Unschooling is not “Child-Led Learning”

Moody Blues Concert

I do not refer to unschooling as “child-led learning” and I encourage others not to use that term because I think overuse of it has led to some pretty serious misunderstanding of what unschooling is really like.

The term, “child-led learning,” does emphasize something very important – that the child is the learner! I couldn’t agree more. However, it also disregards the significant role played by the parent in helping and supporting and, yes, quite often taking the lead, in the investigation and exploration of the world that is unschooling.

On an unschooling email list, someone once asked if it was “okay” as an unschooler to ask if her child wanted her to read to him. She expressed concern that that was being overly leading – that she should wait for him to ask her, if he was interested. In other words, she thought unschooling should be entirely “child led.”

Questions like this concern me because it is such a distortion and extreme position and far removed from the reality of the unschooling life that my family has lived.

Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in synch with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other.

Asking a child if he wants you to read to him should not be thought about as any different than asking if he wants
to go outside and play pirates or help you bake a cake or wash the dog or play a game.

Unschooling IS very very often comprised of asking if the kids want to do something. That is a HUGE part of unschooling. (Caps for emphasis.)

Unschooling is also strewing – bringing ideas, objects, experiences, opportunities of all kinds into their lives. We don’t force them. We don’t force them. But we certainly offer. And we often recommend, too. And once in a while we say, “I think you should….”.

Unschooling is not child-led learning. Neither is it parent or teacher-led. It is child- focused. It is child-considered. It is child-supporting.

When someone asks if it is okay to ask if their kids want to read with them, I am really worried that they are taking a far far too hands-off approach – a wait-and-see approach – sitting back and waiting for the kids to come up with ideas of what they want to do. Unschooling parents are very involved in offering the world to their child. There is an art to knowing when to back off and when to step up and be actively involved, but even when kids are busily pursuing an interest on their own, unschooling parents are paying attention and readying themselves to offer enhancements or extensions or alternatives, etc.

Calling it “child-led learning” gives the wrong impression. It leads to people thinking unschooling means waiting for a child to tell the parent, “I want to do math.” That’s not at all how it works.

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39 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. emmy2142%
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 05:18:04

    Yes, yes, yes! Exactly.

    Reply

    • Xristiana Sophia
      Jul 25, 2013 @ 13:34:18

      The reason that most people are getting it all wrong is because they are polarising and seeing opposites as well as limiting roles.

      Unschooling, for me, simply means getting out of “schooling”; programming, structure, control, and allowing ourselves to be whole, synthesized, balanced human beings, who are willing to be authentic and unstructured individuals each moment.

      Also, for me, there are no predefined roles. I am a teacher, a supporter, a nurturer, as well as a student, a learner, an explorer, and so is my child. Where does learning stop and teaching begin anyway? If we separate the two parts of the whole, we are seeing the illusion and missing the point of meaning in each moment.

      Thank you for this article. It clears a lot that needs to be said. :)

      Reply

  2. Melissa R
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 17:33:08

    Great post. I think that the current popular “child-led” phrase came into being because of the need for some to combat the misconception that unschooling is literally doing nothing. Child-led helps move away from the image of doing nothing and towards a more organic situation. I do like the idea that unschooling is a dance and a partnership between child and parent.

    Reply

  3. Chessa Grasso Hickox
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 19:59:28

    Thank you so much for writing this! What a great distinction to make. I think it’s so hard as a new unschooling parent (which I am :) to try to make sense of this way of being that is SO counter to the mainstream way of parenting and schooling/learning. I can understand a parent’s confusion about whether asking their child to read to them is too schooly, too parent-goal-oriented…but I think what you say about balance, about the dance where it is invisible who is leading and who is following is a great way of explaining the disnction between child-considered, child-supporting and soley child-led. Strewing, asking, following passions…it’s all part of the flow.

