Holistic Education ("unschooling") FAQs

I had a wonderful discussion with some friends about homeschooling.  Some are questions even “regular” homeschoolers have about child-led learning which I like to call Holistic Education but is also called unschooling or deschooling.  I’d love to hear your questions too!


There are basic things in life that we need to know.  What about math?

I agree there are basic things that we *need* to know. The “what about math” question is one of the most frequently asked questions about “un”schooling. How will they learn math if they choose what they learn?  No kid would choose math, right?
And the first answer is philosophical. That is, if there isn’t a real life application that we can learn from then it is really not a basic thing in life that we need to know. All that math has applications and if it does not then why learn it?


For example – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. Those are things that you don’t learn unless you go over them – lots.

It would be pretty hard to live life in our culture with out going over these things *lots*: money, cooking, building, gardening, etc. Math is important in real life and you’d be surprised to know that unschooled kids have a passion for it! They find it fun and exciting and want to learn more about it. Hating math is a school concept. I know unschooling kids that choose to buy a book of math sheets because they actually find the task fun – like a puzzle.


There are some things that are just learned by rote and you can’t move on to other things until you know them. Like how does holistic education work when it comes to learning how to find the length of a hypotenuse when you know the other two sides of the triangle?

You have to find the length of a hypotenuse to create many things: building a dog house, quilting, some types of art. Once again these things exist because they have real life application. If I’m asking my kid to learn something that doesn’t apply to life then why am I asking him to learn it? (note: college discussion below).


There are tons of examples I can think of that are part of a curriculum in school (home, public or private) that I don’t ever see a kid asking because they wouldn’t know to ask? I mean if you’ve never heard of the quadratic equation or certain chemistry formulas or conjugating verbs, how do you know to ask about them?

First, being the parent in a holistic education setting is like being a teacher in the true sense of the word. Saying to my kids “I wonder what would happen if…” is very different from “ok, now we are going to do multiplication tables until your eyes cross.”Second, are those things necessary?I would say it depends.Conjugating verbs? In English? Complete stupidity. If English is your native language, learning to read and write the English language will ensure a child knows the “rules” of English.  So, unless my child really loves linguistics or copy editing or composition then there is no reason to know that the word “written” is a past participle.  And if they do (I’ve always found grammar a little fascinating) then letting them pick out an English workbook at the education store is following their interest.For example, I loved science from a young age. I read everything I could about physics and astronomy and was an avid backyard astronomer (with my Dad). I know that my passion for it would have eventually led me to the quadratic equation. Because eventually in science you’ll reach the point you can understand no more without knowing the “language” of science; math. If science is not your passion then why learn the quadratic equation?

There is only one reason beyond true interest: because it is required to pursue your goals. This gets in to the fact that an unschooled child has always had joy in learning because they’ve never had to learn something because they *had* to but because they wanted to. This creates quite a passion that causes them to pursue their goals with passion. So, if getting in to college is important then studying for the SAT will be important which may require learning things that you hadn’t previously needed to know. Maybe even it will require a curriculum or instruction (as in taking music classes, foreign language classes, or college classes as a teenager, or finding a tutor on a topic). Holistic learning isn’t about complete avoidance of pedagogical structure but about the topic and means of learning being chosen by the child.

By the teen years homeschooling is very self-directed. Mom’s job is to pay and drive.

In a world where we’ve been told schooling is needed to learn (which is a relatively (150 years old) new human concept) it seems scary to suddenly trust all that to simple childhood curiosity. It requires a lot of trust.


If they don’t learn certain things by certain points in their life, then the [homeschool] assessor isn’t going to pass them to the next grade, or they aren’t going to be able to take the standardized test that would allow them to do so.

(This question refers to Ohio law that requires “academic assessment report of the child for the previous school year at the time of supplying subsequent notification.”  The assessment can be a standardized test or a “written narrative indicating that a portfolio of samples of the child’s work has been reviewed and that the child’s academic progress for the year is in accordance with the child’s abilities” which must be completed by a certified teacher.  Rules may be different in your state.  Look here for more information.)

Two answers to this: first, in most cases they do learn needed things by the correct age in life. The school curriculum is based, in part, on normal developmental milestones in learning.  Second you would obviously have to find an assessor that understands unschooling and is qualified to evaluate the portfolio of work. There will be lots of “evidence” of learning: writing, sewing, baking, building, speaking, singing, reading, etc.  Put it in a portfolio and it becomes clear all the knowledge a kid has acquired.Remember too that the school district does not get to choose your assessor – you do (in Ohio).
Standardized test are the devil! 🙂 The SAT is a necessary evil for college but all the other tests attempt to place a number on human intelligence which is just idiotic in my opinion. Luckily in Ohio there is NO required standardized testing (some states do and if I lived in those states I’d be forced to help my kids pass it.  For the record, states that suck for homeschoolers: VT, RI, MA, NY, PA, and ND)


Curricula are extremely useful (I’ll even go so far as to say vital) in making sure that the child is getting a complete, well rounded education.

This depends on how you define a well rounded education. If you define it as knowing all the same things as a child in school then I would agree it is vital to use a curriculum to make sure your hitting what the State of Ohio (or your state) has deemed important for the given grade level. Perhaps some day another kid will say to Aellyn “omg, you don’t know what a gerund is?” and she’ll probably come home and read the hell out of a grammar book! But still. Knowing what a gerund is is completely non-essential to human life. :)

Also, even though my kids will learn as their interest take them that doesn’t mean *I* won’t be well versed in the state and national benchmarks! Kind of like reading books about your baby’s development I’ll be interested in their learning development. The standards for most states are all online: here is Ohio’s.

Honestly every one of you reading this who has children homeschools! Only, in baby and toddlerhood, we call it parenting. Holistic Education just assumes that the same process of learning (human curiosity paired with access to resources and a caring provider) continues to work throughout childhood.

What questions do you have about unschooling/holistic education?


I'd love to hear your comments or questions!

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