Friday, January 7, 2011

20 Characteristics I’ve Discovered about Unschoolers and Why Innovative Educators Should Care

Some innovative educators are perplexed as to why someone like me who has a career vested in the educational system is interested in sharing the idea of unschooling. I’m interested because the ruse is up. Many students who are in and graduated/dropped out of school realize that what they learned didn’t prepare them for life and sucked the passion and love of learning right out of them.

While I had been vaguely familiar with the concept of homeschooling, it wasn’t until Kate Fridkis began contributing here at The Innovative Educator that I’ve learned more about both homeschooling and unschooling. Before that my perception was that homeschooling was for kids who either had stay at home moms or dads who wanted to devote their lives to giving their children individualized learning or that this happened in remote communities where getting to school was difficult, or this was for students with special needs. While those are certainly reasons for homeschooling, the reality was I hadn’t given homeschooling much thought, and I’d never heard of unschooling. While I’m certainly no expert [yet :-) I hope to keep learning] In my short time exploring this model of learning, I’ve discovered that grown unschoolers posses many of the following characteristics.

20 Characteristics Common Among Unschoolers
  1. They are driven by passion.
  2. They have a love of learning.
  3. They want you to know that school isn’t the best place to learn lessons on socialization.
  4. They are happy.
  5. They have interesting careers that they enjoy.
  6. They are artistic in some way.
  7. They they are creative.
  8. They have a concern for the environment.
  9. They consider learning in the world far more authentic and valuable then learning in the school world.
  10. Those who are blogging and sharing their stories publicly are predominately white. At least all the ones I’ve read about. Looking to be proven wrong here.*
    Update: This refers to the blogs and stories I had discovered as of the writing of this original post. Since then I've collected several other online spaces in my post A More Diverse Sampling of Unschoolers where unschoolers from a variety of diverse ethnic backgrounds are sharing and connecting. I'm still searching for more links to grown unschoolers blogs and stories to share from all backgrounds so if you have any you'd like to share I invite you to share them in the comments.
  11. They deeply consider whether college is the right choice for them rather than it being a given.
  12. They have no problem getting in to college and many do so before they are 18.
  13. They appreciate some aspects of formalized schooling in college if they’ve decided to attend.
  14. They advocate for themselves and their right to a meaningful curriculum in college.
  15. They don’t believe that they are an exception because they are especially self motivated, driven, or smart, though they like to be called that. Rather unschooling has empowered them to be this way.
  16. They shrug off the criticism that they won’t be able to function in the real world. Unlike functioning in the school world, learning in the real world prepares you for the real world.
  17. They don’t expect learning to come just from a parent, adult, authority or teacher. They know how to independently tap into many resources for learning and discovery. Adults are just one resource.
    --This nugget from
    a respected voice on the topic of unschooling, Sandra Dodd:
    Learning only happens inside the learner.
    I think your statement would be true if you said "They don't expect instruction..." or "They don't expect information..." But learning doesn't come from anyone outside the learner.
  18. They are often defending the fact that they were unschooled, but know that if you knew what it was really like you might be jealous.
  19. They are adventurous. For some that means local adventures, and others world adventures.
  20. They are grateful that they were unschooled for the most part.
So, there’s a quick recap of what I’ve learned from reading a couple dozen blogs (which you can visit here) and profiles of unschoolers. They don’t all have all these qualities, but most have many of them. A similar list of students from compulsory schools would look very different and might be a fun follow up post. So, unschoolers, if you’re reading this, how’d I do?


*As noted in this post, this is based on my initial investigation of the blogs found here and stories found here. I am hopeful that a more diverse sampling can be found and encourage readers to share your findings in the comments for inclusion in a future post.


  1. Great except number 10:

    Aside from families I can think of off the top of my head of various races, who might or might not be considered unschoolers, depending on your definition, a quick Google brought up a lot of hits. Here are two resources for African-American unschoolers:

  2. But I want to repeat: great, and from older unschoolers I know, true! Thank you. You might consider putting #4 in the #1 spot...I think a lot of us do.

  3. @nancy oarneire graham, thanks for the resources of non-white unschoolers. Just after writing this, I saw a CNN piece about black homeschoolers, unschoolers at I thought about if I should leave number 10 in. It really happened to be what I came across in my initial exploration. Ultimately I left it in so I'd get other suggestions and insight.

    As to the order of #4 and #1...they're not chronological right now, but wouldn't that be an interesting request to make of various students, schooled, unschooled, homeschooled...

  4. I'm going to ask my children how they would order the list, I'd love to hear what various people would say.

  5. @nancy oarneire graham, that sounds great. Please share their responses here as well as if there's anything I'm missing and/or does not apply to them.

