Unschoolers Underperform Homeschool and Public School Peers

ZOMG!  Studies show that unschoolers – children with no curriculum or set subjects tend to be “below grade level” compared to traditionally homeschooled kids and their public school peers.

Well duh.

This “problem” is often trotted out by those afraid that unschooling is next to child neglect.  The study used 5-10 year olds and used a standardized test to rank kids.  Are you surprised that unschooled kids did not excel at this?

Of course they didn’t and here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Unschooled kids have little to no experience with “academics” – learning broken up into discreet subjects with abstract assignments and then tests of knowledge regurgitation.  Why would they suddenly excel at taking a LONG, BORING standardized test?
  2. Unschooled kids learn to read when it is right for them.  Sometimes that may be 9 or 10 years old. If any of the kids taking the test were not able to read then they wouldn’t do very well.  That doesn’t mean they won’t learn to read – unschooled kids read “late” by public school standards (and homeschool curricula) but often jump from non-reader to voracious, advanced reader in a short period of time because they were ready.
  3. Unschooled kids learn math when the time is right and in real world situations.  Being asked to do something purely arithmetic with no application doesn’t make any sense to them.  Maybe they should test the kids on their ability to build something, budget something, or solve a problem instead?
  4. Unschooling families are not raising 5-10 year olds that compare well to other 5-10 year olds.  They are raising adults with curiosity, learning passion, and critical thinking skills.  Where they are on an arbitrary level of “grades” compared to their same-age peers is of no consequence at all and NOT indicative of future success.  E.g. a 10 year old unschooler who isn’t reading yet isn’t doomed to be a poor reader.  He may be the next Hemmingway by the time he’s 20.

Unschoolers aren’t on the same track as public schooled kids or traditionally homeschooled kids and this can be scary.  For teachers, critics, homeschoolers, and for YOU.  As an unschooling mom it is hard not to notice when your child doesn’t know something that a kindergartener “should”.

Take a deep breath.  They will learn when they need to.

Homeschoolers and public school folks – you take a deep breath too.  My child is not neglected and will not end up “stupid” because he isn’t on your same time line.  We aren’t apathetic about education.  We disagree with the method and timeline.  Education is VERY important to unschoolers.  So important that we take our kids out of a system that we feel could stunt their learning passion.

You don’t have to agree and discussions are welcome but calling unschooling neglectful because my second grader isn’t writing cursive is missing the point.


Five Steps to Get You Started in Unschooling

If you haven’t already done so you might want to read my previous series on my Homeschool Philosophy.  It is a three part series that looks at holistic education, pedagogy, and most importantly, the 4 tenants of unschooling which are;

  1. Child-led
  2. Delayed Academics
  3. Interest based
  4. No Universal Knowledge

In all honesty there is only one unschooling tenant: Child-led.  Delayed academics and Interest based both stem from being child-led and if you are taking the child’s lead then all learning will be different, hence No Universal Knowledge.

So, let’s say these ideas intrigue you.  Maybe you were an avid breastfeeder that did child-led weaning and it seems natural to let you child lead in other areas.  Or, perhaps you were bored in school and felt you did your most important learning outside of school.  Regardless of how you came to think unschooling might be for you the next step is omgwhatdoidoknow?

It can be intimidating launching yourself into the unknown of unschooling.  After all it is way outside the norm and probably very foreign to your own upbringing.  If you are going the more traditional route the next steps are more defined: pick a curriculum, find a co-op, set a schedule, etc.

Unschooling is different.  Since it is led by the child many people think the next step is to eat bon-bons on the couch and watch soap operas while the kids raise themselves.  I’ve often had people say to me “if I let my kids decide they’d just play video games all day.”  That’s probably true.  Being an unschooling family is not very structured but it is intentional and planned.

So you want to be an unschooler?

Five Steps to Get You Started in Unschooling

 1.  Limit screen time.

Unschool families use TV judiciously.  Yes, Dora can teach your preschooler a lot but you can’t be “learning from life” if you are never out living life.  Uncontrolled TV time is the enemy of creativity, exploration, and motivation.  When the TV tells you what is next to learn you might as well be in a classroom letting a teacher dictate what you do next.

