Unschooling: An Alternative Way Of Educating Your Child

. November 12, 2020.
Molly Bonds exploring
Molly Bonds and her two boys exploring the outdoors out west. Image courtesy of Molly Bonds

Beyond public, private, and home, the Unschooling movement takes a completely child-centered approach

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the landscape of education by challenging our basic beliefs about what it means to educate a child. According to the National Center Education Statistics roughly 50.7 million students attend public school, 5.7 million attend private school, and 1.69 million are homeschooled in the United States. 

How do we best educate our children? It’s a question that continues to challenge us, especially during a year that muddies the waters with face-to-face, remote, and hybrid learning. Advocates of a decades-old movement called Unschooling propose an alternative model that is gaining momentum in 2020. 

The Origin of Unschooling

In 1977, John Holt coined the term Unschooling. Simply put, it means child-led learning. In its purest form, there is no set curriculum. The child is the teacher and leads through an inquiry of passions at the moment. Holt was a classroom teacher who became disheartened by the traditional education system and began writing books on the topic and founded the magazine Growing Without Schooling

Inspired by Holt’s efforts, Jerry Mintz founded the global Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) in 1989. Mintz’s educational journey began as a child when his grandfather asked him what he wanted to learn. This encouraged Mintz to explore his own passions and eventually led him to Goddard College in Vermont, a progressive college where he had the freedom to create his own major.  

“I hold the belief that children are natural learners,” explains Mintz. “Unschooling is for people who also believe that children are natural learners, something backed by brain research.”

Unschooling at Clonlara

Pat Montgomery is a proponent of this philosophy as well. She is the founder of Clonlara, a pioneer school based in Ann Arbor that provides support for Unschooling. Born into a Catholic family in a Borough in Pittsburgh, Montgomery became a nun and was assigned to teach in parochial schools for eight years. She later left the convent and began teaching in public schools. She felt dissatisfied with both institutions. This dissatisfaction led her to the book Summerhill by A.S. Neill about a radical boarding school in England which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021. This book changed her educational philosophy and became the inspiration for Clonlara which she would later found in 1967, named in honor of her father’s village in Ireland. 

Before founding the school, Montgomery married and moved to Ann Arbor where she had her first child. She distinctly remembers bouncing five-month-old Chandra on her legs and thinking, “In five years, you’ll go to school. I can’t do that to you!” From that moment on, Montgomery set out to find an alternative educational path for her daughter and when she didn’t find one that resonated with her, she decided to forge her own with her father’s blessing and life-savings of $4400. 

What does the structure of Unschooling look like is a question Montgomery is often asked. “The question is not whether or not there is structure. The question is who is doing the structuring. There’s no preconceived notion when you wake up. Whatever the day brings, it brings. You allow it to unfold and when you do, it’s magnificent.”

When asked about a curriculum, Montgomery states it simply: “The child is the curriculum.”

Montgomery has since retired. Her daughter, the original student, is now the executive director of Clonlara.

A Local Mom’s Story of Unschooling

Local mom, Molly Bonds, began “unschooling” her two elementary-age boys years ago, though she prefers not to call it that. “Unschooling feels like a battle term, and I’m not one to ruffle feathers,” she shares. “I’m simply educating my children in an organic way.”

Prior to becoming a professional photographer, Bonds was an elementary teacher for ten years. “I know I wasn’t the best teacher for all of those children. A lot of the issues I had were behavior- based, and it’s because they weren’t getting enough attention at school or at home.” 

Bonds goes on to explain, “Everyone is flawed. Systems are flawed. But I’d rather throw the dice on my own flaws and learn from them rather than rely on an institution’s.”

Bonds and her family spend much of their time outside learning. In fact, Bonds is the Branch Ambassador of Hike It Baby in Metro Detroit. For the past six years, it’s been a way for her and her children to make healthy friendships.

While educating her children at home, Bonds is still working as a photographer. Her husband and parents are an integral part of her children’s education as well. “My kids don’t get 24/7 education. They get what I can give and that’s enough. At the end of the day, I believe parents are their child’s best teacher.”

How Unschooling Creates Passionate Adults

A concern of some parents is that Unschooling will lessen their child’s chances of getting into college. “This is completely wrong,” shares Mintz. “Colleges love homeschool backgrounds. These are students who haven’t lost their interest in learning. In fact, many colleges don’t care if you have a diploma. They want a portfolio.” 

Cindy Fadel is a Michigan mom who found an invaluable mentor in Pat Montgomery. She’ll never forget this advice when asked how she could best teach her son: “Leave him alone.”

Fadel realized the wisdom of this advice as she recalled a moment when she was trying to teach her son how to learn to read. She was using a curriculum she had purchased, and he was very resistant. On a particularly trying day, she found him in their barn reading to one of their horses. He was seven at the time. At that moment, she realized she was his biggest barrier to his learning.  

Her son is now 28 and working as a phlebotomist. He has a degree from Michigan State University, is a certified EMT, and recently became a firefighter. He also serves on the National Board of Ski Patrol. His next goal is to get paramedic training and provide medical services on emergency helicopters. In short, he continues to live through the lens of his passions. 

Finding Unschooling Resources

While Unschooling embodies the philosophy led by the child, this does not mean learning happens inside a bubble. Many families need resources and a community to reach out to for support and ideas. The AERO website offers a helpful starting point. They list schools and organizations world-wide who offer a learner-centered approach to education. 

Clonlara School is among those listed on the AERO website. It is a K–12 private school with a campus in Ann Arbor, offering homeschool and distance learning options for students globally.

Families can choose from their campus, off-campus, and online programs. They currently have openings for families who are looking to make a mid-year change.

The MiCoOp, a network of school districts that are early adopters of student-centered learning, has proven to be another helpful resource for families seeking a nontraditional education for their children.

The concept of Unschooling is “not for the meek” as Montgomery shares, “But it honors the inquisitive nature of all children.”

As we ponder what is best for our children in this unprecedented year, Mintz puts it simply: “The educational revolution has begun.”