  6. Agreed, the rouse is up. On so many levels. What particularly bothers me, and I struggle with it as a college facilitator, is the debt burden and con job that financial aid brings to the subject. It starts at birth when parents save for college. Thinking the smart ones are the ones NOT going into debt (into college), are innovative, entrepreneurial, creative. I mean, I can get a car loan for 2.5% but my daughters students loans are 9%. Who are we subsidizing here? I see the slow dawn of realization of former students on Facebook about the scope of their debt--exceeding rent and food monthly. Anna Kamanetz really struck a nerve
    With OER the only thing missing to learn is access to the internet and knowledge of search. I am seeing that 'education' is the industrialized con job--but 'learning' is what its all about, not being 'educated, ie., dumbed down. The developing world is catching on to this through the monumental and disruptive influences of ICT4D I am looking to the lessons we learned outsourcing the best and the brightest and bringing it back home to give our kids a fighting chance. Lao Tsu had it right; "the way that can be named is not the way" Thanks Lisa for keeping the innovation (read disruption)--coming! I look forward to learning more about the unschooled. If any of your readers are applying ICT4D to their pedagogy I'd love to hear about it.

  7. @Jan Herder, hear! hear! all on point and I look forward to exploring your links. I have another post brewing in my mind about the ridiculous and unnecessary cost of a college education. I think people can demonstrate deep mastery and could be granted certificates / degrees in areas of interest with out college. I have a list of many, many, prominent successful people who realized this and succeeded without college. My favorite being the founder of Facebook, but there's also Dell, Disney, Shawn Fanning (Napster), Gates, David Geffen, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Lindberg, George Orwell, Shakespeare, and on and on and on.

  8. This is awesome, Lisa, and I'm so flattered to be a part of it! Thanks for being so consistently open-minded and brave.

  9. You might find the blog of Clark Aldrich, author of the book "Unschooling Rules", of interest if you don't know about it already:

  10. Nancy beat me to it with both her comments. IMO all pedagogy is Schwartze Padagogik. We are happy unschoolers.

  11. sometimes these unschoolers are so street smart and after they go through the educational cycle the hard and long way, they become very resilient. Unlike those students who has gone through "factory of education", they lack the street-smart attitude and resilience that really is critical for success in adult world.

  12. Splendid! I find myself using this variation of your first sentence all the time: "Some innovative educators are perplexed as to why someone like me who has a career vested in the educational system has two unschoolers at home."

    Thank you for such a great list and an open mind. Great points in the comments too. I especially agree with Nancy's suggestion about the order. And to further dispute #10, my family personally knows several latino and mixed-race unschoolers. Alas, I have no links to provide as evidence. That said, I think it would be safe to say that the unschooling population is not diverse in the same proportions as the U.S. population.

    Also, thanks to Kate and the gang for sharing their experience. Their writing really helps with the infrequent doubts that we have as parents of unschoolers. Another unschooler-now-adult is Astra Taylor, who speaks eloquently about her experience:

    A note about famous dropouts: I have mixed feelings about using some of the names you give as examples because they did get into elite colleges. I prefer examples like Ansel Adams (great Wikipedia entry), Doris Lessing, and Richard Branson who struggled with school (not just college) and/or did without it, but are/were obviously smart and went on to do great things.

  13. @robertogreco, thank you for commenting. If you do find profiles of non-white unschoolers, I'd love to add them as they have voices I want included.

    Regarding the dropouts, maybe all are not the best examples. That wasn't the main point of this post, but certainly worthy of its own dedicated attention. I agree high school drop out Ansel Adams is a good addition to the list. There are so many. I'll try again here with more details.

    -Abraham Lincoln, Finished barely a year of formal schooling. He self-taught himself trigonometry (for his work as a surveyor) and read Blackstone on his own to become a lawyer.
    -William Shakespeare, Only a few years of formal schooling.
    -Daniel Boone, Home schooled.
    -Jane Austen, Attended school until the age of 11.
    -Daniel Boone, explorer, frontier leader. Home schooled.
    -Ray Bradbury, Says, “I never went to college. I went to the library.”
    -Walt Disney, Dropped out of high school at the age of 16.
    -George Washington Ended his education after a few years of elementary school.
    -Florence Nightingale, No formal education.
    -Martin Van Buren, Little formal education. Began studying law at the age of 14 while apprenticing at a law firm.
    -Mark Twain Never went to school beyond the fifth grade.

    While Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Shawn Fanning, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college, I guess I lump them in because I find it interesting that these mega financial successes did as Gates noted, “Realized the error of my ways and decided I could make do with a high school diploma.”

    My guess is they could have made due with even less.

