Team ISTE
What unschooling can teach us about student-directed learning

Unschooling is unique approach to learning that’s challenging the way we think about education. And for many students, it’s the only way to learn.

Rather than a methodology by which certain children are “educated,” unschooling is a lifestyle that allows students to take complete control of their learning by encouraging them to pursue individual interests and curiosity. There is no set curriculum. Instead, students become self-directed learners.

The unschooling mantra is that time and open minds are ultimately the best teachers. Supporters say the approach is “natural” learning, which sounds good, but no matter the educational system, learners must actively absorb and interact with material to truly, deeply learn it. Unschooling works, subscribers say, because kids learn all sorts of facts, concepts and skills within a rich context that is driven by the student.

While certainly not for everyone, some aspects of unschooling can enrich the conventional classroom.

Trust and go with it

Human nature and a supportive environment launch learning well before the formal education process begins. Think back to all the things kids absorb in the early years before formal education begins.

Sure, unschooling makes some in the education establishment uneasy, but is it really that radical? Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and a leading expert in the field, doesn’t think so.

“Children are unschooled before school,” says Gray, who is also author of the book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. “Let them keep learning that way. Children don’t start learning when they go to school, they have already been doing it on their own terms. Let’s continue to let them take charge of their education.”

Unschoolers don’t take tests, yet they learn because humans were born natural learners. Traditional educators can aid “natural” learning by:

Offer choice. Work with students to develop a menu of projects, formats and pursuits that are customizable and interest-based. This allows students the freedom to do things rather than just read about them.

Foster independence. In traditional school, students are often dependent on others to tell them what to do and when. Instead, teachers can encourage children to explore, discover and develop their own passions and talents. Educators should trust students to learn independently because they are interested, not because they are directed to do something.

Unleash the power in the palm of their hand

Technology is foundational to unschooling. It’s often how students connect to the outside world, and it provides the tools students use to tap into instructional sites, do research and complete projects. 

In the traditional classroom, technology can be integrated more frequently to address the ISTE Standards and allow students to:  

Make meaningful connections. Help students create their own personal learning networks, giving them access to experts, authors and others who share their passions. Geography is no longer an obstacle. Instead, students learn with and from the great minds around the world. 

Think critically about their future. Enable students to share with an authentic audience, which just may lead to a new business or a social movement.The future of the job market is more entrepreneurial in nature. Students need to take charge of their education to take charge of their careers.

Create artifacts of learning. Unschoolers create learning portfolios based on their studies and then use these portfolios when applying to colleges or connecting with prospective employers. Traditional learners can be encouraged to do the same to demonstrate their learning and to help them identify passion projects that they can expand into project-based learning.

Learn more about implementing personalized learning in your classroom from Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology by Peggy Grant and Dale Basye.