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What schools can learn from the unschooling movement

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

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

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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