  14. Ya know, the whole "unschoolers are white" thing is just so racist. When ya see racist stuff, don't pass it on. If you found a soiled kleenex on the ground, ya wouldn't pass it on to someone who needed to wipe their nose. Take more responsibility in the future. Racism is something we all need to stop.

  15. @Bridget's Fire, please note, that what I said was that in searching for profiles of unschooled students, those I found were white. The stories of non-white students are missing from the conversation. Acknowledging that and asking to be proven wrong, do not make me racist. Either there is something to the idea that this is not common among other races, or it is not something other races chose to share publicly, or there are profiles that exist that need to be included in the conversation that I'm unaware of, or something else.

    You suggest, that when one sees racist stuff they shouldn't pass it on. Are you suggesting when a race of people seems absent we should ignore that instead of acknowledging the fact, inquiring about it, asking those who care to share what they know?

    I do not chose to ignore. I chose to understand why I can't find their voices and if they are there, then I encourage you to share those profiles so I can share these stories too.

  16. You've put together a great list. Although I wasn't an unschooler, my 4 kids were homeschooled or unschooled (depending on the individual). I, on the other hand, didn't become a self-directed learner unti I graduated from public school. If I weren't so excited for them, I would almost envy the head start they've gotten.

    I knew going into it that there would be many benefits. There have been far more than I anticipated.

    As a mom who works full-time, I've had the privilege of working alongside other homeschoolers/unschoolers. Something I see consistently among this group is extraordinary emotional intelligence. I am so impressed by this, I will be writing about it soon at

  17. Perhaps you will find this helpful:

    The Uzoma Black Unschoolers Association is a not for profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the unschooling movement within the black and minority community. We believe that a society can only experience true freedom when its children are loved and respected as free people and when its families are honored and empowered as centers of learning and growth. It is our mission to help children and families learn about and share in this journey of becoming free.

  18. The Innovative Educator : "please note, that what I said was that in searching for profiles of unschooled students, those I found were white"

    Isn't that limiting the scope of unschoolers to blogger unshoolers? How about a simple Google search? "Black + Unschoolers" =

    (shoddy research does not a point make ;-)

  19. "African American Unschooling":

    "Unschooling around the world":

    "African American Unschoolers on RUN":

    "Indian Unschoolers":

    That took me all of two minutes.

  20. @Dawn, thank you for your insights. I look forward to reading the post on your blog.

    @Anonymous, thank you for sharing this site. I recently discovered it as well and loved the stories of the speakers/presenters. I look forward to sharing this in a follow up post.

  21. @Anonymous, my point is not that there were not non-white unschoolers. Quite the contrary. I spent time collecting blogs and profiles of unschoolers to share here on my blog to show readers what unschoolers who've shared grow up to be.

    I thought it would be helpful to collect blogs and profiles of those who were unschooled. As I did it seemed they had many characteristics in common. As I shared I am new to learning about this method and interested in learning more. I was surprised that those profiles that I found consisted of mostly white unschoolers. I have welcomed readers to shed some light on this. I am hopeful this can be done in a respectful manner of mutual learning as I did not want to ignore the fact that these voices were missing and look forward to doing my best to ensure all voices are represented.

  22. " I was surprised that those profiles that I found consisted of mostly white unschoolers"

    Why? What is the level of diversity in other alternative educational practices? That is a valid question.

  23. @Anonymous, I understand that googling unschooling and different backgrounds is a quick process. However, what I did was search for the blogs of unschoolers and stories of grown unschoolers online. I was surprised in the lack of diversity and believe it is something worth noting. Thanks to the insights of others as we work to gain learn and grow together, I am building a collection of more diverse voices which I am looking forward to sharing.

  24. @Anonymous, agree. It would be worthwhile to explore the diversity in other alternative educational practices.

  25. @Bob Collier, I don't know how I missed your comment, but I did. I didn't know of that blog and I LOVE it. Thank you for sharing.

  26. -=-They don’t expect learning to come just from a parent, adult, authority or teacher. They know how to independently tap into many resources for learning and discovery. Adults are just one resource.-=-

    Learning only happens inside the learner.

    I think your statement would be true if you said "They don't expect instruction..." or "They don't expect information..." But learning doesn't come from anyone outside the learner.

  27. @Sandra Dodd, thanks for stopping by. How exciting! Your distinction makes sense. This thinking is a whole paradigm shift and really requires a new language. You can see I still have a pretty strong schooling accent. I had faith that those who know this world would jump in and set me straight :-)

  28. 'Adults are just one resource' reminded me of a comment my daughter made to a teacher at college where she was attending a course whilst she was home educated. He apologised to her for making a mistake that she had picked up and she said that it was fine, a teacher was just one resource and she always evaluated her resources before using them!


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