What’s the Difference Between Unschooling and Radical Unschooling?

There are some major differences between unschooling and radical unschooling.

In case you haven’t noticed, our experience with unschooling has had quite an impact on our homeschooling philosophy. This homeschooling method often gets a bad rap because of so many negative associations surrounding it, so I thought I’d clear up a few things.

The term “unschooling” was coined by the late John Holt, former teacher and education reformer, to simply mean “not school.” After his experience teaching in both private and public school settings, he began to firmly believe that the educational system as we know it was doing everything wrong. After years of touting education reform and seeing no concrete changes, he finally started encouraging people to keep their kids home and “unschool” them. (At the time, homeschooling was not well-known.) 

Lately the term has begun to take on an entirely new meaning, which I’ll get into shortly. However, according to John Holt GWS, this is the best definition of unschooling as Holt intended it:

“… the term ‘unschooling’ has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum. When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.”



On that note, here is a quick (Okay, let’s be honest. Am I ever quick??) guide to the difference between unschooling and radical unschooling.


When applied most closely to its original definition, unschooling is simply a homeschooling method which, in most cases, does not look like school at all. Children are given the freedom to pursue their own interests while the parents support those interests in any way they can. If you think of what a typical weekend looks like in your home, you’ve got a good idea of what unschooling is. It’s just natural learning.

Instead of breaking up a day into “school” and “not school,” learning is seen as completely cohesive with life, so life continues as if school didn’t exist at all. The day may be spent baking, painting, reading, running errands, watching TV, and, yes, even possibly doing some “school work” if a child requests it.

Many unschoolers do use a math curriculum to alleviate any fears they may have in that area (why is it always math??), and while some unschoolers claim that disqualifies them from being real unschoolers, as you can see from the definition above…

“…as their parents can comfortably bear.”

…using a math curriculum certainly falls within the guidelines if the parents feel it is best for the child.

I often call this type of unschooling “educational unschooling” because that is the main purpose for it. Educational unschoolers will more than likely have chores, bedtimes, and other rules their parents expect them to follow. While the children take the lead in their education, their parents are still very much in charge.


Radical Unschooling

Radical unschoolers, or whole life unschoolers, have taken the idea of autonomous learning and applied it to every area of a child’s life. Radical unschoolers do not follow what they call “arbitrary rules” such as bedtimes and chores. These children simply go to bed when they are tired, only clean if they choose to, eat whatever and wherever they want, and spend their time doing absolutely whatever they desire. Even rules concerning hygiene are often considered no-no’s.

One thing commonly heard from radical unschoolers is,

“Think about what you say to your child. Don’t tell them what to do. If you wouldn’t say it to your husband, don’t say it to your child.”

In a radical unschooling family, a child has as much say as a parent. I’ve even seen anecdotes of unschooling parents who have missed family events such as weddings simply because their child didn’t want to go, and they couldn’t find a babysitter. Rather than make their child go anyway, they view their child’s autonomy as vitally important- too important to make them do anything they don’t want to do.

It is this type of homeschooling that people often think of when hearing the term, but in all honesty, this form of unschooling has deviated a bit from the original intentions of a term that once simply meant “not school.”



I don’t ever, ever , ever want to discourage anyone from trying this wonderfully natural approach to homeschooling. The benefits of this learning method are certainly worth looking into, as long as you can look beyond the stereotypes. Our time spent immersed in this lifestyle truly opened our eyes to how easily a full life can provide an excellent education.

I will never regret a moment we spent doing it.










Author: Shelly Sangrey

I'm Shelly, a Christ-following, homeschooling Mom of eleven children ( okay, not ALL children. My oldest is 23.) I met my husband right after graduation, and we've been together ever since. Though my life can be hectic at times... okay, ALL the time, I wouldn't change it for anything.

31 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Unschooling and Radical Unschooling?”

