What schools can learn from the unschooling movement

Sawyer said the focus is on appropriate research skills, accuracy of information, and creating a thesis-driven project on the overall historical significance of the event, person, or item they have chosen.

“As someone who has studied history for many years, I echoed the contempt that many students have today that history doesn’t hold a relevant place in their academic life,” said Sawyer. “I have very few students who do not accomplish this project successfully, and I attribute that to students having a say in their project.”

20Time projects / Genius Hour

Originally based on the corporate culture of Google where employees were given 20 percent of their time to pursue projects of their choice, teachers have evolved the Genius Hour concept into a practice of giving students focused time to pursue ideas of their own volition free from the constraints of grades, standards and other educational criteria.

See: The 4 essentials of a successful Genius Hour

Much like unschooling advocates, Genius Hour practitioners believe that if students are given complete autonomy to learn what they want to learn, they will not only be more engaged, but also work at levels exceeding standard classroom expectations and processes.

There are a growing number of practitioners of 20Time Projects and Genius Hour work. Google these terms or check out these resources: 20-Time In Education, The 20Time Project From Kevin Brookhouser, or Genius Hour – Where Passions Comes Alive.

Hacked leadership

In addition to building more personalized learning experiences for students, Illinois Elementary principal Kathy Melton believes that unschooling can influence how we lead professional development for teachers.

“All of us enjoy learning what we are interested in,” said Melton. “Unschooling challenges me to create autonomy for teachers in their professional learning.”

When we create systems, said Melton, we could ask if they are a natural response to learning or a contrived system forced upon people.

“The environment in the classroom reflects what environment we create for our teachers,” said Melton. “Find out about what people are passionate about and allow them the freedom to maximize that.”


There is also a growing concern that degrees may not be the most reliable pathway to career and financial success. Many are now applying the ynschooling approach to their post-secondary education as well — known simply as uncollege.

Uncollege operates with the precept that things like entrepreneurism, work-based experiences, start-ups, freelancing and much more might be more effective career-wise than that of paying high fees to obtain a college degree. For more info on the uncollege movement, check out The Uncollege Manifesto and Uncollege.org.

Gap Year(s)

Although not a new idea, more and more students are participating in sojourns into unschooling with a Gap Year. Many college-bound students have considered, as well as executed, a year between high school and college dedicated to travel, real world experiences, work experience, self-directed learning and more.

But it’s not just reserved for college-aged students. Ken Durham, a public high school principal, is embracing a gap year for his 12-year-old daughter. Instead of attending 6th grade, she will live in Australia with her grandmother who has Parkinson’s. She will also travel to Japan and New England while doing things like Lit Trips of the places she visits.

“We want her to explore the world,” said Durham. “We don’t want her learning to only be from a book, a device or a classroom.”

In the end, unschooling offers all of us concerned with authentic learning things to continually think about. As part of the evolution of schools or learning environments, we can adapt or adopt concepts such as student choice and voice, student ownership and self-directed learning as a way of empowering learners and fueling lifelong learning.

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