How much TV is too much?  This is highly individual.  I’ll be honest that TV is a big deal in my house.  My husband is a huge movie buff and I like cooking shows.  It is so much easier to clean when the kids are lulled by Blue’s Clues and it is easy to think “but they’re learning!”  Yes, they are learning just like the kids doing multiplication drills are learning.  Unschooling is about so much more than learning – it is about growing the mind.  Remember my article about pedagogy?  Where all learning falls into 3 categories: transfer, transact, and transform?  TV is purely transfer.  It is completely unidirectional (and your kid yelling “MAP!” doesn’t count as a transaction).

To get to transactional and transformational learning you have to turn off the TV!

2. Read.

Kids will be voracious readers if their parents are voracious readers.  I don’t know any other way, luckily.  If reading isn’t your thing then make it your thing.  Start with newspapers or magazines.  Find your favorite thing and I’m sure there are books about it.  They don’t have to be hoity-toity “educational” books – read comedy (I love Dave Barry), read romance, read cookbooks.  Anything counts.  Let them see that books are a gateway drug to learning.

Read to your kids.  Have books everywhere.  If you don’t want to buy go get a library card and make weekly visits routine.  You can’t walk two steps in my house without tripping over a book.  It is like heaven. 😉

3. Have Hobbies.

Like reading, doing is very important.  Being a working mom it is hard to have hobbies.  I get that.  You work all day and crashing on the couch is about the only thing you have energy for.  We develop a habit of this so that even when we have a week off or become SAHM’s it is hard to get motivated to do stuff.  But living is doing stuff and learning through living requires a passion for living!

Did you used to have a hobby that you gave up in adulthood?  Can you make a hobby out of something you have to do like cook?  If you had all the time in the world what would you do?  (If reading is your answer, as it is mine, then what is the second thing you’d do?)  Do something productive like sew or something completely eosteric like paint.  Knit, crochet, do yoga or kickboxing, compost, collect coins, sing, garden, write, cook, twirl a batton, do ballet, ride bikes, attend lectures at your community college. Drop one hobby and start something completely different!

Model a passion for having passions and your kids will too.

4. Encourage alone time.

Kids are overscheduled.  Creativity and finding your passions happen when you have enough quiet time to know yourself.  It is not your job as a parent (let alone a homeschooler) to plan every moment of the day.  The most difficult part of unschooling is letting go.  Letting go of the idea that every activity has to be “educational” or constantly steering your kids toward something you want them to do.  Of course, nudging is an important skill of unschooling but you can’t do it all the time and you can’t do it out of fear that they aren’t learning.

If your coming off a mom-tells-us-what-to-do addiction learning to play alone can be difficult.  Here are some great suggestions on Encouraging Independent Play.  You might have to provide some structure at first and build up to longer times but the ultimate goal is that the kids won’t need your structure at all because their creativity will be a well honed muscle.

Note: if you have more than one kid then having them play without you is good but be on the look out for a kid needing their own – truly alone – time.  My daughter has times where her little brothers are annoying her and if I set her up in the dinning room with her doll house she will really dive into imagination in ways she can’t with two one-year-olds stomping about.

5. Talk

Have discussions with your kids.  Reflecting on an experience is one of the most powerful learning tools.  My daughter and I talk about what we did today before bed.  We’ve been doing this since before she could talk.  Now she tells me what she did and it is amazing what was important to her and her perspective on things.

Make a habit of saying “what did you think about ____.”  For every book, TV show, zoo outing, etc. there is an opportunity to share in your child’s inner life.  You will learn what interests them (was he most mesmerized by the guy mopping the floor at the zoo?) and they will learn what interests you that they might not have thought of.  It will give you a launching point for discussion.

Mom: what was your favorite animal at the zoo?

Kid: I liked the giraffes

Mom: what was your favorite thing about the giraffes?

Kid: They have spots.

Mom: I wonder why they have spots?

Kid: Hmmmm, because they’re pretty?

Mom: Maybe we can get a book on giraffes at the library and learn some more.

The great thing is your kids will catch on to the routine.  Aellyn asks me “what was your favorite part mommy?” (notice that Dora and Diego do this in their shows too.)

