Unschooling: Shifting from Force to Freedom in Education

How can we expect young people to grow up to be flourishing members of a free society if they spend so much of their childhood being educated by force? This is the central tension between the coercion that undergirds most American education and the values of liberty and responsibility from which freedom spreads. Much of this coercion originates from compulsory schooling statutes that were enacted beginning in the nineteenth century to mandate school attendance under a legal threat of force. A child is compelled to learn. But educational force is not only present in institutional schooling. Even many homeschooling parents who reject institutionalized education continue to replicate school at home, importing forced schooling’s authoritarian tactics and similarly dulling a child’s free will. As the author and former New York State Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto, once stated: “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”[1] One way to reconcile this tension between force and freedom in learning is to separate education from schooling, including school-at-home approaches, and grant children the opportunity of self-determination.

Children do not need to be forced to learn in order to become educated. In early childhood they have an intense, evolutionary drive to explore, discover, and synthesize their world. “This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6,” says Boston College psychology professor Dr. Peter Gray. “We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.” In Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), I explore the philosophy of unschooling, or self-directed education that occurs without coercion. At its core, unschooling is about disentangling education from schooling and shifting from force toward free will in learning. In this essay, I describe unschooling theory from its historical roots to its modern practices and suggest that the future of learning will look less like schooling and more like unschooling.

The Philosophical Roots of Unschooling

Gray, who writes the Foreword to Unschooled, traces the origins of self-directed education to our millennia spent as hunter-gatherers. He argues in his book Free to Learn that we humans are biologically designed to educate ourselves when in community with others. While our biological inclinations toward self-directed education may be long-established, non-coercion and self-determination as an educational philosophy can be traced to the Enlightenment Era and, particularly, to the writings of John Locke. In 1693, Locke published Some Thoughts Concerning Education in which he warned against compulsion. According to Locke: “For a child will learn three times as much when he is in tune, as he will with double the time and pains when he goes awkwardly or is dragg’d unwillingly to it.” Locke goes on to suggest that we shouldn’t be surprised when our coercive educational tactics lead a child to dislike or avoid learning. He writes: “And indeed it would be ridiculous, when compulsion and blows have rais’d an aversion in the child to his task, to expect he should freely of his own accord leave his play, and with pleasure court the occasions of learning.”[2]

The bold idea of preserving a child’s free will in learning gained traction in the early twentieth century when some educators created new, non-authoritarian learning models. In England in 1921, A.S. Neill founded Summerhill, a self-directed, non-coercive school in which classes were offered but attendance was optional; students had a central role in the school’s governance; and freedom was balanced by personal responsibility, or “freedom, not license,” as Neill termed it.[3] When Neill published his book Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood in 1960, reflecting on his nearly four decades of running the school, it sold two million copies in its first decade in print and influenced many authors and social critics during the 1960s and 1970s. One of those authors was John Holt, a teacher who wrote the bestselling books How Children Fail and How Children Learn in 1964 and 1967, respectively. At the time, Holt believed that conventional schooling could be reformed to be less coercive and more learner-driven. But after he met and corresponded with Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest and scholar who wrote Deschooling Society in 1970, Holt recognized that free will in education could only be retained outside of forced schooling. As Illich wrote: “School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.”[4]

Searching for alternatives to school, Holt discovered a small number of parents who were removing their children from school and homeschooling them, despite vague and often restrictive compulsory schooling laws that limited the practice. Inspired by this parental action toward educational freedom, Holt launched the first newsletter for homeschooling families, Growing Without Schooling, in 1977 and coined the term unschooling that same year to mean “taking children out of school.”[5] He was one of several pioneers who helped to usher in the modern homeschooling movement, connecting parents and providing support in court battles that ultimately led to homeschooling becoming legally recognized in all US states by the mid-1990s. Holt also encouraged parents to resist the urge to replicate school-at-home and to instead embrace non-coercive, self-directed education, or what we think of today as the more contemporary definition of unschooling.