    Reply

  4. Becki LaZella
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 06:59:37

    I truly appreciate that you wrote this. I am new to homeschooling and unschooling. I like the idea of child-directed learning, but am not seeing my kids show much directing. I have felt like maybe I am doing this wrong. I have read articles that suggest letting the kids be and that the parents just “get the hell out of the way” but have wondered, how will kids be exposed to potentially exciting topics if I don’t intervene somehow. Yes, playing outside is learning, yes playing inside is learning, yes, watching tv can be learning too, but I can show them other avenues of learning and direct them to other possibilities that they never knew existed. Thank you for this clarification. It truly helps!

    Reply

  5. Kimberley
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 07:09:36

    I think this is a fabulous clarification.
    Imagine all the discoveries our children wouldn’t make if we didn’t introduce them to them and ask if they’re interested in exploring it further.

    Reply

  6. Teearem
    Oct 01, 2011 @ 19:47:13

    If kids could do it all on their own, they wouldn’t need parents. Thanks for writing this simple yet powerful piece.

    Reply

  7. Yeshe
    Oct 12, 2011 @ 11:00:41

    Wow, this is exactly what I thought unschooling wasn’t. And I think that there is a fine fine line between control and things like “recommending” and “I think you should”. I personally see nothing wrong with child-led as long as it doesn’t mean “parental laziness” and I find this shift away from child led is taking the heart from unschooling, and making it a parent-centric experience. By all means strew to your hearts content, but what are you strewing? Something you think the child wants…or even “needs”? Or is it a truly based on knowing and facilitating the child’s desires for engagement? How much of “I think you should turn the tv off and come a draw” is about the child or the parents needs?
    The lines of definition of unschooling are constantly shifting of what it is and what it isn’t, but I think taking away the idea of “child-led” is a mistake.

    Reply

    • Pam Sorooshian
      Jan 21, 2012 @ 22:35:45

      Some people seem to think that the only alternative to “child-led” is “parent-led.” That misses the point that the unschooling relationship is more subtle and more complex than either of those extremes. Parents lead sometimes, children lead sometimes, and much of the time neither is “leading” at all – they are moving together in an easy and comfortable harmony.

      Reply

    • Sandra Dodd
      Feb 02, 2012 @ 16:49:55

      -=-How much of “I think you should turn the tv off and come a draw” is about the child or the parents needs?-=-

      If you knew Pam’s family, you couldn’t suggest that she would make a recommendation like that.

      -=-The lines of definition of unschooling are constantly shifting of what it is and what it isn’t, but I think taking away the idea of “child-led” is a mistake.-=-

      No, there are many bits and pieces of definitions of unschooling, not all compatible, and after fifteen years of helping other unschoolers understand it, Pam knows which “definitions” are productive and which cause more confusion than clarity.

      Reply

    • Angela
      Jul 10, 2012 @ 05:18:00

      How much of “I think you should turn the tv off and come a draw” is about the child or the parents needs?

      Children have parents for a reason….because the child does not always know what they need. That’s one of the responsibilities of being a parent…recognizing the need, and either fulfilling it, or helping the child learn how to fill it for themselves, depending on the situation. There is also the highly-valued concept of self-discipline that we are also to train our children in this also…if they are to ever be competent adults….and guess what…that includes being disciplined in their/our studies….whether it be parent or child chosen.

      Reply

  8. Lisa
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 03:57:20

    I love the concept of the dance. This is how I feel my son and I are always interacting. We are extremely in tune with each other, and it’s not just me in tune with him. It’s him in tune with me too. And it is so much fun. :)

    Reply

  9. Julie
    Oct 21, 2011 @ 20:43:16

    I wholeheartedly agree and write about this in my book. I quote myself, “I asked my kids one day whether they wanted me to plan some activities for them or if they’d rather just float through each day without much input from me. They unanimously said they wanted some planned activities. They want my creative input because they recognize that mom brings them fresh ideas, although the integration of those ideas into the map of their own minds is up to them. I think that, too, after they have played the same pretend games repeatedly, they pour the passionate energy of those inner thoughts into their world and thus spent, they need to be refilled with a new passion. With their lack of knowledge and experience, they cannot necessarily refill their stores without an adult introducing to them a novel idea, experience, person, or other possible interest. We are very much an integral part of the learning process.”