Unschooling is not lazy or neglectful.  Unschooling is much harder than giving your kids to the “experts” for 8 hours a day.  It requires you to pay attention and be vigilant to what interests your kids and modeling lifelong learning in yourself.  Here’s a quote from Pam Sorooshian on SandraDodd.com:

“Unschooling is really impossible to confuse with being lazy. It takes a lot of time and energy and thought on the part of the parent… The parent needs to bring interesting things and ideas and experiences to the child and this means being always on the lookout for what the child might enjoy. It means becoming super aware of your child—not only getting a good sense of what might interest him or her, but how does h/she express that interest and what is the best way for you to offer new and potentially interesting ideas, experiences, and things.”

My Homeschooling Philosophy: Part 3

In Part 1 of this series I introduced the concept of Holistic Learning which focuses on the broader topics of knowledge of self, community, and nature instead of the discreet skills taught in traditional schooling.  In Part 2 I discussed different approaches to teaching: transfer, transact, and transform.  Now I want to conclude my series with a look at the continuum of homeschooling methods.

Homeschooling Approaches Continuum   Work   PinterestThe scale moves from highly structured on the left to completely unstructured on the right.  Most homeschoolers (and even unschoolers) fall somewhere in between or even hop around depending on their family’s needs.  You can also adhere to the tenants of a method but do it in a much less structured manner.  For example, Charlotte Mason focuses on learning through literature but you could purchase a Mason Curriculum with workbooks or you could use the information to incorporate literature into your Montessori or Enki methods.

I’m sure my exact placement of some of these would be up for debate and that’s fair.  My point was to show that there is a continuum – you could set up a blackboard and desk in your den and follow a prescribed curriculum for 4 hours every day including tests or you could let your kids learn what they want when they want – OR, you could do something in between.

For my philosophy I fall on the far right of the spectrum.  These are the Key Features that form my philosophy:


This follows easily from my parenting philosophy which includes child-led weaning, gentle discipline and generally allowing kids to blossom on their own timeline without pressure.

Delayed Academics

I’ve written before about the downfalls of early academics.   In the Cambridge Report they noted,

When the children moved into Year 1 [kindergarten equivalent in the US] we found some were regressing educationally and in their social and emotional development. They worried about their learning and this stopped them being effective learners any more. The transition from the foundation stage was such a drastic change. They were used to initiating their own learning and suddenly we were restricting them with literacy and numeracy hours, prescribing what and when they should learn.

One of the downfalls of teaching something too early is that it will be hard.  This leads the child to believe that learning therefore must be hard.  The effortless with which your child learned to talk and walk and all about the world around them fades away because now learning is “work” that has to be assigned by someone else.

In the coming months I’ll be sharing specific research about the power of delayed reading and delayed mathematics.

Interest Based

There are only two things a human being will ever learn: things that are required and things that are interesting to them.  That’s it.  You can’t make someone learn something they don’t need (or don’t perceive they need) or something they find boring.  It just isn’t going to happen.  The human brain is wired to remember only important things – things we learn from experience, observation, and interest.

For example, I would say that knowing how to type is required for my lifestyle.  It wasn’t fun to learn or interesting at all but I needed it to function in my environment.  If I had been born a Masai this would be useless to me and you couldn’t have made me learn and retain it if you tried till the end of days.  There is no need.  This is required knowledge.

On the other hand.  I find typography interesting.  I like knowing the difference between a double story g and a single story g and why the double story was preferred in Roman type.  If you don’t find typography interesting you probably want to stab me right now.  If I were your teacher I’m sure you could memorize it until I tested you but you would never, ever really learn and retain it.  This is interest-driven knowledge.

This leads us to the fourth reason my philosophy of education falls to the holistic;

No Universal Knowledge Inventory

The final feature of the unstructured end of the continuum is a belief that there is no universal inventory of knowledge that all people must have.  Think of all the time public schools spend teaching detailed grammar and linguistics.  Remember the schwa? That upside down e that meant a letter was a mid-central vowel used as a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables when syllabic consonants are not used?  Yeah, me neither.  I had to look it up on Wikipedia.  But I remember 6 straight years of spelling tests that had the damn thing.

Why the hell does anyone but a linguist or phoneticist need to know this?  They don’t.  Most people need to learn to speak in a manner that helps them achieve their desired place in their desired environment.  This might mean something different for someone who wants to be a doctor than someone that wants to be a mechanic.  It might be different depending on what group you want to be a part of.  Saying a word incorrectly might be fine in one setting and make you lose a job in another.  Honestly, the skill of knowing the difference in acceptance of your speech to different people based on their non-verbal communication is probably a much more required knowledge than what a schwa is.

