Unschooling or Homeschooling: What's the Difference?


By Gail S. Withrow


Ask around at your next homeschool conference to compare what people answer when this question pops up: "What does it mean to unschool?" Some will answer that unschooling is homeschooling without using a pre-packaged curriculum. Others will say it's simply the degree of freedom that the parents allow the child in his learning. Still others will say that unschooling defies definition because each child is unique and will go at learning in his own way, in his own time.

Mary Griffith (author of the recent book, The Unschooling Handbook)gave this answer:

"Unschooling means learning what one wants, when one wants, in the way one wants, for one's own reasons. ... choice and control reside with the learner ... She may find outside help in the form of parents, mentors, books, or formal lessons, but SHE is the one making the decisions about how best to proceed. Unschooling is trusting that your children are at least as clever and capable as you are yourself."

It's true that learning belongs to the person who is doing it. You can't force someone to learn something. They have to think for themselves to make the knowledge their own. So what's the big difference between homeschooling and unschooling? In homeschooling the parents make decisions on how to best educate the child, while in unschooling the child somehow makes those decisions for herself.

But, does learning happen best when the child, who has a very limited context of knowledge, has complete control of her education&emdash;as in unschooling? Or, is it better for the parents to take the lead and teach their children, i.e., homeschool them? Can parents, who know more about the world and who also love their children, teach their kids without squashing their interest and desire to learn? The answer is a resounding "Yes, they most certainly can."

In education, the goal is not freedom; it's knowledge. The best way to achieve that knowledge and the independent learning it will eventually lead to, is by a reasonably structured method of teaching.

No-one is in a better position to teach a child than the parents. Not only do parents have a genuine interest in providing the best possible education for their child, parents can also take into account their child's unique interests, ability, learning style, and daily experiences to build or adapt a curriculum tailored to suit them. Both the child's and the parent's goals for education are met.

Who is in control in this team effort scenario? Ultimately, the parents are. With homeschooling the ultimate control and responsibility for education rests with the parents, not with the child.


Relaxed Homeschooling,or Unschooling?

There is a big difference in orientation between what's commonly called "relaxed homeschooling" and unschooling, yet many don't make a distinction between the two. Parents who plan and teach without being asked to by the child are homeschoolers, regardless of how school-ish they look or don't look to outsiders. Parents who teach only if the child asks to be taught something, or who routinely point the child in a general direction so that she might find her own answers to "teach herself" are unschoolers.

Some of the confusion in terminology arises because there are times during the course of homeschooling when it is appropriate to let the child lead. Just because it makes sense for the child to lead at different stages of learning, it doesn't mean that the parent is unschooling. Control over the child's education still resides with the parents, not with the child.

For example, a very young child who doesn't yet have the attentiveness for "lessons" may do well to follow her own interests, while the parent furnishes materials and guides her. I call this stage the Informal Learning Stage of homeschooling. Parents might teach in a relaxed way by initiating game playing or puzzles to work alongside their young children. They may look for opportunities to teach informally whenever a given situation lends itself. Are these parents unschooling because they aren't following a packaged curriculum? Or because they are watching their young child and noticing how he learns best? No, they are building a structure that works well for the child's age and ability, same as what they'd do throughout the entire homeschooling journey. Even though it might appear very loose and unstructured during the early years, the parents are still in control of their child's education, and hence, they are homeschooling, not unschooling.

Often by the time a child reaches 7 or 8 years (sometimes sooner), she is conceptually ready for more structure. This is the beginning of the second stage in the child's intellectual development which I call the Formal Learning Stage. It is at this point that parents have to make a choice. Will you allow your child to be unschooled and make all her own decisions in regard to her education, only teaching her when and if she asks to be taught something? Or, will you decide in favor of homeschooling and teach her in a more structured, yet flexible manner, where her interests and your goals for her basic education meet in harmony through tutorial instruction?


Partial Unschooling…Isn't

Some parents think that you can have "partial unschooling" where the parent leads and teaches "a little." But you can't have your unschooling cake and eat it, too.

Parent-initiated teaching contradicts the fundamental aspect of unschooling: that the child is in control leading and teaching herself. In unschooling parents may be available to answer questions, to provide materials, and to facilitate learning to match the child's interest, but parents don't teach the child according to what they think the child ought to learn. With unschooling the child decides what, when, and whether she wants to learn.

Those who call themselves "partial unschoolers" are parents who, quite sensibly, cannot fully resign themselves to trust their children's supposed innate ability to completely direct their own education. These parents continue to pay lip service to unschooling, since they may not be following a rigidly defined curriculum and want to distinguish themselves from homeschoolers who follow a strict schedule and a "school-ish" curriculum. Instead, so-called "partial unschoolers" teach their children the subjects they think are essential, and still give them as much freedom to pursue their interests as is possible.

Far from denigrating these parents, I salute their common sense.