    Unschooling is about relationship, not about who is leading. It is about parents being life learners and sharing their passions with their children. It is about children being life learners and learning from many sources as they are fully engaged with their families and communities.

    Reply

  10. noryda
    Oct 23, 2011 @ 02:01:56

    Love this post, I link it on my blog. I too love the concept of the dance, the balance .

    Thanks

    Reply

  11. Lindsey Wright
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 04:00:59

    Hello,
    Im sorry for pestering, but I wanted to make sure you recieved my request so Im leaving another unrelated comment. Do you accept guest posts? I’d very much like to contribute a piece. Please email and we can discuss the topic through email. Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing you.

    Reply

    • Pam Sorooshian
      Nov 05, 2011 @ 09:12:11

      I’ve never considered guest posts…can you post it as a comment? I’m not much of a blogger – maybe I don’t really understand the reasons for a guest post as opposed to a comment. I’m open to the idea.

      Reply

      • Lindsey Wright
        Nov 08, 2011 @ 02:20:47

        Well, I was hoping to write a post to contribute to your blog. I think I would take up all of your comment box space if I wrote about it here. Are you still interested? Please, feel free to email me and we can discuss the topic I have in mind. I hope to hear from you soon! lindseywright39@gmail.com

  12. Pam Sorooshian
    Nov 17, 2011 @ 21:52:08

    I think I’m not wanting anybody else posting here – the comments are enough. If people want to write more, they can write on their own blog and link to it in a comment here, right?

    Reply

  13. Vanessa Tave
    Dec 07, 2011 @ 00:29:08

    Hello Pam,
    Thank you for providing your perspective of un-schooling. My definition of un-schooling is just merely the freedom to learn on your own terms. I, too, refer to un-schooling as child-led and natural learning, because I have discovered through studying childhood development and observing my own children (ages 18, 8, 5, 3, & 1) that learning is natural; so, all I have to do is provide the facts and exposure to whatever their interests are, period. In my opinion, telling my child what or how to learn is no different than the practices in a school environment; which can interfere with the development of love and trust that should exist between me and my children. Also, I feel it is integral to the identity of my children to establish, early in their development, the freedom to do as they chose; so long as it does not involve malicious intent. However, even if they do something that we do not agree with, they will still learn from the consequences of their actions; which, they may very well choose to repeat or discontinue altogether.

    My husband and I, both products of public school and college educated, decided to just let our children enjoy their childhood the way they want to; which consists mostly of playing (creative, physical, etc.) and watching non-commercialized television and movies. We have discovered that our children learn from each other (which is why we don’t want them in a classroom full of unknown behaviors), and at their own individual pace, but when they are ready to grasp a concept, it is done progressively. When people question me about how to proceed in un-schooling, I inform them of the homeschool laws in the state of Florida, insist they do their best for their younger child(ren) while listening to the older ones, and most importantly, to have fun watching their children grow!

    Love & Shalom Aleichem,
    Vanessa Tave

    Reply

    • Kirstin
      Feb 02, 2012 @ 21:34:07

      Your philosophy and experience very much mirrors my own, Vanessa. My husband and I are also both public school and college educated, with education degrees! In fact, my husband is employed as a teacher in the public school system ( I often refer to him as living a double-life lol!) but we choose to educate our children at home and follow an unschooling lifestyle.
      Our seven children (ages 23,16,12,10,8,4 and 2) have had the freedom to learn in a very loving, natural, independent and loosely structured environment. With parents and older siblings who are supportive and considerate of, as well as focused on, their individual needs and interests. They are encouraged to be free thinkers. At some point, certain ones have chosen classes or even, SCHOOL. (gasp! right?) My oldest is now in college after being unschooled through the high school years. He is focused in liberal arts as an English major with a writing track and has done very well. My 16 year old chose high school last year, as a sophomore, and is now a junior. He is an athlete who was denied access to participation in school sports in our state of Maryland because of our “homeschooling” status. After never being schooled, he is doing very well academically and socially, contrary to popular concerns, I might add. He has excelled in athletics, making all the varsity teams he has pursued and he is actively working toward athletic scholarships. My 12 year old is a dancer who has been passionately pursuing a love for dance through instruction at a private studio since age 3. She is now considering auditioning for performing arts high schools including the Baltimore School for the Arts. The younger children are all happy and healthy. They are involved in lots of things that they enjoy every day.
      For us, the most important aspect in our lifestyle is choices. We are open to all the possibilities that our unschooling philosophy allows us. The experience is not always exactly the same for every child or parent, even in the same family! It has not always been an easy path but thus far, we have been very successful on our journey.