Every time you say or write the word “pencil” do you have to mentally remind yourself that the “i” is a schwa?  Goodness I hope not.

My point is that public education is really designed to be able to compare a student to something.  To other same-age learners.  To a standardized test.  To something.  The curriculum is the same for everyone so that we can compare and rank kids.  “Is he on grade level?”  “What grade does he read at?”

What grade does he read at?  What does that even mean!?!  Who cares!  He reads.  He enjoys reading.  He reads well enough to accomplish any task he wants.  Or he doesn’t yet.  What is the purpose of comparing him to other children?

The public school system has their reasoning (funding, statistics, etc.) but often homeschoolers, who are freed from the tyranny of this system, still choose to define their childrens’ “progress” in this way.  Often this is because homeschooled kids are judged by other parents based on how they compare to schooled kids.  I can certainly understand this pressure.  I know that my friends with kids in daycare know things Aellyn doesn’t know.  It takes a lot of trust to NOT compare an individual child to the masses.

Trust is the first tool in the unschooler toolbox.  That’s what my next series of posts will be on. I’ll explain how unschooling is not lazy parenting (it takes a very involved parent), how kids will ever learn ___ (math, chemistry, etc.) without a curriculum, and the ever present “what about college?” question.  Stay tuned for the How to Unschool series!

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My Homeschool Philosophy Series

Part 1: Introduction Holistic Education

Part 2: Transfer, Transact, Transform

Part 3: Unschooling

What I Learned in School

I’m preparing a series on “how to” unschool (which should be funny if you are familiar with unschooling at all!) but it got me thinking about what from my public school education I really learned.  Not learned in the sense that I memorized it and then got an A on the test (which I was good at) but learned as in had an impact on my whole life and my formation of self identity.

I had a “successful” public school experience.  I was in the top 10% of my class and I went on to get several college degrees.  However, the things I have “learned” that have become part of who I am today are not the academics it took a decade and a half for the school institution to teach me.  They are the incidental lessons I learned in the primary grades and those things I learned myself, because I was interested in them, in my high school years.  I also had involved parents who were lifelong learners themselves as evidenced by nights in the backyard with the telescope.

So here goes.  What I learned at elementary school (pre-K through 6):


I distinctly remember a water station with a basin of soapy water we could blow bubbles in with a straw.  Fun!  I remember learning that there was a “right” way to use glue and that my teacher got very mad when I used “too much”.


I remember lots of stuff from kindergarden but the only thing I can think of that really had an impact is that kids used to vie to stand by me in line because I had long, blonde hair that the other girls like to play with.  We spent soooo much time standing in lines and walking in lines.  I guess this was my first understanding of the concept of popularity and that I had a “rank” on the social scale.

First Grade

I’ve been racking my brain and I’m pretty sure I learned NOTING in 1st grade.  I remember first grade I just don’t find it memorable.

Second Grade

My first “academic” activity that stuck with me!  Our teacher gave us an assignment to learn how to spell supercalifragilisticexpealidocious but she didn’t tell us how to spell it like she did with other spelling words.  She gave us a task to go find out how to spell it on our own and then learn it.  (Remember this is before internet so we had to have our parents trek us to the library and such).

Unfortunately I learned some other horrible things in second grade.  I was ridiculed by my teacher when she asked me to throw something in the “waste basket” and I couldn’t find it.  I had simply never heard the term waste basket to refer to a trash or garbage can.  This was hilarious to her and the class.  This is the first time I remember being really embarrassed.

But wait!  It gets much, much worse.  There was a girl in my class named Mickie.  She had what would now (and maybe then) was defined as severe ADHD.  I don’t know if my teacher was following current best practices for ADHD at the time or if she was a sadistic psychopath but they way she treated Mickie is like something out of a horror story.  She was tied to her chair with toilet paper and her feet were in a box (to remind her not to get out of her seat?) and the teacher had the janitor sweep all the dust and dirt from the classroom into her cube (which was set apart from the class) to teach her about having a messy desk.  I guess that might not sound too bad but the effect it had on the way the other kids treated Mickie is astounding.  I actually witnessed nearly the whole class surround Mickie, who had been depants’d, throwing rocks at her while she laid on the ground in the fetal position crying.  She quickly learned to hide in the cement tunnel on the play ground and two boys would trap her in there the whole time.  It was like being inside Lord of the Flies.  Needless to say this is one of the most memorable things I learned in 14 years of public schooling.

