What is unschooling? Part 1 : A framework of ideas

Having recently answered the question what is respectful parenting, now it’s the turn of unschooling.

This post is the first in a 3 part series devoted to the question, what is unschooling?

  • In Part 1, here you are, welcome 🙂 we’ll be exploring the framework of ideas that underpin unschooling.
  • In Part 2, we’ll dig a little deeper and consider what this means for daily life. What does unschooling look like?
  • And in Part 3, we’re busting some myths, tackling some of the common misconceptions about unschooling.

So, let’s get into Part 1.

What is unschooling?

Unschooling is a term used by John Holt to describe learning without school.

A teacher turned school reformer, an advocate for children’s rights and a prolific writer, John Holt was fascinated by how learning happens and what might help or hinder this natural process.

His observations in and outside the classroom left him increasingly concerned about the harm caused by compulsory schooling and he became a passionate supporter of homeschooling.

So, is unschooling a method of homeschooling?

First off, let me say, there’s no official society of unschooling*. You can’t register as an unschooler, sign up and bag yourself a handy little rulebook. There isn’t even a dictionary definition of unschooling.

*Although there are some wonderful online communities and spaces you can visit to learn more – you’ll find tons of links throughout this site and look out for some dedicated resource pages coming soon 🙂

Unschooling looks different in every family and for every child.

Rather than a prescriptive model for homeschooling, unschooling is more of a way of life. A way of living and learning with our children, and looking at the world, inspired by a set of common ideas.

As John Holt intended and the name suggests, unschooling is a rejection of the compulsory school system as the best way to support learning.

An understanding that schools, teachers, classes, curriculums, textbooks – none of them are necessary for learning. And often get in the way.

That’s not to say, they have no value. Freely chosen, any of the above might be jolly useful. But not essential, and we’ll talk more about that in parts 2 and 3.

But unschooling is so much more than an absence of school.

Schools tend to be organised around a curriculum, comprised of a select, limited set of knowledge and skills, chosen as required learning for all and prized above all else.

The child is at the heart of unschooling, not the curriculum. And the process, the experience and the love of learning matter far more than the possession of any specific skills and knowledge.

So, let’s dive a bit deeper and explore this framework of ideas.

Learning happens naturally

Human beings do not need to be taught in order to learn. We are born interacting with and exploring our surroundings. Babies are active learners, their burning curiosity motivating them to learn how the world works.

Wendy Priesnitz

Humans are born wired to learn, naturally curious and motivated to discover.

As parents, we see this so beautifully with small children. Learning to walk and talk happens naturally, and yet these are incredibly complex actions. We don’t have to teach our children to walk and talk, they learn. And they learn in a highly efficient way, with no need for formal instruction.

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines.

Peter Gray

Learning happens all the time

For better or worse, we learn every day, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, whoever we’re with. We learn good things, useful things, handy things – and we learn bad things, destructive things, things we might someday wish we hadn’t learned. Life’s like that. On the whole, though, learning serves us quite well, and we’re constantly arranging and rearranging our learning so it’s more useful to us.

Helen Hegener

Learning is a natural, life-long process, occurring all the time.

But learning doesn’t stick to predictable lines or curves, it’s far more messy and chaotic.

As Joyce Fettorell puts it…

Real learning looks like doing a billion piece jigsaw puzzle.

Some of us start with the edges, or the corners, or the cute bunny that catches our eye. Filling in different sections as they become relevant or grab our attention.

Our learning potential isn’t confined to a series of magic moments that if missed doom us to eternal ignorance. Enthusiasm and necessity have our back when it comes to learning, and can serve to propel us to some pretty dizzy-learning-heights.

But just like that never-ending jigsaw, none of us go about learning in quite the same way, and none of us will come close to completing it all.

Living is learning. It is impossible to be alive and conscious (and some would say unconscious) without constantly learning things. If we are alive we are receiving various sorts of messages from our environment all the time. We take these in, in one form or another and make use of them. We are constantly experiencing reality and in one-way or another incorporating it into our mental model of the universe: the organized sum of what we think we know about everything.