      Reply

      • Vanessa Tave
        Feb 03, 2012 @ 04:06:29

        Hello Kirstin,
        Thank you for your response. I was elated to see another large family experiencing success in their unschooling endeavors. I also love the description “loosely structured environment”; this will be my new go to phrase, with your blessing of course (smile). Thank you, again, for being a shining example for me and my family.
        Love & Shalom Aleichem,
        Vanessa

    • Pam Sorooshian
      Feb 03, 2012 @ 00:04:20

      You said: “..all I have to do is provide the facts and exposure to whatever their interests are, period.”

      If you only expose them to things they are already interested in, they are missing out on all kinds of other possibilities that might have turned out to be interesting to them, too.

      “In my opinion, telling my child what or how to learn is no different than the practices in a school environment;…”

      Nowhere did I advocate “telling my child what or how to learn.” Please reread the original post with that in mind.

      The terminology is misleading. When people hear “child-led,” they frequently become confused and minimize the importance of the role the unschooling parent plays in a child’s learning. Unschooling is a hands-on lifestyle, but “child-led” makes it sound, to many people, like parents are sitting back, leaving their kids alone to try to discover and navigate the world themselves, with parents sometimes going so far as to think that any ideas or suggestions or input from them is “coercion” and should be avoided.

      In fact, unschooling becomes the sparkly and rich lifestyle it can be when parents and children are all engaged in sharing and exploring and interacting – each giving what they have to offer each other. Parents have wider experience of what’s out there in the nearby and far-away world. They should bring that to the relationship, not hold out because they think learning should be “child led.”

      Reply

  14. Lizette @ balanced diet
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 08:49:07

    This is an interesting read – both the post and the comments. We do traditional textbook homeschooling. While my husband would prefer the unschooling approach, there had been too many times of trauma that interfered with my kids’ learning and we now have to repair the damage with love, discipline and reliable routine. It is hard, because I am not really a routine person either, but right now this is what my kids need. If it had to be child-led in any way, my son would watch tv all day. However, I must admit, he just asked me if he could go study his social sciences for 30 minutes. I suppose different approaches work for different kids.

    Reply

  15. patricia
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 00:26:16

    I struggle with this phrase too. I use it in conversations and on my website primarily because the term unschooling doesn’t work for me. I absolutely admire unschooling and the many unschoolers I’ve known, but I feel that we have a certain routine and habit to our days that isn’t true to what I consider unschooling to mean. I adopted “child-led” learning as an alternative–but I think it isn’t right for us either, for many of the reasons you describe. I’ve been playing with alternatives: passion-driven learning, possibly?

    Definitions can be so confining. I’d rather disregard them altogether, but we humans seem to seek them as a way of understanding the world and other people, don’t we?

    So nice to find your website, Pam! I’ve never been here before, but I’ve seen you speak at the HSC conference many times. My personal interest is in writing and how kids learn to write, and it’s always been easy for me to see how kids could do so in a very self-directed, unschool-y way. But it was always harder for me to wrap my brain around how that would work for math; you really helped me understand that!

