Is Unschooling Working?

The other day, I received an interesting email from an unschooling parent who said that their partner expressed some concerns that unschooling may not be "working." That's a really fascinating concept. I could not help but focus on that word - "working." How would we define working in our own family? What kinds of indicators or assessments would we use to determine whether or not unschooling works?

My initial inclination was to dismiss the topic out-of-hand; I mean, of course unschooling works, right? But the truth is that it is incredibly difficult to resist the temptation to measure whether or not unschooling is working. In the Western world, measurement and testing permeates virtually every aspect of our lives to some degree. Most of us have been raised either directly in or on the periphery of formal, institutionalized measurement and evaluation systems our entire lives. It begins, in many cases, in utero as our size and health are measured and compared with those of "typical healthy" babies. It continues throughout our toddler years as our height and weight is examined and charted, and our developmental milestones (from our behavior to our teeth to our ability to crawl, walk and speak) are monitored and compared against "standards." School is rife with measurement and attainment comparitors, from daily vocabulary quizzes to scholastic achievement tests and college entrance exams. Even if we opt out of formal education, we will be measured when we want to drive, work, join the Army, or any one of hundreds of other things that "require" us to be assessed.

All of these assessments, measurements, and tests are essentially designed the same way. When you design a test, no matter what it's purpose, you start out with a goal. For example, the goal of a Driver's License Exam is to ensure that new drivers are adequately prepared for everything they might encounter while driving, so they can be safe. The goal of a pre-employment test is to ensure that the test taker has the aptitude or ability to succeed in the job. And the goal of a scholastic achievement test is to ensure that students are learning the things that the state Department of Education believes they should learn. So, to one degree or another, all assessments start with a "performance standard", a minimum acceptable outcome, in mind. In other words, all tests know what "good" looks like.

Now, I am not suggesting that all of this measurement is a good thing; in fact, I think that much of it is superfluous at best, and potentially damaging. But it is pervasive in many aspects of our lives. Since most of these assessments are designed with an outcome in mind or an understanding of what "good" looks like, the concepts of measurement, outcomes, and "pass/fail" are driven into us from an early age. As such, we face a significant uphill battle when we attempt to approach our lives a different way; like when we decide to unschool, for example.

With that as a backdrop, the question is simply this: how do we go about determining whether or not unschooling is working?
To answer that, we need to understand how we each define 'working." For many parents, this first step is a significant challenge. Unschooling is, in my mind, about learning for the sake of learning, with joy and passion, wherever it may lead. It is about the journey, not the destination; it is about the process, not the outcome. It does not have pre-defined goals in mind, and it is not "pass/fail"; it simply "is." For me, if these are fulfilled, then unschooling is working.

But many other people think about it very differently. Unschooling can be so very foreign in so many ways that we spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to relate it back, somehow, to things that are more comfortable and familiar. Because we are accustomed to being measured on the things we know, rather than on the things we do or they way we do them, we spend our time on the lookout for the things our children "know" - and most critically, what they do not know - and try to use this to determine whether or not unschooling is working.

We remember diagramming sentences in 8th grade, so we get concerned when our 13 year old doesn't know the difference between a noun and a verb. We dissected frogs in 6th grade, and become attached to our kids having the same opportunity to learn about science. We studied the dates of the Constitutional Convention and the reasons behind World War I, and we expect our children to know similar dates, facts and figures. We were raised in a world of answers, we were expected to give answers, and we want answers. We want and need to know that our children are learning. But many of us are coming into unschooling with pre-baked ideas of what learning is and should be.

Those answers we want, the assurances we feel we need in order to justify or validate our choice to unschool, can get us into serious trouble when they transition from simple wants and needs into expectations. We know that unschooling is the right path, but we want to ensure that our children are ready for whatever the world will throw at them now or in the future - so we use our familiar methods for evaluating their "learning" so we can determine whether or not unschooling is really working. We think of learning as a discrete activity, separated from the rest of our lives. We think about it in terms of classrooms and lectures. We look for the breadth of knowledge, we look for mastery of facts and figures, we look for the three Rs, and we use that to evaluate our child's progress.

Many of those ideas need to be turned on their heads:

1.) Learning is far more than just the rote memorization and regurgitation of facts and figures; it is the exploration of new ideas, the ability to repeat and replicate, the desire to experience, the application of a new skill, the ability to express "yes" and "no", and thousands of other things.

2.) Learning happens all the time. It is natural and unavoidable. It knows no limits in terms of breadth, depth, location, time, or duration. Every experience - even doing nothing - is a learning experience. The only limits on learning are the ones we arbitrarily impose upon it when we say "you can't learn this way."

