by Billy Greer
What is the difference between unschooling and homeschooling? At one time they were
just two terms for the same thing, so the question was like asking what the difference is
between a car and an automobile. Today, homeschooling has remained a generic term while
unschooling has come to refer to a specific type of homeschooling. So now the question is
like asking what the difference is between a Ferrari and a car. Just what is it about
unschooling that differentiates it from other types of homeschooling enough to warrant its
Before we look at that question, let's look at a history of the words. At one time,
there was no special term for people who took their children out of the public school
system to teach them at home. If you look at references to education before there even was
a public school system, you will see phrases such as "tutored at home,"
"self-taught," or "no formal education" to refer to people we might
now call homeschooled.
Even after the modern homeschooling movement got started, there wasn't a standard term
for what these parents were doing. People simply referred to teaching their children at
home, or not sending them to school. In issue #108 of Growing Without Schooling, Susannah
Sheffer tells us that the first issue of GWS (published in 1977), did not even make use of
the term homeschooling. In issue #2, John Holt used the term unschooling, but it was used
as a general term for what we now call homeschooling. In issue #118 of GWS, Aaron Falbel
tells us that Holt wrote in issue #2 of GWS (Nov. 1977) that they [GWS] would use
unschooling "when we mean taking kids out of school." Falbel goes on to say that
it wasn't until the early 1980's that the term homeschooling became more popular.
I don't know when it happened or who first used the phrase, but it is pretty easy to
see that if most kids went to public school, then people might say kids who were taught at
home went to "home school." As the term has become more an accepted part of our
vocabulary, it has moved from the novelty phrase "home schooling" (in quotes) to
home schooling (no quotes), to home-schooling (hyphenated), and now homeschooling (one
John Holt is considered the father of unschooling and the person who coined the term.
In Holt's early writings, he seemed to hold out hope that the school system could be
fixed, but he later became more convinced that parents were better off taking their kids
out of schools. I imagine that it then seemed natural to him to refer to the process of
not sending your kids to school as unschooling, as in not schooling.
While the terms may have been interchangeable originally, that is no longer the case
today. Unschooling has become associated with the particular style of homeschooling in
which no set curriculum is used. Where the split originated is hard to say, but part of
the reason for the division is probably because of the words themselves. Homeschooling
carries an implication of schooling-at-home, while unschooling connotes that what you are
doing is the opposite of school. People who accepted the teaching techniques of school but
wanted more control over the subject matter, socialization, or morals that their children
were exposed to might readily accept the term homeschooling. People who disliked the
teaching techniques and environment of school might be more inclined to use the term
Currently, homeschooling is considered to span a spectrum from those who school-at-home
to those who unschool. The school-at home designation is self-explanatory. This group
revels in all the trappings of school! They may have the same desks used in the public
schools, some of the same text books, and they may even start each day by ringing a bell
and saying the pledge of allegiance. The parent assumes the role of teacher, preparing
lesson plans, assigning homework or tests, and grading papers. Their "holy
grail" is the search for the perfect curriculum, the one that will cover everything
their children need to learn.
What is it that unschoolers do? Where do you find a curriculum package that will help
you to be an unschooler? The reason that unschooling is hard to explain and hard for some
people to understand, is that it is not a technique that can be broken down to a step by
step process. Rather, unschooling is an attitude, a way of life. Where most homeschooling
puts the emphasis on what needs to be learned, unschooling puts the emphasis on who is
doing the learning. This makes it a very personalized experience and one that does not
lend itself well to the one size-fits-all approach of a commercial curriculum package.
What are some of the unintended lessons of a "school" approach to learning?
First of all, the student is taught that learning is something that takes place in a
certain location at certain times. From 8 to 3 you do lessons at your desk. Learning is
also unpleasant and often boring, so it is usually a relief when "school" is
finally out. Students become used to the idea that learning requires a teacher - someone
more knowledgeable than them. This follows the old model of learning in which students are
empty cups waiting to be filled and the teacher is the pitcher full of knowledge that will
fill them. This also emphasizes the idea that students must be taught - in other words,
what happens to you (learning) is the result of what someone else does to you (teaching).
School also reinforces the idea that learning is a linear process. You work and add
knowledge incrementally over time in a steady process. To get from point A to point C, you
must first pass point B.
In unschooling, learning can happen anywhere and at anytime. It is an ongoing, natural
process - part of the journey we call life. It is not unpleasant or boring anymore than
breathing, eating or sleeping are. There is no sense of relief that school is out because
learning is always happening. Students also know that they are responsible for their
learning. They do not need an "expert" to teach them. If they have an interest,
they can go out and pursue the knowledge they need. This is another fundamental difference
between a schoolish approach and an unschooling model. School is a case of knowledge (that
someone else has determined to be important) in pursuit of the student, while unschooling
puts the student in pursuit of the knowledge (which they have decided is important). In
this role, parents are not teachers who always know more than their children, they are
often fellow learners making the journey along with their children. (See the side bar for
more comments about the non-linear learning of unschooling.)
It is unfortunate that the older term "unschooled" often means uneducated. As
unschooling gains acceptance and its effectiveness is recognized, the dictionaries will
have to be corrected to reflect the positive aspects of someone who has been educated by