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Unschooling: A Gentle Approach (Guest post by Carlo Ricci)

(Carlo Ricci is on the faculty of education’s Schulich’s School of Education at Nipissing University, in Ontario, Canada. He teaches in the graduate studies program. He is the founder and editor of the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning , and has an Unschooling YouTube channel. He has taught from kindergarten, to high school English to graduate school, and some things in-between.)

I have 2 children born in 2003 and 2005. We are unschoolers. What this means for us is that our girls are treated so that their voices matter. They have a substantive say in how they live their lives, just as, I believe, any person should.

I primarily see myself as a child advocate and I believe that young people are the last acceptably oppressed group in the world in which we live. Unfortunately, we can treat young people in ways that we would never dream of treating older people.

In short, unschooling is a learner-centered approach. Learner centered approaches to learning are based on the assumption that the learner him or herself gets to decide what, when, where, and how they want to learn, as well as deciding when they want to opt in and when they want to opt out.

While this may sound like an extraordinary amount of freedom in a typical American or Canadian context, in practice learner-centered democratic education means that children are deeply engaged in what they learn, self-motivated beyond what we typically see in most students, and able to sort through learning problems because they have a great deal of confidence in themselves as learners.

Unschooling sees the world as the school and life as the curriculum. Nothing is ruled out and nothing is imposed. The learner decides what they need. It could be a workbook, a formal school, or a skate park. The democratic part is that they have a substantive say in running the places and spaces that they inhabit as learners.

Learner-centered democratic schooling as a pedagogical approach arises out of some of the radical school movements of the 1960s and 70s, and now is a fully flowered “movement” with many types of schools, practioners, and “graduates.”

Unschooling is

  • Love, compassion, respect, and trust.
  • Allowing young people to unfold in ways that are driven by their soul, their spirit, and their internal motivation.
  • Allowing young people, and all people, to learn in the world, to use whatever resources, methods, and tools the learner chooses.

Unschoolers understand that schooling and education are not the same thing, and that in many cases a better education can be had outside of mainstream schooling.

I, like other unschoolers, have found that children who are reared with this worldview and philosophy thrive and their minds, bodies, and, spirits soar.

I see unschooling more as a philosophy of life with the children being empowered to make substantive choices over their lives and to live in democratic spaces and places where they have a substantive say over the running of these spaces and places.

Consistent with this, one of my daughters has decided to go to school and the other has decided to learn outside of mainstream schooling. They are both thriving socially, academically, and spiritually. They are both happy with their decisions.

As a loving father, there is nothing more I would want for my children. I am glad that I am able to trust my children and allow them the freedom to develop responsibly and to allow them to unfold in ways that they choose, rather than externally impose on them a rigid path that repels them at their very core.

For more information about Unschooling  please check out some of the link here.

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13 thoughts on “Unschooling: A Gentle Approach (Guest post by Carlo Ricci)

  1. thank you Carlo…

    i love this:
    I primarily see myself as a child advocate and I believe that young people are the last acceptably oppressed group in the world in which we live. Unfortunately, we can treat young people in ways that we would never dream of treating older people.

    i feel like i wrote that as well.

    we get the honor of James Bach face to face in a month. two full days… talking to and empowering the kids in the lab.

    it’s natural.. we need to get back to that.
    a group of my students figuring it out:

    and that’s it… that’s the personalization the web is now allowing more freely in public school.

    Posted by monika hardy | October 9, 2010, 6:21 am
  2. You have my attention. I have a hard time talking to most eductors or parents about how much choice kids really should be provided. I find it odd that most parents will admit that some choice is ok but kids can’t be given blank cheques. While I agree with the sentiment of this comment, I find it laughable that anyone would think that today’s norm includes too much freedom for children. While there are horror stories perpetuated by the media, for the most part too much, top-down, overbearing control for children in the default not the exception.


    Posted by Joe bower | October 9, 2010, 6:39 pm
  3. Carlo,
    Thank you so much for posting here. Yours is an interesting addition to our collective voice. As I was reading your post I caught myself thinking about the role of a parent as it relates to a child who is a . . . forgive my terminology. . . an unschooler / freeschooler? Could you talk a little about the responsibility you must feel as a parent within this philosophical approach toward education? As I imagine myself inside your philosophy, and I sense a great deal of responsibility to know myself and my motivations. I think about the offers and invitations I would make to my children as a progressive/constructivist educator who tends toward democratic classrooms. As you trust children to decide what they will learn, how they will learn it and when they will learn . . . what perspective do you take on your own gathered wisdom and life experience. In what ways do you offer that to your children?

    Again, thank you for adding your voice here,

    Posted by jsteele1979 | October 9, 2010, 11:09 pm
  4. Thanks for your interest and comments. My responsibility as a parent is the same as my responsibility as a being on this earth to everyone and everything. My guide is love, compassion, respect, and trust. My goal is to make a soulful connection—to connect my soul with that of another being or thing. I do not want to measure or control, but to just BE with them. If we want people to live life as adults democratically or responsibly, we need to allow them to embody what this means. Hope this helps.

    Posted by Carlo Ricci | October 10, 2010, 9:58 am
  5. Carlo, I was charmed and engrossed by this post.

    On a practical note, what happens when your daughter who chose school disagrees with what she’s been asked to do, or with how she’s been asked to do something, at school? Does her commitment carry her through the assignment, or does she use the unschooling background she has to negotiate choices in her school experience, as well?

    Thank you so much for your post!

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 10, 2010, 7:27 pm
    • Difficult to generalize, since everything is so context specific and I would not want to/cannot speak for her, but I would support/advocate for her with whatever she decides

      Posted by Carlo Ricci | October 10, 2010, 8:39 pm
  6. Carlo,

    An excellent reminder of something that keeps “lingering” but which really never takes hold. I guess the road is long and we just have to keep pecking away. I’ve long been a student of many of those (Illych, Postman, Weingarten, Gatto) calling for change years ago and find it so strange that their message is still as relevant (or more so) than today.

    I think you are bang on when you label yourself and focus as “child advocacy”. I really believe that children and school should be optional. Children also should be rewarding for going to school. It has to become something they “want”. Have you visited or looked into the Sudbury school model? I just find it really depressing, how school has become too much a warehouse of youth, with learning and personal growth and contribution to society, getting only lip service.

    Here’s a nice link to Illych’s Deschooling – I think the large question regarding change is still the same as the one he posed – how to effect political change? Otherwise the system persists anon….

    thanks for keeping the issue in the fore

    David Deubelbeiss

    Posted by David | November 5, 2010, 9:29 am
    • yes, i have heard of the sudbury model; in fact, i am an educational consultant for a group that is planning the opening of a sudbury school in the toronto area: The Reach Sudbury School of Toronto.

      Posted by Carlo Ricci | November 5, 2010, 10:46 am
  7. Thought everyone might be interested in this radio program about unschooling….

    From Oregon Public Broadcast Radio show Think out Loud

    David Loitz

    Posted by dloitz | March 10, 2011, 1:15 am
  8. I am writing a paper about unschooling. It’s definitely not for everybody, but neither is traditional schooling.

    Posted by Scott K | November 29, 2011, 3:18 pm


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