Unschooling Today

Today, unschooling principles are applied in many ways by a diverse set of individuals and organizations. Some homeschooling families embrace the philosophy of unschooling in their homes by avoiding authoritarianism and strict adherence to an imposed curriculum and instead facilitating their child’s learning by connecting interests to available resources. This method seems to be gaining popularity among the nation’s nearly two million homeschoolers. According to federal data, the number of homeschooling parents who say they take an “informal approach” to homeschooling increased from 13 percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2016.[6] Similarly, many educational entrepreneurs are responding to growing interest in unschooling ideals and are launching self-directed learning centers and micro-schools that allow families who are registered as homeschoolers to attend part-time or full-time. These organizations help to make self-directed learning more accessible to more families and use homeschooling as the legal mechanism to shift education control away from the state and back to parents, with ultimate flexibility. Full-time unconventional schools, like the Sudbury model, are also expanding across the country, prioritizing non-coercion and free will. Preliminary research suggests that these unschoolers turn out fine, often leading fulfilling, entrepreneurial adult lives tied to interests that sprouted in their youth.

Despite their variety and difference, the common feature that unschooling families and organizations share is the fundamental belief that children should not be forced to learn. Autonomy and individuality are paramount. In these homes, centers, and self-directed schools, a young person’s distinct interests and talents are appreciated and supported, leading to authentic, enduring learning. There may be some curriculum or classes offered, but they are not mandated, and children always have the freedom to say no. As Neill wrote: “The function of the child is to live his own life—not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.”[7]

Still, there is a general understanding among most unschooling families and organizations that freedom must be balanced by personal responsibility. Freedom cannot turn into license, or permissiveness, where one person’s freedom negatively impacts the freedom of another. In most Sudbury schools, for example, the students are integral members of school governance with equal authority as the adults in setting, enforcing, and abiding by community rules. In many unschooling homes and learning centers, there are expectations around respectful behavior, cleaning up after oneself, service to others, and accountability to one’s family or learning community. Parents also have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that their children are highly literate and numerate. Freedom and responsibility may be interpreted and enacted differently depending on a family’s values or an organization’s vision, but both are crucial components of the unschooling framework.

So how does a child learn this way? It can be difficult for many of us to imagine how young people will become educated if not commanded to do so. After all, most of us went through forced schooling, and we may remember that we only read Shakespeare or learned algebra because it was required. We fail to recognize that our personal agency in learning was diminished through coercive schooling. We learned to be taught. Our curiosity and childhood drive for discovery were likely eroded, and many of us may have internalized a false belief that learning is drudgery. More troubling, our own self-worth might have been defined by how we performed at school. But schooling was the problem, not learning. If we retain, or rekindle, a learner’s free will, education becomes a joyful act of self-discovery.

My 12-year-old daughter, Molly, provides a case in point. Like my other children, she has never been schooled and learns by following her curiosities and exploring her interests, while being supported by the adults and resources of her broader community. A couple of years ago a new martial arts studio opened in our neighborhood. It had a film running in the window, showing various martial arts techniques. Molly was intrigued so she took a trial class and soon began training there three days a week. A year later, her expanding passion for martial arts led to an emerging interest in Korean language, history, and culture. She took some online Korean language courses. Her interest grew and she wanted something more rigorous, secure in her self-imposed goal to become fluent and travel to South Korea someday. I found a native Korean speaker as a tutor and Molly now takes language lessons with her at our local library several times a week. She follows a standard Korean language curriculum, and has formal homework assignments and assessments, but Molly is the one driving the process. I didn’t tell her to learn Korean or to study a foreign language. She chose to learn it, selected her teacher, and is pursuing a personal goal. She also knows she has the freedom to quit.

Unschooling and the Future of Learning

Humans are hard-wired to learn, and we are quite eager for it and good at it until we enter a coercive classroom where education and schooling become conflated. When the free will in learning disappears, education becomes a mechanical, often unpleasant process, and we become that “generation of robots” of which Neill warned. The concern is that now we live with a generation of actual robots. To distinguish ourselves from artificial intelligence we need an education model that preserves essential human characteristics like curiosity and ingenuity. The good news is that we don’t need to teach kids to be curious and creative. They already are. We simply need to stop destroying these qualities through coercive schooling practices.

The technology that gives us robots may also be what saves us from their full takeover. Never before has free will in education been supported as it is today with our vast technological platform and networked world. Access to information, skills, and mentors is now often literally at our fingertips, enabling each of us to ask questions, seek answers, spread ideas, and explore our enthusiasms in ways that were unimaginable only a couple of decades ago. The pursuit of knowledge has become decentralized and democratized. As we increasingly reconnect with our self-educative drives in adulthood, facilitated by technology and tied to our own interests, we may wonder why our children must continue to learn by force. When more of us realize that children don’t need to learn this way, that is when true educational change will occur. That is when freedom will triumph force in education.