There's a reason why many so-called unschoolers have difficulty "trusting" their child to control her own education. Children don't have a broad enough context to know what they don't know. So, if you've been teaching your children and calling yourself a "partial unschooler," I submit you're not an unschooler at all. You're simply a relaxed homeschooler. I urge you to come out from under the shadow of a faulty educational theory that discourages parents from teaching their kids, and fully embrace the joys of homeschooling!


It's Your Choice

Unschooling is easy for the parent. There's no need for you to worry about how or what to teach; the child takes care of that. All you have to do is trust or have faith in the child.

Making the commitment to homeschool your child is harder for the parent. During the Formal Learning Stage, parents must decide on educational goals and plan how to meet them without sacrificing the child's interest in learning. Although tutorial learning is adaptable and tailored to suit the family, learning to teach well doesn't happen overnight. It's work, and you will make mistakes, but mistakes only help you learn to become a better, more effective teacher.

The beauty of homeschooling is having the freedom to make your own schedules, to enhance your curriculum with topics of immediate interest, and to use a variety of resources and field trips to keep the spark of learning alive. There's no need to plan every minute detail of "school" time together, nor is it necessary to plan an entire year in advance (unless you live in an approval state that requires specific documentation). Even with a year long plan, your curriculum should be used as a guide&emdash;a tool to help you plan&emdash;not a noose around your neck.

Homeschooling in a structured manner doesn't mean that parents recreate the school system within their dining rooms. The learning environment at home between parent and child is informal, yet the effort you take to implement your goals and encourage your child's interests will form a basic educational structure to build on. Having a structure doesn't mean that you can't tutor in a relaxed manner. All it means is that you, the parent, have made the commitment to take the leading role in your child's education.


Independent Learning Stage

The Independent Learning Stage is the final stage of homeschooling. Independent learning is present in some degree for all stages, but is most apparent during the mid and late teen years.

Consider a teenager who already has a good grasp of the basics. Appropriately, once he shows self-discipline in his studies, he earns the responsibility of gradually taking charge of his own education. At this point the teen is becoming an independent young man. His structured learning has rewarded him with a broader, integrated context of knowledge and, once again, it makes sense to let him assume more control over his educational choices. The parent properly becomes more of an assistant to help the grown child make the transition to "higher" education, or to study vocationally. The youth has gained a sufficient knowledge base to evaluate his genuine interests and to follow through in charting a course for a fulfilling career.

Some might be tempted to regard this growing independence as unschooling, since the grown child is making more and more decisions on his own. But, he's taking on more responsibility in ALL areas of his life as he matures. The parents grant the child increasing control provided he demonstrates the accountability to handle it, same as borrowing the car, or going away on a weekend trip with friends. If he's not ready to take on the responsibility for his education, then his parents continue to plan, tutor, and supervise his learning. When he is ready to take that ball and run with it, the parents are finished with their job of homeschooling. The child has grown up and is able to take steps to pursue his long term goals in life.

Homeschooling is and ought to be temporary. Parents teach their kids basic skills so that they learn to think well and to use reason as a guide to action. When a mature child has acquired the skills he needs to know in order to think efficiently, act responsibly, and pursue advanced knowledge independently, he no longer needs his parents to "school" him.

That's when homeschooling is finished, and life within a broader context&emdash;outside the security of home and his parents&emdash;begins.


In Closing:

Unschooling (i.e., letting the child lead and control her own education) is a risky business. Some kids are more self-motivated than others, but even so, children don't have a broad enough context to know how to gain knowledge. Many are not inclined to expend the mental energy necessary to learn the basics. If left to their own devices, they'd spend their days building sand castles and playing video games. Without a parent's commitment to teach them, they will learn some things on their own like all of us do, but they'll likely miss out on acquiring basic skills. They may not even notice their lacking until they are grown; then it may be too late or too embarrassing to go back and acquire the basics.

"Partial" unschoolers are homeschoolers who are struggling to resolve an imagined conflict. They want to respect their child's interests and not squelch her enthusiasm for learning, yet they also want her to learn about and master certain subjects. What these parents don't realize is that there isn't any conflict. Teaching doesn't mean forcing information, nor does it mean that parents make all the decisions and the child has no say in her learning. The fact is, children are eager to learn. They long to be taught by a caring, respectful teacher. Parents can lead and teach, and still respect their child's individuality and unique interests.

The ultimate goal of homeschooling is knowledge, not freedom. Since parents are responsible for their child's education, they should not hesitate nor apologize for teaching. Homeschooling pays off for everyone. Not only do parents learn from teaching their kids, and the kids gradually build upon basic knowledge while learning how to learn independently; the homeschooling family builds a uniquely close bond that's bound to last a lifetime.


Copyright © 1999 by Gail S. Withrow. All rights reserved.

Gail Withrow is the owner/director of HomeTaught‰, a private home-based alternative school in Austin, TX. She writes freelance on education and child rearing, and is a single homeschooling mother of two daughters. Gail's informative website http://www.hometaught.com is ranked as a Top 20 Homeschool Site on the web. To comment on this article send e-mail to: gail@hometaught.com



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