  1. Woo-hoo! I am literally doing a happy dance over here! LOVED that you included that Holt quote, because I seem to NEVER see that point being made by others! And my husband and I get so annoyed at those in the radical cult (yes, I really did just say that) because – hello – it’s all fine and good to help foster autonomy in our children when we can, but WE’RE STILL THE PARENTS and equally important to the family, so how does letting the child dictate everything affect OUR desires?? It’s fine to even embrace radical unschooling ideas to keep in the back of our minds and consider (like if my daughter is wanting to choose her own outfit to wear and it’s not what I would choose, is this a time to follow the child and let her feel empowered?), as long as we don’t throw our common sense out the window at the same time! Loved this post and will be totally looking for it to pop up on Friday! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, of course we should give our kids choices whenever possible, but there are definitely some choices that are just too important to leave to kids who don’t understand the repercussions. I think all parents need to remember that kids are kids- not miniature adults! I’ll be at #FridayFrivolity. 🙂


  2. This is so interesting, I didn’t know there were so many different recognised methods of homeschooling. I like to think I’ll be willing to give my daughter a lot of autonomy with her learning, but I don’t know how I’ll actually be when she starts getting older and more willful! 🙂 #FridayFrivolity

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so grateful for the time we spent unschooling. Although we’ve moved away from it, I’ve learned so many great things about how kids learn and what constitutes learning. It’s really changed my outlook.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s unfortunate that radical unschooling has the word ‘unschooling’ in it, as they are such different beasts. Having been a homeschooler/unschooler for a very long time, I’ve seen it all. Nothing wrong with unschooling and that’s my personal preferred style but just about all the unschoolers I have ever known hate that ‘radical unschooling’ is called that because, frankly, some of the worst behaved children and parents in my long experience are radical unschoolers where there is absolutely zero responsible parenting. Way too many of these kids with zero boundaries or rules– from as young as preschoolers to older teens– have no respect for others, with the bonus of having parents who are either oblivious to obnoxious, aggressive behavior or simply do nothing apart from respond that the child has the right to express themselves. I’m talking about damage of public property on outings, violence towards other kids, violence towards parents and siblings, screaming and hitting their mother (yes even older kids) who sit there and take it from their sons because hey, male violence against women is respecting the child’s autonomy and the rest of us including those with daughters are expected to sit there and accept these boys beating their mothers. All because they are under the impression their child will somehow magically, without any guidance or boundaries, evolve in to decent adults who can self regulate and respect the autonomy of others and not be at all self centered. I’ve seen kids including my own be punched by violent kids with moms who sat there and did absolutely nothing then they get all irate when you tell them to deal with their kids.

    The most obnoxious and/or precious parents and kids I’ve known in my 15 years of homeschooling are always radical unschoolers. Of course, they think they are wonderful parents with wonderful ‘warrior!’ kids. Many with filthy kids who stink from being unwashed, lice, have bad teeth or are plain bullies or display behaviors where mommy and daddy think their child is never at fault. Seen all that.

    Radical unschooling is about parenting not education/schooling, and shouldn’t be lumped in to the homeschooling/unschooling cateory at all. Kids need boundaries explained to them in a manner which help support them (especially if they have special needs where extra help is needed) and to function as decent adults one day. But they get all decision making deferred to them, the parents ask the kids to make decisions on what a parent should do, i.e. dictating the parent’s life however they also seem to think the rest of their homeschool groups and the rest of society should defer to their little darlings calling the shots.

    I’ve had radical unschooler friends who are at heart lovely kind people. But completely precious about their kids, they don’t see their child’s awful behavior for what it is and do nothing but enable things like anxiety (instead of helping the child with coping strategies) or behavioral challenges. If I meet someone who says they’re a radical homeschooler, I immediately keep my distance. Not one has turned out to have a child who is respectful towards others and is either a very unpleasant kid to be around, or the parent is just so precious about them that inappropriate behavior is overlooked. The parents are also the types to cause trouble and refuse to follow rules and guidelines they may have agreed to, in order to attend social and educational activities. Like letting kids mess around during a safety demonstration, climb trees in a no-climbing park (because of damage to trees), or jumping on and off tables in a science lab. Seen all that and without fail, it’s always the radical unschoolers with obnoxious parents who sit there not intervening.

    As an autistic parent, with an autistic family also dealing with anxiety, radical unschooling (combined with over the top over-protectiveness) as I’ve seen it is one of the worst, most neglectful things you can do with kids who have special needs and mental health conditions. Again, seen it all and the little kids who had all these challenges (such as behavioural and extreme anxiety) eventually become older teens with the same challenges and completely unable to function in a way that promotes a contented, healthier life. Because the parents never modeled or helped put things in place including boundaries or a little ‘tough love’ when it was needed, even if that tough love is pointing out how their behavior is inappropriate and negatively impacting on others. And the way they deal with anxiety in kids is simply to let the child call the shots on every single thing. This doesn’t help the child, it enables behavior that is going to mess them up for life.


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