Ask the Expert: What is ‘Unschooling’ and What’s so Great About it?

New book, Unschoolers, creates a fictional but true-to-life depiction of multiple unschooling families.Have you ever wondered what “unschooling” is really like? In their new book, Unschoolers, authors Milva McDonald and Sophia Sayigh create a fictional but true-to-life depiction of multiple homeschooling and unschooling families.

Unschoolers meanders through the stories of several different homeschooling families — from those who are merely curious about homeschooling, to those who are free-spirited unschoolers. Several chapters are presented in unique ways, including a letter to a friend, a child’s journal entry, and an issue from a magazine created and curated by unschoolers.

Related: No Lesson Plan, No Homework: Why I “Unschool” My Kids

If you’re not familiar with unschooling, it’s a term coined by author, educator, and youth rights activist John Holt. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that has become more popular in the past decade or so, as social media has enhanced awareness of this alternative homeschooling option. Unschooling has gone so far as to become a total lifestyle philosophy, encouraging parents to promote autonomy in their children, and allowing children to be the directors of their own lives.

I had the privilege of learning more about the authors and their book Unschooling, what unschooling means to them, and how this book came about.

Q1: Tell us a little about yourselves:

“I’m Milva McDonald, I live in Massachusetts, and I’m the mother of four children ages 18-32. My first two kids were homeschooled/unschooled most of the way through; my second two kids all the way through elementary and high school.” -Milva

“My name is Sophia Sayigh. I am a retired librarian, and the mother of two adult children. I live outside of Boston. As a young mother I was a lay breastfeeding counselor. When I started homeschooling in the mid-nineties, I volunteered to be the treasurer for my local homeschooling support group, and organized countless events and get-togethers over the years. In 1999 I coordinated a multi-day unschooling conference for Growing Without Schooling.

In 2003 I co-founded a statewide non-profit, Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, Inc. I also have an interest in family death care and natural burial and currently volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts. I am an avid reader, am kind of obsessed with my dog, have fun trying new recipes, enjoy long walks, love run-on jokes and getting into passionate discussions on a wide variety of topics with friends and family.” -Sophia

Q2: When, why, and how did you become interested in homeschooling — specifically unschooling? 

“When my 32-year-old was in kindergarten, I decided to explore options because I wasn’t happy with her school situation. She was doing just fine–in fact, she was one of the teacher’s pets, but I didn’t like the fact that there were teacher’s pets. As I looked around at all these wonderful, bright five-year-olds, it seemed to me that they were already being tracked. It didn’t matter that my daughter was winding up at the top.

I didn’t want her to internalize the message that she was better than the other kids just because she happened to be good at fine motor skills, pre-reading skills, and most of all, following directions. At the time, a good friend of mine was homeschooling. The idea sounded a little nuts to me, but since I was researching options, I asked my friend for information. One of the things she gave me was an essay by John Taylor Gatto called The Crisis of Compulsory Schooling.

It was my one and only conversion experience. After reading it, I knew I didn’t want to send my kids to school. When we started homeschooling, I tried to be structured and do school at home but moved away from that approach pretty quickly. Reading books by John Holt and hanging out with unschoolers in the community helped me loosen up and realize that was the path I wanted to take.” -Milva

“I became interested in unschooling when I read Teach Your Own by John Holt when my son (now almost 28) was 2. We were in the throes of deciding what to do about preschool  and I chanced upon the book at the library. I had heard of homeschooling, but I had the same stereotyped ideas about it that persist in the world to this day — i.e. kids sitting around the kitchen table being taught by their mom.

Being curious, I borrowed the book. I can still remember the experience of reading it. Holt describes how children actively explore the world and their desire to “fit in, take part, and do right.” I was witnessing that with my toddler, but even beyond that, Holt described what my experience as a child had been at school. I was a “good” student who got A’s but didn’t retain the information. I could do a math problem by the rote method I was taught, but didn’t get the why behind it.

My main memory of school is of trying to blend in and not be noticed. What Holt wrote rang true to me on many levels, and really resonated. Before I even finished the book, my husband and I decided we would homeschool our son.” -Sophia

Q3: What exactly is unschooling? How does it differ from homeschooling?

“Unschooling is under the umbrella of homeschooling. I use both words to describe what we did in our family. Unschoolers don’t impose a curriculum on their kids. Rather, the kids get to pursue their own interests. When my kids were little, they spent most of their time playing. Ultimately, though, I don’t like to apply rigid definitions. When John Holt coined the term unschooling, he just meant not sending your kids to school.” -Milva

“Technically, John Holt coined the term “unschool” to mean “not school.” For me, it means having your kids out of school, prioritizing free time, family time, and play time. Allowing children to unfold at their own developmental pace, and allowing them to explore interests as they arise, as deeply or broadly as they please. As a parent, my job wasn’t to teach so much as to facilitate, help them find opportunities, resources, etc.

