'Unschooling': What the research says

For most children, learning and school are indistinguishable. After all, school is where teachers work, and it is teachers who help them learn.

However, to other children, the word ‘school’ is defined by wherever they happen to be at the time – whether that is at home, the beach or in a park. To these children, learning is not directed by teachers, but by themselves.

This is called ‘unschooling’, a term coined by US teacher, John Holt. Unschooling is defined by Holt as “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear”.

The key difference between unschooling and homeschooling is how each approaches learning. In a homeschooling environment, parents act like teachers in the classroom, whereas unschooling operates with the faith that children are naturally curious and will follow their interests in their own way.

So how do ‘unschooled’ students fare academically compared to their peers who attend mainstream schools?

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) education lecturer, Rebecca English, told ABC News that there is little data available in Australia on unschooling, but a 2014 parliamentary inquiry that found home-schooled students out-performed mainstream school students across literacy and numeracy in all year levels.

“It's about exposing their children to as many opportunities as they can, and letting them decide how they can approach their learning,” Dr English said.

And for home-schooled students who had returned to mainstream school, their performance in literacy and numeracy testing was still higher than mainstream-schooled students.

Dr English also referred to the Sudbury Valley democratic schools in the USA, which were free schools where students were left to decide what to do with their time and direct their own learning.

“These students generally attended a college of their choice because they were able to demonstrate they could learn,” she said.

Dr Helen Lees, senior lecturer in education studies at Newman University in Birmingham, UK, told The Guardian that some parents will resent state involvement in their child’s education, but said there is a need to modify the inspection regime to the benefit of children and parents.

“We need to understand whether parents are engaging their children in a suitable and efficient way,” Dr Lees said.

“It has to be non-intrusive and inoffensive, but it is not unreasonable to ask carers to explain what they’re doing and why.”