The difference between unschooling and radical unschooling

Once you’ve entered the radical world of unschooling you realise that, even in this passionate movement of families raising their kids without school, rules or curriculum there is an even more extreme version of it! So let’s begin with the definition between unschooling and radical unschooling.

What unschooling means?

There are many definitions of unschooling. Pat Farenga is is an educator who has carried on John Holt’s  (Holt is often referred to as the founder of this modern wave of unschooling) legacy and his definition of unschooling is “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.”

I love this definition as it articulates the dance between freedom and boundaries. It makes it clear that unschooling is not just about education, but about all of life.

However, there *is* some argument whether John Holt would agree with this definition! About whether John Holt would agree that parental comfort should be allowed to set the parameters for the experience of the child.

Enter the term “radical unschooling.”

What is radical unschooling?

Radical unschoolers pride themselves on having *no* parent held limits.

It is a response to Farenga’s definition of “as much as a parent can bear” and saying the parent’s job is to open up, to bear it all.

In my experience, the distinction is unnecessary at best and unhelpful at worst because asking people to go beyond what they can bear is neither consensual or democratic and not a good example to our kids.

What is the difference between unschooling and radical unschooling?

However there often IS a tangible difference between the lives unschoolers live and the lives radical unschoolers live. Unschoolers are trying to “move in the direction of trust” whilst also balancing multiple needs of the family, neurodiversity, anxiety, different abilities, resources, even things like race and class. Radical unschoolers are, no matter what, already exisiting in full trust of their children.

So if you try and take a snapshot of radical unschooling vs unschooling on a huge unschooling topic such as screens it might look like this:
radical unschooling screen time = no limits, infinite screentime, no judgement, children might end up on their own schedule of gaming through the night, sleeping through the day, everyone okay with it all

unschooling screen time = moving towards fewer or no limits, family meetings about screen boundaries, very varied experiences and expressions of screentime enjoyment, but also the overriding principles of trust and respect at the very heart.

Here’s the thing – for many families radical unschooling works BRILLIANTLY! But for many families radical unschooling can lead to burn out. It is so important as an unschooling parent to know yourself and pay attention to the conditions that allow your family to thrive.

Does radical unschooling work for all unschoolers?

I talk more about radical unschooling and why it’s not for everyone here. It’s a gentle call for folks to be more open about the very many different experiences unschoolers are living with and to recognise that not everyone can be as radical as their hearts might desire.

The alternative to radical unschooling is “Family Wisdom” applying all the beautiful and radical principles of unschooling to the very unique ecology of your own family.

Frequently asked questions!

Are unschoolers successful?

There isn’t a huge amount of research out there about unschoolers but there is this wonderful study done on grown unschoolers and where they are now.

Question 7 of the survey read, “What, for you, were the main advantages of unschooling? Please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now, looking back at your experiences. In your view, how did unschooling help you in your transition toward adulthood?” 

Almost all of the respondents, in various ways, wrote about the freedom and independence that unschooling gave them and the time it gave them to discover and pursue their own interests.  Seventy percent of them also said, in one way or another, that the experience enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed individuals. Many also wrote about the learning opportunities that would not have been available if they had been in school, about their relatively seamless transition to adult life, and about how the healthier (age-mixed) social life they experienced out of school contrasted with what they would have experienced in school.

The great majority of respondents were gainfully employed at the time of the survey.  Exceptions were some of the full-time students and some mothers with young children. 

But it also begs the question – what do we mean when we say “successful” … if we want to raise kids who are fulfilled, unschooling seems like the way! If we want to raise kids willing to do whatever it takes to thrive under capitalism – unschooling might not be the one for you!


What famous people were unschooled?

If you watch that video above you’ll catch an awesome interview with Billie Eilish’s mama talking about unschooling Billie. But we also have Jaden Smith another super inspiring star who was unschooled. And if you are willing to consider people who didn’t finish school as unschoolers you can also add Charles Dickens to that list! Here’s a list of famous unschoolers. 

Can unschoolers go to college?

Amazingly – I refer you to the study above- unschoolers are statistically more likely than average to go on to college. 58% of one hundred percent unschooled adults have or are working on a degree, compared to 36% of the general population. Here’s an excerpt ““The participants reported remarkably little difficulty academically in college.  Students who had never previously been in a classroom or read a textbook found themselves getting straight A’s and earning honors, both in community college courses and in bachelor’s programs.  Apparently, the lack of an imposed curriculum had not deprived them of information or skills needed for college success.  Most perceived themselves to be at an academic advantage compared with their classmates because they were not burned out by previous schooling, had learned as unschoolers to be self-directed and self-responsible, perceived it as their own choice to go to college, and were intent on making the most of what the college had to offer.  A number of them reported disappointment with the college social scene.  They had gone to college hoping to be immersed in an intellectually stimulating environment and, instead, found their fellow students to be more interested in frat parties and drinking. “

Whilst some unschoolers decide to sit exams when they are 16, either through their local school or correspondence school, other unschoolers are able to get into college on the strength of their interview and portfolio of passions and projects. Others still wait until they are 21 where in some countries, such as UK and NZ, you are able to get a college degree whether or not you finishes school.

In this interview with grown unschoolers we talk about the different pathways they took to higher education.


Is unschooling good for ADHD?

I’d love to share a personal story about unschooling and adhd! Both my daughter and I are ADHD and when we got my daughter’s assessment I was talking with the Doctor who did it. He had learned all about the lives we live as unschoolers. I asked him, is there anything different I should be doing now I know she is ADHD? And he said “The life you’ve created for you daughter is ideal. If every ADHDer could access that kind of childhood they would go on to lead full and wonderful lives.” He identified that the autonomy and freedom, the ability to move and express and speak and stim whenever she needed was a perfect environment for her.

How is unschooling different from homeschooling?

Unschooling is very different from your average homeschooling. Unschooling is the belief that children are always learning, every minute of the day. That humans are a learning mammal and we are born learning. These beliefs mean we have no hierarchy in learning – we don’t judge activities as learning activities or not. We value all the things our kids enjoy. We don’t force activities on them. There is typically no curriculum, work books or classes unless the children want them. This sense of trust is at the heart of everything, not just learning, but every element of our life with kids!

Read more about the differences between unschooling and homeschooling here.

What is radical homeschooling?

Unschooling = Radical homeschooling! Unschooling is the pioneering edge of home education. But as you’ve seen in this post, there is even a radical version of unschooling.

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