Unschooling is the open source way

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Unschooling is the open source way


The words unschooling and open source often make people take a step back. But if there is any mode of learning that fully embraces the philosophy of the open source way, it is unschooling. Some even use the phrase open source learning to describe unschooling. Both unschooling and open source are revolutionary concepts based on freedom of choice. They encourage us to rethink and reassess what, when, where, how, and why we learn.

Unschooling is an approach to education that follows a child’s innate curiosity and desire to learn. It is not based on the direction of a teacher or a set curriculum. It is self-directed learning.
Unschoolers take a hands-on, community-based, real-world approach to education--everything and everywhere is a learning possibility. Unschoolers may use an open source textbook like those found at CK-12 Flexbooks, take classes online through a program like Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning, or continue on to in-person coursework at a local college.

Unschooling lets the child decide what, when, where, how, and why they should learn. It treats education in a holistic manner where knowledge is naturally interconnected, not compartmentalized into subjects or separate classes. Parents of unschoolers recognize that learning is not always sequential or linear. This means that unschoolers may learn algebra from watching educational videos from Khan Academy at an earlier age than in a traditional school. They might learn multiplication before mastering subtraction. They could create their own interactive story, game, animation, or simulation with Scratch, a MIT programming language, or create their own 3D learning cube or collection of video, audio, images, or text using Museum Box.

Unschoolers are creating their own digital content, sharing it, and, in essence, taking an active part in the open source movement. They are creating communities based on sharing and providing resources open to everyone. It’s a way to learn at little to no cost. Parents and children are blogging or creating their own websites, and can join online or offline groups that share news, activities, and information. They’re organizing field trips, community gatherings, apprenticeships, internships, and even science or math projects. Critics of unschooling claim that children do not get the resources they need to build a knowledge-base or that unschoolers lack the social interaction they need to deal with the world at-large. These arguments fall flat with the increasingly global digital world, the amount of networking, and the open source resources being freely created and made widely available and accessible.

Unschooling is gaining momentum, attention, and acceptance in the United States. It is uncertain how many of the nation’s children are unschooled because they statistically fall under the category of homeschooling. The U.S. estimated that 1.5 million students were homeschooled–that’s 2.9% (of all students in the U.S.) for 2007[1]. This figure has increased 36% since the last study in 2003[1]. Each state has its own laws concerning homeschooling or unschooling and local school districts may set their own policies on home education. As a result, it is difficult to get a true sense of how many unschoolers exist. Some believe the unschool population represents 10% or more of homeschoolers. Local, state, and regional unschool networks abound in the United States. There are unschoolers from all population groups, walks of life, belief systems, and educational levels: African American, Chinese, Hispanic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, special needs, gifted or accelerated learners, or from rich or poor families. Single parents and stay-at-home fathers unschool, as well as parents who work part-time or full-time.

As with the open source movement, unschooling is not exclusive to the United States and is becoming a global phenomenon. Unschoolers can be found in India, Israel, Canada, parts of Europe, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Malaysia. In fact Sugata Mitra has shown that children from the slums in New Delhi, with little to no education or knowledge of English, can teach themselves and each other if they are motivated by curiosity and interest.

Yet, in many countries, unschooling or homeschooling is illegal or there are stiff restrictions. Some German or Swedish parents have faced imprisonment, heavy fines, loss of child custody, or forced asylum for homeschooling. As a result, homeschooling has become a global human rights issue as countries continue to ban it or impose sanctions on it.

It will be interesting to watch how the unschooling movement and open source unfold. Unschooling and open source challenge our definitions of resourcefulness, self-education, self-direction, and self-motivation. It goes against the concept of keeping knowledge in the hands of the few and the powerful. Seeing children bubble with a love of learning is infectious, but seeing them burst with open source is bliss--and hope for the future.


Source: [1] Statistics about Non-Public Education in the United States, US Department of Education Office of Non-Public Education (ONPE)

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Carolyn Fox is an educator, librarian, historian, and an un/homeschooling mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her UK husband and son.


There really is not a line where homeschooling ends and unschooling begins. Most families are blending the approaches in whatever way works best for their children. We took a more traditional approach with the 3Rs, but we left the kids mostly on their own as teens to unschool themselves in the subjects they were passionate about.

It worked for us.

I think that there is the idea in Germany and Sweden that home schoolers are getting a sub par education and may be heavily indoctrinated in a scientifically inaccurate world view(Young Earth Creationism).

I think there needs to be a solution and maybe it is a transparent way of showing people the kid's progress. By openly showing what they are learning they can show to the world their progress and prevent future legislation and be an example to factor into future policy debates and legislation in Sweden and Germany.

A history of homeschooling in Germany revels that it was Adolph Hitler who outlawed it in 1938. And not because they were getting a sub-par education, but that they were not getting a "government" education. See http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/3016

I think it is very important to note that the concepts behind unschooling do not take root with homeschooling. Maria Montesouri and John Dewey laid lynchpinning groundwork at the turn of the century for this approach that still heavily influences today's public sectors of education. Ivan Illich, a contemporary of John Holt, the philosopher credited with coining the term and applying it within the homeschooling sector, broadened the concept to encompass a society.

Open Source is not really a new concept. It is a very bold approach to the ownership and responsibility that is attached to knowledge in a digital age. Thanks for pointing out the part that unschooling is destined to play in this.

We need Unschooling and we need it now. This would enhance education on all levels. It would level the field of learning. Many countries outside the United States have already taken to Open Source, Open schooling, and yet the United States continues to drag it's butt and lag behind in education. In a sense our leadership, our leaders have little clue as to how important open source is to bring back the education of our young students. The United States is 47th in world wide education. This is insulting to our children.

Well, you're absolutely right Dudley. I've got a son in kindergarten and that's why I started to write articles for open source on education. I hear your frustrations and share them with you.

Countries around the globe are embracing open source, even some of the poorest and least networked, yet the US seems slow to jump on the bandwagon. I've heard Turkey is making big strides in terms of open source and providing wifi to those in school. In India, they've been trying out the Aakash, the world's cheapest android tablet. I've got a livebinder that has a sampling of global open source projects/movements (others too, under Wivenhoe) (http://www.livebinders.com/play/play_or_edit?id=311370)

Dear Carolyn,

In your article you mention that unschooling can be found or is accepted in some parts of Europe - could you give examples (except the UK)?

Thanks a lot in advance

Unschooling is accepted in some parts of Europe, such as UK, Ireland, France, and Austria. It is not accepted in Germany or Sweden however.

From Sandra Dodd, unschooling around the world (though she doesn't include groups in Switzerland, for instance):

From Euronews (Mar 2012) including video:

A 2012 study/survey on the benefits of unschooling, which included families from Europe:

Pat Farenga addresses some of the legal/restrictive problems facing homeschoolers/unschoolers in Sweden (and Germany) on his blog:

Here's an example of a radical unschooling network in France:

Here's a video on unschooling in Austria:

HSLDA keeps tabs on homeschoolers (which often includes unschoolers) in the US and abroad; they assisted a German family who was trying to homeschool. Here's a link on France: http://www.hslda.org/hs/international/France/default.asp

Wikipedia has a link on the status of homeschooling internationally (which often includes unschoolers):

BIG THANKS, Carolyn! This is very helpful.


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