3.) All learning has value. Start with virtually no expectations about what they will learn, when they will learn it, or how they will learn it. A book about the Revolutionary War read in our living room chair at 1:00pm is just as valuable as an episode of "Weird, True and Freaky" on Animal Planet - or even an episode of Scooby Doo - watched from the same chair at 1:00am. Animal Planet may not teach them about the Revolutionary War, but they will learn about many other things that will surprise you. And even when they choose Scooby Doo, they will learn about relationships, and tricks, and hoaxes, and comedic timing, and animation, and many other things that the Revolutionary War book would leave out entirely. It is all learning; we cannot value one "learning activity" over the other.

When we expect that unschooling will look a certain way; when we expect our children to be learning certain things; when we expect them to be learning in ways that are familiar to us; when we expect that all of this learning will have a specific outcome; and when we expect that this outcome will be "productive" when viewed through our own lenses, we run the risk of developing a set of criterion, blatant or unspoken, by which we judge the value of what they learn and the way they are learning it. We are injecting our own preferences into their learning.

If you want unschooling to work the way you would "prefer" it to work, you won't be able to keep that inside for long. Your preconceived preferences will come out in the questions you ask, in the words you use, and in the way you react to what your children are doing. You will be unable to resist applying your own judgment about what they are learning and how they are learning it; and your children will understand that and, frequently adapt either what they are learning to please you or continue to do what they're doing but tell you what you want to hear. Not so good, really.

So again, "working" for me is not about traditional measurements and facts and figures, it is about learning as a journey and exploration through joy and passion. With that perspective locked in, I can then think about how I can determine whether or not we're on the right path. Traditional measurements don't work; I have neither the capability nor the motivation to attempt to "measure" joy, passion and the acquisition and application of new skills in a child, were such a thing even possible. So I do something a bit different.

I look for key indicators. I look for smiles and engagement in what they're doing. I listen for new words or ideas. I watch the way they play. I listen to the questions they ask. I consider the way they solve problems. I ask questions, and I listen to answers. I enjoy the silence as they ponder and play with new concepts. I keep my cool when they explode in frustration. I console them when they fail. I appreciate their attempts, successful or not, at independence. I follow them in new directions.

And then I ask myself:

Are they learning? (This answer is always "yes.")
Are they enjoying themselves?
Do they have interests, and are they pursuing them?
Are they developing their own sense of good and bad, right and wrong?
Do they see a world of possibilities?
Do they feel valued and respected?

Guess what? It's working.


  1. My husband, Keith, has a stated goal: That they grow up undamaged.
    I like learning as a guiding star. They've learned more than I ever could have imagined they would learn. They've learned things that didn't exist when I first envisioned what they might learn, and they help me with things they know more about than I do, and they have since they were little.

    The perspective of experienced unschoolers is so different from that of frightened newbies that it's not even like the blind men and the elephant. It's like the newbie is reaching out to touch the elephant, and the experienced parents see all the elephants for thousands of miles. That does make it difficult to communicate.

    I love this: "learning for the sake of learning, with joy and passion, wherever it may lead." Much learning happens without even the intent to learn, though; not for the sake of learning. It just starts to flow.

  2. i had a (non unschooling) kid tell me today that her mom took her out of a 'class' that she's been for years in bc she wasn't learning anything "new."
    i didn't even realize kids were in this class to "learn new things" (it's more of a social thing then anything, or at least i thought so), although of course i also know that kids are learning all the time.
    kinda sad, that fun and joy aren't enough......

  3. Sometimes -since we like to say we are "learning all the time", and the internet (the main community and source of info and inspiration for unschoolers) is so full of fabulous moments rather than crummy or boring moments -it can feel like my everyday life is not living up to the "promise" of unschooling.

    Something may not be working, but it's not the unschooling. We need to get out more, or stay home more, or whatever... but I've never thought that the solution to the problem is to make the kids go to a school. How would that help? :)

  4. Our concepts of what true learning means are completely aligned. Thank you!

    One thing we're thinking about as a homeschool family is the idea that at some point our kids will probably need to get their GED. Even many low-wage jobs require an equivalent HS diploma; it's a fact of the system we live in.

    We've raised our kids in an unschooling environment, satisfying ourselves that they're truly learning without the "benefit" of standardized state testing (shudder).

    But when we think about the GED, we realize that at some point, they will actually have to study for a test. Their natural interests don't lean towards algebraic equations and while they can explain the causes of the Revolutionary War (and extrapolate the concepts to discuss other wars), they haven't memorized the dates and names that would likely be on the test.


    I'm an entrepreneur, so I'm not prone to furthering the "have to get a good job" paradigm. However, the reality is that if my kids want to go to college or do meaningful work for a company they identify with, they'll have to submit to testing at some point.