    Reply

  16. Rachel Moore Ross
    Mar 31, 2012 @ 00:27:13

    Pam,

    I really loved this post, especially what you said here:

    “When someone asks if it is okay to ask if their kids want to read with them, I am really worried that they are taking a far far too hands-off approach – a wait-and-see approach – sitting back and waiting for the kids to come up with ideas of what they want to do. Unschooling parents are very involved in offering the world to their child. There is an art to knowing when to back off and when to step up and be actively involved, but even when kids are busily pursuing an interest on their own, unschooling parents are paying attention and readying themselves to offer enhancements or extensions or alternatives, etc.
    Calling it “child-led learning” gives the wrong impression. It leads to people thinking unschooling means waiting for a child to tell the parent, “I want to do math.” That’s not at all how it works.”

    The only thing that has bugged me a bit is how unschooling (which you are referring to above) has morphed into radical unschooling and how very often I hear of parents letting their kids do whatever they want. I feel like unschooling has been co-opted by radical unschoolers and that many (not all) radical unschoolers are really just practitioners of TCS (Talking Children Seriously) which is virtually cult like. (I very accidentally got mixed up with some TCS parents on an unschooling board 13 years ago, I have never been so harassed in my life. It was very scary.) My point is that I have 10 years worth of GWS issues, and almost all John Holt’s books, and when I go back and read over them I read stories of kids doing chores, or having bedtimes, or of limits on certain activities etc., but what their parents were not doing was choosing for their kids how they were to learn. And, hey, I am all for parents letting their kids do whatever they want. I just don’t like it when those parents tell me I am NOT unschooler because I do have some expectations of my kids (which have nothing to do with school type learning) which you will see below.

    Here’s my own example: I have a son with Bipolar disorder. The kid’s brain is hardwired never to shut off. If he’s up for days (which can happen) he will have a psychological break that will land him in the hospital (which has almost happened 4 times). So, he ‘HAS TO’ (God forbid, I can hear the unschoolers now, sharpening their verbal axes) take meds to go to sleep and I ‘HAVE TO’ make sure he does shut off the Xbox (even if it is 1 or 2 AM) and ‘TELL HIM’ (oh no, I’m can feel the trouble I am getting into here) to go to bed. Sleep is incredibly protective of the brain and Ben’s brain needs it ALOT!!! Of course, I am really nice about it. I will call down and say, “Hey, you need to be sleeping soon, are you in the middle of a game etc…If so, when you are done will you come up and head to your room for some rest?” And he is fine with it. I don’t order him around. I remind him, kindly. This doesn’t happen every night, and it’s not always the same time. I have become an amazing interpreter of his moods (I need to be, for his safety and sanity). So it’s not like, “Ok, 9pm, everyone in bed.” No. It’s more like a feeling.

    My kids do have a couple of chores, because I need their help. And when I did let them decide if they would ever help me, they would say they would, but then never follow through. Rather than get mad about it, I would do it, but then I thought, “This is uncool. I do a bunch of stuff for them, and I need them to do a little for me.” And it takes a lot of work to keep this household running smoothly. So, their help, even if coerced, is really helpful to everyone. I have one kid (15) take out the trash daily and then to the curb weekly, and the other (12) empties the dishwasher. Now do I make a big deal out of it everyday? No. And sometimes, when I have the time, I’ll do it myself. Our oldest (22) lives in our finished basement and we ask that he keeps it relatively clean. Now, he could balk and say “screw you” and go rent a place and keep it disgusting, but he hasn’t yet. I know of radical unschoolers who would give me a lot crap for imposing those few ‘chores’ mentioned above, which I think is so unnecessary. Because it is unSCHOOLING not unLIVING. I let my kids consider how/when/why they want to learn things and I support them in that. I don’t limit screens per se, except when I know it’s time for Ben’s brain to rest and reboot. Am I gonna let some radical unschooler tell me I am not an unschooler because I say “Bedtime, everybody!” yet my kids have no curriculum and we learn about things as we live our daily lives? No, But, to me, it’s sad that someone even would.

