Homeschooling vs unschooling – the real difference

YouTube is what my son does when his fingers hurt too much to do the last hour of practice. Today we watched Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk

My kids discovered TED Talks by way of  Onion parodies of TedTalks, which, like Sky Maul and Young Frankenstein, are probably better than the real thing.

Zander plays Chopin and makes it so you can’t help but understand the piece, and love it, by the end of 19 minutes. He also shows, in the first five minutes, what the point of the first five years of music lessons is, and I wish someone had told me that fifteen years ago. But the end of the video is what made me want to tell you about it. The end is where he says that if you play Chopin and people really understand it, their eyes light up.

I thought: my goal as a parent is to make my kids’ eyes light up. Wait. No. My goal is to show them how to find that for themselves.

People tell me self-directed learning doesn’t prepare kids for the reality of the world because in the real world everything is not a choice and everything is not about them. But actually, as a career coach I can tell you that’s not true.

My job as a carer coach is to help people who have the very human expectation to learn something new each day. Here are things I hear all the time:

I want a career that’s engaging.

I want to do what I’m passionate about.

I need something on the side because kids are not intellectually stimulating.

I want a promotion. I can do my job in my sleep.

All these are different versions of: “I want to learn something interesting each day.” We all want that as adults.

But most people don’t get paid to learn interesting things every day. We get paid to do what we know how to do. And we don’t get paid to do things that are inherently pleasurable like read anything we want, write anything we want, sing anything we want, talk to whoever we want. We get paid to do what people don’t want to do, (like sing terrible songs, talk to terrible people, etc.) Which means most people have to create a life outside of work that excites them.

When we choose a career we are not choosing a way for someone to make us excited about life. We are choosing a way to support ourselves so we can find what excites us about life. When we choose the right career it’s something we are good at that other people value. But we still have to find a way to that excitement.

This is another conversation I have a lot:

“How does your son learn math?”

“He doesn’t. We unschool. He only studies what he wants.”

“How will he get a job?”

It always goes like that. It might not be exact, but it always gets to a version of “How does this prepare him for adult life?”

But everyone wants the same thing in adult life: to have moments when our eyes light up.

To me the difference between homeschooling and unschooling is that unschooling teaches kids to seek out those moments and homeschooling teaches kids to wait for them.

7 replies
  1. Erin
    Erin says:

    I love this post. It’s so simple, but so clear… and it rings true for me.

    I would also like to add that unschooling fortifies a kid with confidence & with intensified training in the things they love & this strengthening makes them stronger emotionally to deal with things that other people don’t want to. If a kid has a full emotional bank, and they are required to do something taxing, they are more capable to handle it than, say, a kid who doesn’t have as many “eyes light up” moments.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    School is a strange way to learn once you realize learning is a life-long endeavor. Do you stop learning once you graduate from school? Hardly. The fact is nobody graduates from learning once they have completed their schooling. So how do people learn without school or utilizing schooling techniques? I mean when you are trying to learn something new, do you obtain a textbook, attend lectures, do homework, and take tests? I don’t think so. So how does that routine prepare anybody to take charge of their learning as an adult and chart a course that works best for them?
    “People tell me self-directed learning doesn’t prepare kids for the reality of the world …” – The fact is school doesn’t prepare kids for the reality of the world. New jobs and skills that we can’t envision will need to be learned by today’s kids after they have completed their schooling. Those kids who are able to self-direct their own learning will do well in their career.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      “I mean when you are trying to learn something new, do you obtain a textbook, attend lectures, do homework, and take tests? I don’t think so.”

      It depends what you’re trying to learn, Mark. I can give you a couple of examples to the contrary:

      1. Even after I had finished my official schooling, I continued to take extension classes because I enjoyed them. I studied a new foreign language for two years with the help of a textbook, lectures, homework, and tests. No, Rosetta Stone wouldn’t have done the trick just as well.

      2. At one point in my career it became advantageous for me to gain a specific certification. This certification required a very long and difficult test. I studied for it with the help of textbooks, lectures, and homework. I did well enough that my employer asked me to set up a program of textbooks, lectures, and homework so that other colleagues could replicate my success.

      I think we are too hasty to assume these methods are useless in adult life. They haven’t been for me.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        I have also taken classes after graduating from college. I would never call them useless in adult life. My point is there are more effective and better ways to learn.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like to think this error redeems itself with a charming sense of irony. Thank you for letting me. I fixed it. I hope you guys enjoy the video as much as I did.


  3. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Based on your own results, not understanding math, finance and so has rather disastrous results. Better to learn something as a kid than have that lack of knowledge make your eyes fill with tears as an adult.

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