiency. Despite the positive results of his survey, the sample size proves insufficient to make broad conclusions about unschooling. So, what does the other side believe? Natalie Wexler, a writer on education, explains that unschooling falls short on many aspects of learning and advancing in a career: “Explicit instruction works far better than discovery learning when students don’t already know much about a topic. Learning necessarily involves effort; many young people may choose not to expend that effort if they don’t have to.”

With differing opinions on the matter, both the benefits and drawbacks of unschooling must be taken into account. In our rapidly changing landscape of education and maximizing the performance of students, parents must decide upon one primary trade-off: whether taking the risk of unschooling will reap the right results.