    Rachel

    Reply

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  19. Gail
    Mar 24, 2013 @ 22:42:05

    I have been homeschooling for almost 2 years and am currently evaluating how I want to move forward since I have had some time to learn more about my son. I am curious how unschooling fits into state laws. I am in a more flexible state-Texas- but they require a written curriculum, math, grammar, reading, and civics. I have looked at a lot of state because of anticipated moves, and they are pretty much like Texas or more regulated. I also did a self-evaluation that scored me highest as a having an unschooling philosophy (with unit study and Charlotte Mason coming in next), which has led me to read several articles about it the last couple of days. Also, what if your spouse is not on the same page with unschooling philosophies? Any feedback or experiences would be interesting to here and hopefully informative. I like the what this article says, I am just not sure I have the courage to completely trust it and feel I need to have some requirements as far as learning basic math, reading and being able to write.

    Reply

  20. Pam Sorooshian
    Mar 24, 2013 @ 22:50:00

    Hi Gail – you’re wrong about Texas homeschooling law. You can homeschool completely independently and do not need to turn anything in to anybody. I’m sending you a contact person – long-time unschooler in Texas – to give you all the info you need.

    If your spouse is not on the same page, take it slowly and keep talking and observing. Help your spouse understand that you’re not planning to leave the kids to learn all on their own, but to support their learning in more natural (and effective) ways. Help him see the natural learning.

    To become more courageous, read more and think more and observe your own kids when they are freely learning. You will be convinced when you are convinced! In other words, deepen your own understanding and your fears will evaporate.

    Try to make it to a conference. I’d suggest the HSC Conference in California in August as a place to learn about unschooling, meet lots of unschooled teens and young adults, but do so in an atmosphere that is accepting of a wide range of homeschooling methods.

    Reply

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  23. Landon
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 16:26:38

    Interesting to see what a wide range of ideas there are about what it means to unschool. We stopped using the term, for the most part, after witnessing some things coming from the radical end of the unschooling idea, that horrified us, that did amount to parents absolutely checking out, and leaving kids completely to themselves, to the point of a small child having meltdowns after living on ice pops all day, or young kids up all night while the parents were asleep, playing video games 12 hours at a stretch. I know there are parents that neglectful whose kids go to public school, so this isn’t about how homeschooling leaves kids open to being totally neglected and left feral. But it did make us extremely hesitant to apply the term unschoolers to ourselves anymore. Those were undoubtedly extremes, but it turned us off the term.

    Reply

  24. Carrie Pomeroy
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 16:22:12

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been feeling a nagging sense that I haven’t been as active in our unschooling as I should be, that I’ve backed off a little too much in terms of bringing the world to my kids, especially my son. I think part of it for me is that both my kids are very much homebodies, and my usual way of bringing the world to them when they were younger was to take them on cool outings and trips. Now, with them much more inclined to stay home and do many of the same things here at our house every day, we’ve gotten into a bit of a rut–reading the same kinds of books day after day, being on the computer playing Minecraft a lot, watching movies, and a fair amount of pretend/make-believe play for my daughter, and that’s about it. I’ve felt discouraged by how often my “Would you like to. . . ?” and “Would you be interested in. . .?” questions are met with a “no.” After a while, I think I’ve stopped asking because of the discouragement. Do any of you have any thoughts about mixing things up a little while respecting and appreciating my kids as they are? Thanks in advance!

    Reply

  25. Amanda
    Jun 27, 2013 @ 05:06:27

    That and if you take into account John Holt used unschooling and homeschooling interchangeably. http://www.unpluggedmom.com/featured/beyond-unschooling-the-holt-legacy-interview-with-pat-farenga/

    Reply

  26. The Art of Home Education
    Jun 27, 2013 @ 21:47:55

    Love this post. I linked it on my facebookpage.

    Reply

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  28. Sandra Dodd
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 20:59:14

    Yvonne Laborda has translated this into Spanish, on her blog here:

    http://welivelearning.blogspot.com.es/2012/11/unschooling-no-es-child-led-learning.html

    (Sorry if this note is a duplicate; remove it, Pam, if you want to.)

    Reply

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