Homeschooling…Unschooling…Pandemic Schooling. What’s The Difference?

When the whole world shut down last spring and every family with kids was forced to school at home, you may have been bombarded with the terms homeschooling, unschooling, and/or pandemic schooling and wondered, “Is there a difference?”. To many, these terms might have the same (or a similar) meaning and, to a certain degree, they are [kinda] similar. Although these terms seem similar, there are several differences in these methods of learning.

Of these three terms, the one with the most name recognition is probably ‘Homeschooling’. Whether you directly or indirectly know a homeschooling family or just know of the concept, most people have some knowledge of homeschooling. According to Merriam Webster, homeschooling is the act of teaching school subjects to one’s children at home. In other words, homeschooling families have made the decision to forego “traditional” school and educate their children at home. Families decide to homeschool for a myriad of reasons, including: escaping bad experiences with traditional school; to continue the homeschooling tradition in which they were raised; a lack of trust in the education system; because their child has an illness or is a professional athlete or actor; or for many other reasons. The overarching term, homeschooling, can include choosing one of the “popular” homeschool curriculums, utilizing a homeschool program that is offered as an alternative to your local “brick and mortar” public school system (e.g., Connections Academy), educating your child(ren) at home while using your own compilation of curriculums, or educating your child(ren) with no set curriculum (see unschooling below).

Unschooling, or self-directed education, involves teaching children based on their interests rather than using a set curriculum. Although this is the method of homeschooling that we utilize (and the method that most adults use when learning a new skill or hobby), we feel it is a lesser-known or appreciated method of educating children. Since unschooling can take many forms, it is challenging to give an exact definition or to describe exactly what unschooling looks like but we will share some messages from a few people who have been helpful in our journey:

  • According to Akilah Richards of Fare of the Free People, “…unschooling is a tool for decolonizing education and liberating ourselves from oppressive, exclusive systems.”
    • According to Pam Larrichia of Living Joyfully, ” With unschooling, learning is not focused on the skills as it is in school (learning to read, to write, to calculate, and to memorize) but on pursuing personal goals and interests and the needed information and skills are picked up along the way. Learning has real meaning and connection to their lives in that moment so it is understood in a way that a random piece of information presented by someone else is not. And because that learning is strongly connected to a real and immediate use for that information or skill, it’s much more likely to be remembered.”
    • “It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.”  ~ John Holt

If you are interested in examples of how we homeschool, please click here.

In stark contrast to homeschooling and unschooling, Pandemic Schooling is what all families, with children enrolled in private or public “traditional” schools, experienced this past spring. Although some schools and/or districts were better equipped to adjust to those abrupt changes, due to the pandemic, nobody was fully prepared for the immediate switch to 100% worldwide, virtual education. As challenging as this shift was for schools to coordinate, no group of people (my opinion) was more impacted than parents with children in school. As a homeschooling/unschooling family, we’ve (as a homeschooling community) had the time to plan how, what, and when we will teach our children and to coordinate our work and/or personal schedules (Disclaimer: this is not meant to imply that homeschooling families were not also impacted. We were and I fully acknowledge that). Non-homeschooling families, unfortunately, were immediately forced to educate their children at home, while also unexpectedly working from home, becoming unemployed, having their work-hours reduced (i.e., less pay), or being deemed an essential employee (and left scrambling to figure out alternatives for their children). This version of schooling at home is not homeschooling, it is pandemic schooling! Families are/were in crisis and scrambling to figure out what to do and how to do it. It is unfortunate that this was the first experience with “homeschooling” for many families but I assure you that homeschooling is so much better than this!! Now that we are quickly approaching a new school year, and many school districts are announcing a virtual start to the year, it is my hope that more families will do the research needed to be able to move from pandemic schooling to real homeschooling or unschooling.

Have more questions about this posts, other posts, or homeschooling in general? Feel free to leave a comment or reach out to us on Instagram or email (unschoolingindc@gmail.com).

What is Unschooling?

Do not train children in learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” -Plato

Self-directed education – or unschooling, as it’s commonly called – is a method of home education where children take control of their learning. Unschooling is not a specific curriculum; it is not highly-structured (i.e., stress-inducing); and it requires a large amount of trust in the fact that your child’s natural curiosity, along with some of your guidance, thought-provoking, and question-answering, will allow him to learn all of the subjects he’s “supposed to know” and so much more!

All I am saying can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” – John Holt

Have you ever forced your child to learn something (or to complete homework) that he did not seem to understand or in which he showed no interest? What was the outcome of that experience? My guess is that it may have included tears, frustration, aggravation, raised voices, and a lack of learning. After this terrible experience, your child probably developed long-lasting negative connotations towards that subject. What do you think happens when these same feelings, towards a subject, occur at [traditional] school? Same frustration…potential behavioral issues (as a means of avoidance or frustration)…classification as “behind grade level”…and probably the same negative connotations! Sound familiar?

Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” -John Holt

Children are not the only ones who can benefit from self-directed education. Have you ever had an interest in a specific topic or subject? Let’s use the topic of ‘learning to cook a spaghetti dinner’, as an example. In order to learn this lesson, would you prefer to (A) be forced to sit through several hours of class for 5 days per week where an instructor lectured on the history of noodle-making, forced you to memorize the 3,000+ species of tomatoes, assigned homework that included graphing a sample population’s preference for meatball versus meatless spaghetti, and then found a way to “Common Core” the whole lesson? Or, would you prefer to (B) stumble upon an interest in learning how to make this spaghetti dinner and then discover relevant cookbooks or online recipes, “pick the brain” of friends who have experience making and/or eating spaghetti, peruse the social media pages of popular food influencers, and try a few experiments in order to perfect the taste and/or appearance of your spaghetti? Which option sounds more exciting? My guess is option B (option A is representative of traditional school and some homeschools). Which option do you think your child would prefer?

Contrary to the beliefs of some naysayers, unschooling is not a “set it and forget it” method of learning. Although there is a high degree of flexibility and trust in your child, your involvement is also required. Below are some examples of how we unschool (there are an infinite number of ways):

Big Bruh (currently mid-elementary aged): We discovered that, not only is he a huge fan of playing Minecraft (his generation’s version of Oregon Trail, in my opinion), he enjoys teaching others how to play (i.e., socialization, public speaking, evolves into research about hunting & gathering). Since Minecraft is very popular, it has been easy to find books about Minecraft (i.e., incorporating reading, vocabulary, and reading comprehension lessons) and Minecraft math workbooks. We also found a Minecraft coding class (which he loved!), and, of course, there are the “extra-curriculars” such as: drawing Minecraft characters (i.e., art), learning how to safely use the internet, and so much more!

Little Bruh (currently preschool aged): LOVES cars. We fill his space with various size, color, and type of toy cars. We purchased (and borrowed from the library) books about cars, at various reading levels. We watch YouTube videos about cars. From just his interest in cars and some involvement from us, he can describe the similarities and differences between his cars; he is learning to read and practicing comprehension, utilizing books that he is interested in; we practice math skills by grouping cars (early multiplication) or adding/removing them; and the YouTube videos allow him to practice pencil-holding and learn how to draw cars or learn about the parts of a car.

Want more info on our unschooling journey? Follow our blog, follow us on Instagram, comment on this post, or send us an email (unschoolingindc@gmail.com).