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Homeschool vs Unschool


The key to homeschool: understanding your child is an individual. 

The most elementary definition of homeschool is to educate one’s child at home. It’s a simple enough idea…until you’re sitting in front of your 6-year-old with all the baggage of your own traditional schooling history, and the pressures of a less than forgiving (and sometimes downright hostile) cultural milieu mounted upon your shoulders. Unloading that baggage, looking through the contents, and throwing out the garbage is a process. Only through this process, and with a clear and present mind, will you be able to determine what it means to homeschool your child and how best to do it.

Perhaps the most common course for a new at-home educator is to let the pressure of external expectations define what the homeschool process will look like in one’s own home. That can often manifest in fear of getting it wrong. For that reason, it’s tempting to travel the already trodden path. We load up on workbooks and curriculums and schedule out our days. We tell our children when it’s time to “learn.” We look to the world out there to set the benchmarks and sometimes even the boundaries of what our kids need to know. We believe that others out there have figured it out— “it,” being our children.  It’s quite possible to consider and accept philosophically the concept that we are one…but it’s more readily perceptible that the individual parts make up the whole and that there is a great deal of variation in those parts. Treating your child with a one size fits all approach is a mistake.

As an at-home educator, one lesson that is equally important for you and your child to learn is that every single part of your waking (and perhaps your non-waking) hours is part of the learning process and that getting things wrong is inextricably linked to getting things right. So if you, like many other homeschoolers, begin this journey and find that it’s not the way you thought it would be, that something about the process isn’t working for your child,  rejoice for you can eliminate one path and forge a new one with an understanding that your child is an Individual. 

What does it mean to unschool? 

So you’ve reconnected with the fact that your child is not like every other child on the planet and that a tailored approach is necessary. Now what? Well, the truth is I can’t know and nor can anyone else who doesn’t have an intimate and enduring relationship with your child. That is where unschooling comes in. It’s beautiful in its nomenclature in that it’s a negation of the binding of the traditionally accepted schooling process. The point of unschooling is to empower you, as the parent, to explore a myriad of paths individuated for your child’s success.

Maybe your child will thrive in an environment of complete freedom and self-direction, as many others do. Maybe not. Yet, while many unschoolers find the rigidity and built-in expectations of curriculums to be oppressive, there may be a baby in that bathwater with your child. He may prefer and thrive with clearly delineated tasks and assessments. The former or latter may be true for the same child at different points in his life. Unschooling requires careful consideration on your part about who your child is in the present moment. You must determine, with a careful eye, whether it is for you to tap into his motivations and provide him an avenue for expression,  or allow him to discover one on his own. Perhaps it will help to take the view that educating your child is a partner dance. Show up for that dance and be present. Take cues from your partner’s movements that indicate whether it’s time to lead or be led. And try not to step on his toes. But if you find that you do step on his toes from time to time, don’t worry; you’re learning a new dance together.

But what about homeschooling? Is it different? Which is better?

Again, simply stated, homeschooling is educating your child at home. Yet, our unique successes and failures create our understanding of the world.

If you tend toward seeing value in conventional wisdom, and use a more structured approach to learning—and have experienced success in doing so—it’s likely you’ll consider yourself a homeschooler. You might even become an advocate of structured learning as, definitively, the right way for every child to learn.

On the other hand, maybe you’re more likely to take a contrarian view to the popular wisdom of the day. Perhaps you value exploration and embrace the many unknowns of having a more relaxed, informal learning environment. If so, and you’ve seen your children blossom as a result, you’ll very likely consider yourself an unschooler. You may even be an advocate of a completely self-directed learning environment as definitively the right way for every child to learn.

If education is approached dogmatically, it may be perceived that there exists an enormous gulf between homeschooling and unschooling. However, if one approaches education as a learning experience for both student and teacher, then it will be perceived that the essence of both is the same; homeschooling, when done well, involves a process of understanding who your child is, tapping into his motivations, and providing him the tools and training necessary to achieve his goals. The same is true of unschooling. Giving your unschooled children access to the Ron Paul Curriculum doesn’t make you any less of an Unschooler. Seeing the value in the tenets of radical unschooling espoused by people like Dayna Martin doesn’t make you any less of a homeschooler. Remember that one size does not fit all.

Discuss. Learn. Grow.

What’s best for children is that we, as parents who homeschool, remain flexible and responsive to the needs of our children, shedding definitions and biases that bind us the way traditional schooling once did. As a mother of 4 very different children, I have found a great deal of value in hearing the experiences of parents all across the spectrum. Sometimes those experiences act as cautionary tales. Other times they are inspirational. Perhaps being an active part of a community in a discourse on the topic of educating our children is one of the single best ways to ensure that we have a toolbox filled with all the necessities for success.

Your voice and your homeschool experiences are valuable and we want to know what you think! Is the “homeschool vs unschool” debate a false dichotomy? Join in on the discussion taking place online in our Free Family Camp community. Better yet, let’s bring our families together to play, discuss and inspire each other at Anarchapulco 2020.

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