    As unschooling parents, how do we address this?

  5. Okay, I'm not here to bash, but let's go back to the part where I screamed out loud. NO EXPECTATIONS? Like, at all? Not to learn to read or how to balance a checkbook? How on earth will they ever function in the real world without the skills they need? Sorry, I am a homeschool supporter, but I cannot EVER get on board with this. There ARE things kids NEED to be learning. Going about this in a creative and unconventional way is fine, but not optional.
    And I am sorry, be equating Scooby-Doo in value to learning about the founding of our country - um, no. "Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it." The lack of proper education regarding history and the function of our government leads to voters who are indecisive and, worse, apathetic. I can't even articulate how frustrated I am!
    Not to mention, children who exist in an environment without any structure, expectations or rules will crumble when they step out into world that exists on the very foundation of all of them.
    You may not like the way the world works, but not preparing your children to succeed in it is irresponsible. You can't change the world's standards simply ignoring them. Your kids won't be able to when they are on their own and unprepared to deal with them!
    I may not sound very nice at the moment, but I am giving my very passionate opinion. I married an educator, and we have seen the reprocussions of this type of educational style. In our experience, it has led to children who cannot cope with any sort of expectations or pressure. If you expect your kids to ever have jobs - whether that be at McDonald's or as a physician - there WILL be expectations. There WILL be pressure. How are you preparing your children to deal with these?

  6. "How are you preparing your children to deal with these?"

    After Jeff's most recent post, I'm inspired to treat this a genuine question instead of the attack it was probably intended to be.

    Unschoolers (like adults!) are goal oriented, meaning they come to want something and *then* they determine how to get it. They evaluate realities, such as any prerequisites, and do a cost-benefit analysis: is this thing I want worth the time and energy and sacrifices I will have to put into getting it. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it's no. When it's yes, they get started.

    At the start of this process, the expectations and pressures are purely internal—they come from the person who has the goal. Once a goal has been committed to, some of the expectations and pressures are inevitably external; the unschooler adopts these because the goal is important to her.

    A case in point: My 16yo (who in her 8th year of unschooling) is interested in a career in stage design. She has researched this goal and determined that a college degree will be a boon, for the experience, the piece of paper, and the entree into the theater world. So, the expectations of the field have led to a new goal: getting a degree from a theater program. Now she's researching colleges, college entrance requirements, and so on. This has already led to new goals (such as attending a particular theater camp next summer), and when she settles on a school, the expectations of the school will lead to new goals.

    In other words, I didn't have to do a damned thing. Well, aside from the small matter of creating a learning environment where she has the freedom to explore her interests and develop the tools and confidence to pursue her own goals.

  7. Great explanation and example, Ronnie.

  8. Thanks for your suggestions, everyone. I'll research more options for my kids' equivalency.

    In school I was always labeled as "terrible at math," and that's how I always thought of myself. Faced with a GED after graduating public school, I likely would have failed the math portion (but somehow I earned a diploma. Hmm).

    Now that I'm in business, I have to solve complicated math problems on a daily basis for taxes, measurements, proposals, and financial reports. I can do it now because it has a practical application; I *need* to use it.

    Turns out I'm not "terrible at math" after all. I'm just interested now.

  9. I suppose it is easy to imagine that a life without parentally enforced structure is a structure free life. My life has lots of structure. In order to eat I need to food and I like it fixed up pretty nice. To drink, I need access to reliable drinks, less cholera is good. To sleep I like a dry place and bedding is, if not essential, certainly a preference. All of those things are part of my life and my unschooled children's lives. And it extends out, going swimming, for example, is much easier if we go when the pool is open to free swim and if we have suits and towels that's good and both of my children like goggles and nose plugs. That stuff takes structure and order to make it happen. But it isn't structure I'm handing down, it's just the structure of the pool and the owned preferences of Simon and Linnaea.

    It seems a much better thing to be able to suss out the structure required for the choices you want to make in life. It is as Ronnie so beautifully illustrated the skills of the individual to opt into something that can make a life better rather than having a generic structure already in place on the off chance it fits.

  10. Ronnie, I love your comments on "How are you preparing your children to deal with these?"

    I think 'traditional' thinking individuals miss the point of unschooling. As unschooling parents, we are not sitting around doing nothing. We just don't have certain labels - like 'expectations'. Expectations are built in to everyday life. My son knows that one day he may 'expect' to pay rent, or pay bills, etc. As we go through each day he experiences things like standing in line, how I write a check or mail a package, the importance of getting dad to work on time, etc. They are learning all the time - even when we don't think they know the basics.