John Holt

Learning is personal.

Learning is an internal process. Difficult to predict, to measure and to control.

Schools are no guarantee of learning.

Even in conversation with just one other person we can walk away with entirely different perceptions of what just happened. Imagine the variety of learning that happens in a class of thirty from any lesson.

Some of the students may well be engaged and motivated by the content, the delivery or the speaker. Acquiring some interesting facts to add to their existing body of knowledge, they might reach a greater understanding of the topic and even be inspired to find out more.

Others might be drawn to different elements in the room. Perhaps fascinated by how light falls on the faces around them, storing those observations to use later in painting or photography.

Yet more might be focussed on what’s happening outside the classroom, or consumed by concerns of their own.

Coercion creates resistance

Compulsory attendance is a feature of most schools. Their primary purpose, to deliver the curriculum, after all.

Most schools are run and rely on rules, rewards and punishments. In other words, high on coercion and low on respect.

This kind of pressure, albeit in the guise of support and motivation, means for many children, much of their energy is diverted to coping with the emotional demands of school and the natural resistance it provokes.

This interferes with the learning process, robbing many children of the joy of discovery and muting their natural curiosity.

Delight and purpose drive learning.

Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he’s not interested, it’s like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating.

Katrina Gutleben

Some of us adapt to school better than others. Take exams for instance, there are those of us who might rather almost enjoy them. Happy to focus our mind within clear parameters, poring over assigned content and eager for a chance to show what we know.

But often we find that knowledge evaporates rather quickly once the need for it has passed.

We gain true understanding and real learning because it matters, it has value and meaning for our life. Sparking our curiosity or concern, or serving a purpose for our survival or functioning in the world. That’s the kind of learning that lasts.

Trusting children.

We’ll talk about this more in part 2. But in short : Unschooling rests on a firm foundation of trust.

Trusting what we know about learning, and trusting our children.

Trusting that…

given a safe, supportive environment, they will continue to learn hungrily and naturally – in the manner and at the speed that suits them best.

Wendy Priesnitz

Trusting in our children’s intentions and in their knowledge and awareness of themselves.

We don’t expect them to magically have all the answers or never make mistakes – that would severely hamper their learning 🙂

Trust children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.

John Holt

Unschooling challenges so much of what we’ve been led to believe about learning and about human nature.

We’re all awash with our own assumptions about the world, many of them picked up in childhood and deeply embodied in our psyche. Sadly many of these are negative, ideas like – learning is difficult, children (people!) are lazy and unmotivated and need pushing to do ‘hard stuff’ else why would they bother.

Deschooling is an ongoing process of examining these ideas and the impact they have on our lives. Stepping back to consider what we think we know and allowing ourselves time to observe and reflect on our own experiences of learning. More on deschooling coming soon 🙂

Embracing the ideas of unschooling offers a beautiful opportunity to transform our relationships and our lives. Unschooling is about living a full and rich life with our children, learning together and prioritising peace, connection and joy.

So what does unschooling look like?

This is what we’ll be exploring in Part 2 of What is unschooling? : What unschooling looks like.

Do you have any questions about unschooling? I’d love to know how you’re finding this series. Let me know in the comments.

Happy week all 🙂


  1. There are so many great thoughts here, Hayley:). I appreciate the gentle, practical perspective.

    “Our learning potential isn’t confined to a series of magic moments that if missed doom us to eternal ignorance. Enthusiasm and necessity have our back when it comes to learning, and can serve to propel us to some pretty dizzy-learning-heights.” What a great line:).

    Looking forward to Part 2!

    1. Hayley says:

      Thanks Erin, glad you liked it 🙂

  2. “Unschooling is about living a full and rich life with our children, learning together and prioritising peace, connection and joy.”


    Enjoying catching up with your posts, Hayley 😀

    1. Hayley says:

      Thanks Alice, always appreciate your thoughts 🙂

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