Homeschooling and other alternatives to school provide an initial route from force to freedom in education, as more parents gravitate toward unschooling at home or take advantage of private unschooling centers and self-directed schools. Standardization and testing, curriculum constraints, and bureaucratic controls make self-directed education difficult to accomplish within the existing public schooling system. For instance, Meraki High School near Sacramento, California opened in the fall of 2017 under the name UnSchool San Juan, touting unschooling ideals. The school emphasizes passion-driven, project-based learning, but must adhere to state-mandated core competencies, testing, and graduation requirements that limit student autonomy. Similarly, Powderhouse Studios is a self-directed public high school near Boston, Massachusetts that has been in the planning stages for seven years and won a $10 million XQ Super School innovation grant, but in March the local school committee declined to approve its scheduled opening for this fall.

The reality is that the vast majority of American youth attend an assigned district school with little opportunity to opt out of coercive government schooling. Education choice mechanisms, particularly Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarship programs, can provide access to funds that expand unschooling options to more families and encourage education innovation. For example, New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship program is available to homeschoolers, including some who use that scholarship money to attend a self-directed learning center. While concerns about increased regulation associated with education choice programs are legitimate, particularly regarding homeschooling, more parents deserve more pathways out of forced schooling and, should they choose, into educational environments that prioritize freedom and self-direction. More parents should have the freedom to choose freedom for their kids. Minimizing regulation of education choice programs is an important step in ensuring that non-coercive learning models don’t ultimately emulate the forced schooling structures they are attempting to avoid.

Human curiosity and imagination will be increasingly essential as we move from the Industrial Age to the Innovation Era, not only to differentiate ourselves from robots but to create the inventions that improve our existence and help us tackle global challenges. Children are naturally curious and imaginative, and they can retain these qualities into adulthood if allowed to learn in freedom. Their education does not need to be forced; rather, it needs to be facilitated by adults who support their interests and talents, connect them to available resources and opportunities, model responsibility, and ensure their overall well-being. When granted this freedom, young people—like all of us—thrive. Their knowledge, creativity, and individuality deepen, and they internalize the ideals of liberty by learning freely, rather than by coercion. If, as Gatto suggests, removing free will from education is what turns it into schooling, then fostering free will in education is unschooling. Nurturing an unschooled but well-educated citizenry is the principal pathway toward a free and flourishing society.


[1] Roland Meighan and Clive Harber, A Sociology of Educating, 5th edition (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), 156.

[2] John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education 2nd ed, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1889), 53.

[3] A. S. Neill, Freedom—Not License! (New York: Hart Publishing Company, 1966), 7.

[4] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 1970), 47.

[5] John Holt, “Growing Without Schooling,” Issue 2, November 1977: https://www.johnholtgws.com/gws-volume-1

[6] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016,” Codebook, https://nces.ed.gov/nhes/data/2016/pfi/cbook_pfi_pu.pdf; U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2012,” Codebook, https://nces.ed.gov/nhes/pdf/userman/NHES_2012_pfi_codebook.pdf

[7] A. S. Neill, Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, Rev. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1992), 15.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kerry McDonald says that those who care about liberty should give unschooling a look. Structured education with a fixed curriculum and standardized testing is the product of a bureaucratized system. But children are spontaneous learners, says McDonald, and they do best when adults give opportunities and support rather than structure and evaluation.

Response Essays

  • Kevin Currie-Knight is a libertarian. He also likes unschooling. But, he says, it’s a mistake to conflate them; either view should stand or fall on its own—political liberty for adults might be the best choice, but this doesn’t imply that unstructured learning is best for children. And unstructured learning may be best for children without implying much of anything about the adult world of politics. While his personal answer to each of these is “yes,” the two are independent questions in his view.

  • Corey DeAngelis discusses the complicated relationship between unschooling and school choice. While he finds the evidence for school choice persuasive, and while he is also open to unschooling, he sets out several reasons why the two initiatives may not be wholly compatible. He recommends Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) as potentially flexible enough to offer meaningful help for unschoolers.

  • Michael Strong considers what society would look like if we schooled less and educated more. While he is supportive of unschooling in principle, not everything of that name is equal, and he cautions that we still have much to learn about learning itself. One thing that seems unlikely to work, though, is spending more and more money on traditional schooling.