Third Grade

Not much here.  This was the first time that my being friends with a boy became “weird” and we had to be friends outside of school and ignore each other at school.

Fourth Grade

My teacher read Island of the Blue Dolphins to us.  I couldn’t wait to get to school to hear the next part of the book and this is one of my favorite books till this day (a strong female character, check it out).  I like to read but after this I LOVED to read.

Unfortunately I also remember this teacher yelling at me for “not trying” because when I colored a picture I didn’t color hard/dark enough.  Like light coloring is cheating or something.

Fifth Grade

I learned that I hate math [1. edited to add – I wanted to point out that I actually love math now and I majored in Physics in college so I took insane amounts of calculus and non-linear algebra and I really enjoyed it because I understood its purpose!  Arithmetic – memorizing times table and long division make me want to cry.  But, MATHEMATICS is a beautiful science that I love.].  Learning times tables was PURE, UNADULTERATED HELL.  Doing math homework at night for HOURS was horrible.  This was also the year that they took the boys and girls into separate rooms and told us about puberty.  I learned from this that my parents were MUCH better at answering my questions than my peers’ parents.  They literally told me nothing I didn’t already know and left out much I knew.  My friends though?  They were baffled – this was truly NEW to them.

Sixth Grade

I had a wonderful teacher in sixth grade.  She was the first person to tell me I was good at science.  Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy – I ended up excelling in science through high school and majoring in Physics at University.  I also remember writing in her class.  Sometimes it was using our spelling words but we were encouraged to be creative!  This is when I first loved to write.  Another very meaningful experience is that our class had a problem with bullying this one girl (Mickie no long went to our school) and my teacher had a “talk circle”.  We put our desks in a circle and she led us in a talk about how teasing feels and what it says about us as people.  She treated us like adults and brought empathy into the class.  Overall, she had very HIGH EXPECTATIONS for us.  To create, to learn, and to be good people.

In addition I, and everyone who goes to public school, learns Seven Important Lessons:

  1. Learning is something you have to be forced/coerced/bribed to do.  It has to be compulsory.
  2. Learning is something that requires an “expert in teaching” to dispense.
  3. Some learning, especially math and especially for girls, is really hard.
  4. Intelligence is innate.  some got it and some don’t.
  5. Your success requires you to constantly be judged and labelled by others.
  6. How others should be treated is also based on the “experts” judgement.
  7. Your social standing is as important if not more important than your academic success at school.

Success at school – “learning” what the teacher wants and taking tests well – is not neccessarily a skill that will help you at anything in real life.  And vice versa.  Being “bad” at “schooling”, like my sister is because she has a “learning disability” and test anxiety, does NOT mean you won’t be a successful adult.  Unfortunately though, it IS often the case after years of indoctrination that success means being good at school, being labelled by others as “smart”, and external achievement.

What if we assume that every one of those seven lessons were WRONG?  What if the exact opposite is actually true?  What if,

  1. Learning is a natural process from our innate curiosity.
  2. Learning is something we are all experts at.
  3. Things that are “hard” to learn are just being taught to a mind that isn’t ready for them.
  4. Intelligence is fluid and depends on things like motivation, experience, culture, etc.
  5. Since we always tell kids not to judge maybe we shouldn’t.  Maybe success can only be defined by the person in question.
  6. The success of others in no one’s business.
  7. False hierarchy’s based on age segregation, perceived intelligence, and physical appearance is not what’s important in life.

Wouldn’t that change the game a little?  That would mean the problems with the schools are not funding, teacher unions, curriculum, or testing but the whole premise of the institution.  Money and new standards can never correct a system that is based on things that just aren’t true!  In the coming weeks I’m going to look at those seven lessons and see what we know through research about the truth on these topics.

In the meantime, think about what you really learned in school.  What are your life-changers that took place in your first 10-12 years?  Were they curriculum?  Were they lessons you want your kids to learn too?