What schools can learn from the unschooling movement

By Michael Niehoff
July 7th, 2016


Unschooling is reaching way beyond the homeschool crowd. Traditional schools take note

With the onset of the so-called “new economy,” much of our educational systems is being questioned. With more than 40 percent of future work being independent contract work, what is the best way to learn or prepare for a career?

Most of us associate learning and career preparation with school. However, learning exists outside of the formal constraints of institutions. Whether it’s employment (on-the-job training), real world experiences, or travel, we understand that learning can be self-directed.

This realization has lead to an increase in what is often called unschooling, or even hacked education. Although often associated with homeschooling, unschooling is somewhat different. Homeschooling often uses set curriculum and instructional approaches, whereas true unschooling is directed by the learner.

The approach is unconventional, to be sure, but it recently gained more attention when Tesla/SpaceX founder Elon Musk created a learning alternative for his children embracing unschooling, self-directed learning tenets such as exploration, choice, natural life experiences, and visits to real world learning centers (museums, zoos).

There may now be a growing awareness among some parents, educators, and even students that traditional schools may not, or cannot, meet the individual needs of the learner. At the same time, the approach could hold lessons and implementation strategies for all of us in education.

What is unschooling?

According to practitioners, unschooling is a learner-centered pedagogy. Learners choose their own path based on interests throughout their natural lives including, but not limited to natural play, household responsibilities, work-based experiences, travel, family, social interactions, and family.

Unschooling is about one’s personal learning journey — operating on the premise that the more personal the learning is, the more impactful it will be. By design, unschooling questions the relevance of standard curriculum and instructional approaches, as well as elements that will often impede learning such as grading. In the end, unschooling practitioners would argue that the self-directed learning approach truly prepares students for the real world instead of a formal education.

An unschooling profile

Matt Powers, a former public school teacher, decided that an unschooling model would be best for his sons. Powers’ eldest son has had no formal music training, but can play guitar, piano, and drums proficiently. He also uses Logic as well as Minecraft several times a week while also hunting, cooking, farming and traveling.

“It’s authentic learning,” said Powers. “Tests include things like working with a wild horse, learning an instrument, and studying a passion in-depth for years. Because of his unschooling, he’s much more confident in his beliefs and personality.”

Project-based learning

With the demands of meeting 21st century educational needs, project-based learning has gained tremendous recent attention as a pedagogical path. In addition to being about solving real world problems and doing public work, PBL also focuses engaging students in owning their learning — an approach similar to unschooling.

High school history Teacher Jahmaal Sawyer embraces this approach when he offers his students the opportunity to study what he calls the “History of Anything In U.S. History.”

According to Sawyer, who teaches at Minarets High School/Minarets Charter High School in the rural foothills of Central California, the U.S. History project was developed in response both creating a project that allowed students high levels of autonomy, as well as to develop a project that sparked student interest.

Next page: Genius Hour and the benefits of time away from school