Unschooling is trusting that children are active learners who want to find their place in the world. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling, but when people use the word “homeschooling” a lot of times they mean a parent-directed approach to deciding what is to be learned and how it is to be learned. In my experience many times when people decide to homeschool, they start out at this end of the spectrum, but over time, as they witness their children explore and interact with the world, their trust grows, and they end up giving their children more autonomy.” -Sophia

Related: Important Lessons I Learned From Homeschooling My Kids

Q4: Tell us a little about your children:

“My 32-year-old daughter Justine is a Positive Behavior Support Coordinator who spends her days working with developmentally disabled adults. She’s also a singer/songwriter and teaches music to local kids a couple times a week, and she’s an avid runner.

My 29-year-old son Eric is a folk musician specializing in Celtic music, and a coffee connoisseur. 20-year-old Claire is a sophomore in college–she’s majoring in psychology and she’s a jazz vocalist currently studying abroad at the Amsterdam Conservatory. 18-year-old Abby will go to college in the fall to major in theater. Her obsession is Shakespeare and she’s been running her own theater company for the last five years.” -Milva

“I have two kids, Fred is almost 28, and Nadia is almost 25. Neither of them went to school until they attended college at the age of 18. Fred is a professional musician and sound engineer, and worked in that field for several years after graduating. Over the last couple years he applied himself to learn coding and web development, and now works as a software engineer.

He still plays music in his free time, and is guitarist in a band, El Mar. He has a killer wit and reads a ton. Nadia is an RN and works in a hospital on a med/surg floor. In her free time she has her finger in many pies, and she is kind of like an encyclopedia when it comes to topics that are of interest to her. Nadia is also one of the most people-y people persons you will ever meet. Both Fred and Nadia are kind of obsessed with their dogs.” -Sophia

Q5: Can anyone unschool?

“Sure, if they want to.” -Milva

“I think anyone can unschool. It’s quite natural, although you may need to unlearn what you learned at school about children and how learning happens. It can feel scary because our culture tells us that children can’t be trusted, and that they have to be made to learn, and so on. But if you can shake that off, and observe and learn from your children, you will benefit as well. Learning isn’t confined to school, or to school-aged people. We are all lifelong learners.

If you don’t send your kids to school, they never get the message that they need to be taught, or that they aren’t good at something because their test score wasn’t as good as the next kid’s, or even that subjects are divided up in an arbitrary way. Math, and art, and literature, and history, and science – you name it — are all part of everyday life, woven into each other. It’s just the way the world really is.” -Sophia

Q6: What inspired you to write this book?

“Homeschooling has changed so much since Sophia and I met more than 20 years ago in our local support group. We wanted to write a book that reflected our experience of homeschooling, and when we talked over ideas, it seemed like fiction would be a good vehicle. Also, homeschoolers and unschoolers are woefully underrepresented in books, and when they are portrayed they’re often extreme or stereotypical. My hope is that anyone, not just homeschoolers, can relate to the characters in the book.” -Milva

“Part of what inspired me to write Unschoolers is that so little exists in fiction of the life our family lived as homeschoolers/unschoolers. Almost always, if homeschooling or unschooling is featured in a book, the plot resolves with the kid going to school – thank goodness they got out of that whacky homeschooling scenario! Or if an author needs an “odd” kid – shortcut! — make them a homeschooler.

I wanted to show that homeschoolers and unschoolers are like other people. They just don’t go to school. Also, as someone who counsels a lot of people considering homeschooling, I know people often want to know what’s a “typical day”? I thought showing a variety of families would be a way to get a taste of that, and using fictional story to do it seems a non-threatening way to offer a gentle peek, and maybe stir up some questions starting from a different place than the assumption that homeschoolers are all trapped around the kitchen table all day.” -Sophia

Unschoolers is a lively, spirited novel, filled with authentic characters whose lives depict the natural flow of unschooling. Dynamic examples of child-led learning are littered throughout the book, as characters of all ages pursue their interests, and realistic parents try to balance everyday life with facilitating a passion for education in their children.

This book is a must-read for anyone who has questions about what unschooling really looks like, how unschoolers learn, and what happens when kids are trusted to pursue their own interests and become excellent at them.

One thought on “Ask the Expert: What is ‘Unschooling’ and What’s so Great About it?”

  1. As a member of AHEM and veteran homeschooling mom, I always appreciate quality interviews and articles on unschooling. I am in the middle of reading this wonderful book.

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