The Powerful Philosophy of Unschooling

Anna Dusseau | 3rd May 2020

We are not unschoolers, but we are rapidly moving in that direction. In fact it seems like, the stronger you feel about homeschooling, the more an unschooling approach makes sense and rings true. The very notion that adults always ‘know best’ and that children can’t learn independently runs contrary to evolutionary research, which shows that children are biologically programmed to be autonomous in their learning and that, when active ‘teaching’ methods are employed, this actually switches children off from wanting to know more. What a problem! Or is it? Let’s have a look.

Unschooling is an increasingly popular and evidence-based educational philosophy, whereby children are allowed to learn independently in an, ideally, rich educational setting. This doesn’t mean piles of books and worksheets. Unschooling seeks to activate the child’s natural learning instinct through natural pathways such as free play, conversation, experimenting with materials and ideas, and sharing of knowledge between mixed age peer groups. The thing is, it works. In terms of enabling a child to ‘wire their own brain’ for lifelong learning and curiosity, this is a very powerful concept. In terms of shorty-term memory recall of information to pass exams, it really does depend on the child and whether or not they feel the need to take this route. It goes way beyond the low-level targets set by state education, you see.

When we first started home educating, I would sketch out a rough timetable for the week. I understood the idea of child-led earning and I would allow the kids to more or less direct what they wanted to do, but still, I was shaping the ‘idea’ for days to look like this: Maths workbook, finish animal posters, letter to grandma, baking or painting, and so on. But I’ve become increasingly confident in what my kids can achieve on their own and just a few weeks ago, I switched to letting them entirely lead their own learning, with me keeping a short journal at the end of each day, to capture what happened. Just one morning looked like this: watched Live Earth safari, looked up wild animals in the encyclopedia, began writing a short story about Africa, built a den in the garden, long conversation about university and the books in the library, organised our bookshelves into topics, sent a video to a friend all about Live Earth. Where their minds and learning went on that morning, compared to the ‘adult planned’ morning, is the difference between night and day. Children are capable of so much more than we credit them for. It is sometimes, in fact, the adult-led thinking that is holding them back from achieving their potential.

“The belief that young people are incapable of making reasonable decisions is a cornerstone of our system of compulsory, closely monitored education.”

Peter Gray

What is more, dropping the arbitrary curriculum (especially with younger children who have plenty of time ahead to figure out examinations if they want to) and allowing your children to unschool, creates a total shift in emphasis for your family, not to mention a more relaxed and enjoyable vibe. Play, which is essentially what children under the age of ten want to do, stops being a gap-filler between ‘learning jobs’ and instead becomes the source of the learning in itself. That is not to say unschooling children spend their entire day playing – although, in a way, they do – but rather, it is through free play and free thinking, that they discover the learning that they want to pursue and, when they do, pursue in a playful way. I have been a qualified teacher for over ten years and I am just one voice among many, many others saying: ‘this works, period.’

Published by Anna Dusseau

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

13 thoughts on “The Powerful Philosophy of Unschooling

  1. Unschooling is a word that (mostly) millennial homeschoolers have corrupted. (They are a far cry from what John Taylor Gatto described as unschooling decades ago.) And the way millennial homeschoolers describe it increasingly sounds like child abuse. Sorry not sorry, it absolutely is. I personally know a large group of radical unschoolers here, and they are a disgrace to homeschooling. They have somehow managed to produce children who are less literate and numerate than what they are cranking out in public schools, and that’s quite an achievement.

    It’s all fun and games letting junior control his education while swilling coffee and blogging about what a great mother you are until they are about middle school age. If junior is not a powerful autodidact like Elon Musk (which is a very rare personality – chances are, your child is not Elon Musk, no matter how “gifted” you may think he is), then you are looking at major cumulative achievement gaps. And I’m not talking about their ability to perform on a standardized test. I am talking about everything it means to get along in a modern society that increasingly demands higher levels of skills. Our eight-year-old daughter is already better at math than the local unschoolers’ teenagers. I am not even remotely exaggerating that. But they lead such a glorious stress-free life!

    No one likes having to do something they are not immediately good at, but that’s not a form of emotional oppression. It’s life. Deciding to take your kid’s education into your hands is a very serious thing. A child’s education is their fate. Their learning needs to comprehensive, or the big bad world out there is going to walk all over them. And the longer you deprive them of that, the harder it gets to be to acquire it.

    Needless to say, I am incredibly disappointed to see you promoting this dangerous fad – and it is a fad. Unschoolers are probably the biggest threat to the legal right to homeschool there is. Not bitter Harvard Law profs who hate fundamentalists. But people who really make it look like letting mom school the kids means they are legitimately being deprived of an education. If the only thing you are looking for with homeschooling is some cutesy Instagram-friendly lifestyle, then you shouldn’t be homeschooling. It’s just a shame that unschoolers are lumped in with the rest of us who are actually teaching our children. Because when the government inevitably comes down hard on this fad, it’s going to mean draconian regulation for us all, and a lot of people who would otherwise be homeschooling probably won’t because of it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I’m sorry I upset you with this post. You have such interesting and informed views; is there any chance I could get an interview with you for the homeschool podcast I co-run? I absolutely identify with your comments about the cutesy Instagram account and ‘feet up’ parenting. I have personally never done social media until about 3 weeks ago and I get up at 4am every day to make sure that my writing doesn’t impact on my focus with the children throughout the day. I think the research behind the impact of learning through play and autonomy is powerful but – absolutely – that doesn’t mean disengaging and I suppose it’s also fair to say that this might not suit all learning types. Definitely food for thought and thanks for your reply, as always. I would be very very keen to interview you about these issues and others, if you would be willing. My email is if you’d like to contact me privately to discuss.


  2. I’m starting to realize my kids have a lot of bad habits they would need to break in order to be successfully unschooled or even homeschooled. I think the biggest problem is their phones. If they aren’t watching a video then they are chatting or texting with a friend. The last thing I could get them motivated to do was their actual school work. If schooling is online again in the Fall, or if we ever do homeschool, the older two need to drop their phones.


  3. Yep, thanks for your comment Robyn. I’ve heard a lot of parents with school children – actually a lot younger than yours, even – say the same. I think screen time is a battle for almost all families, though, whether we school or homeschool. Hope you are all well!


    1. Thanks so much, Andi. I really appreciate it. I am soooooo nearly there with the first manuscript and then I’m going to take a reading week to chill out a bit. Your book is top of my pile. Can’t wait! 🙌

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Awwww thanks! 😊 And I know that wasn’t what you were suggesting at all; but still, it’s true. I’m desperate to get this first bash done and give myself a break while the editor chews it over. Writing a book is..errr.. really challenging?! Yes, I know I sound naive. First book; it’s hit me like a tonne of bricks tbh.

        Liked by 1 person

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