Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn
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Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn

Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn

“…people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools.

“It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”

– Carol Black

The more I watch my children learn, the more I understand how very true the above quote is. We have all of this information about what children need to learn, when they need to learn it, and how they need to learn it, but what relevance does that have to a child free from the institution of schooling that this research was based on? Extremely little, I’d say.

When you unschool you get lots of well meaning questions about how you will make sure your kids learn, how you know what they are ‘supposed’ to be learning, and how you will make sure they are keeping up with their peers. None of this concerns me as I have seen how children naturally learn. Most people have never seen this and they truly believe that school=learning. So I think we need to talk about it! The learning of a child left to discover the world in their own time is very very different to a child at school.

Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn

At school, children learn are taught information in a step by step pattern, a little of each subject each day, gradually increasing in difficulty, whether they are currently interested or not. I am yet to see that happen with any of my children, and talking to other unschoolers it seems I’m not alone. Our children learn very differently. An interest sparks and all of a sudden they are very busy and full of ideas. They ask many questions and spend hours, days, weeks, or even months learning about a topic. They plan, write down ideas, draw, paint, read, etc all about their interest. You see it come out in their imaginary play and they often like to tell everyone about it. You see big leaps in development all of a sudden when before they may have not been interested for months. They ask big questions that you think are beyond their understanding at that point but they surprise you and you realise that there is more than one way to approach things and we don’t need to overly simplify things. And then eventually they have satisfied their curiosity and it stops, until next time. I often find the same interests come back over and over again with times in between where it seemed like they did nothing on it at all. And yet interestingly when they start again they are ahead of where they were before, seemingly learning and consolidating all that information in the space between ideas. It’s inspiring to watch.

Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn

“Children do much of their learning in great bursts of passion and enthusiasm. They rarely learn on the slow, steady schedules that schools make for them. They are more likely to be insatiably curious for a while about some particular interest, and to read, write, talk and ask questions about it for hours a day and for days on end. Then suddenly they may drop that interest and turn to something completely different, or even for a while seem to have no interests at all. This usually means that for the time being they have all the information on that subject that they can digest, and need to explore the world in a different way, or perhaps simply get a firmer grip on what they already know.”

-John Holt

It is the same for any subject. Yes even reading, writing, and maths. At times it feels like my children spend all of their days writing. Writing lists, letters, plans, etc. Asking me countless questions about how things are spelled. And then it can be a month without writing a thing! To a schooled mind this might be worrying. Don’t children need to consistently practice something in order to improve? Won’t they forget if there’s too much of a break between study? There’s always articles about ‘summer learning loss’ and how schooled children lose knowledge over school holidays. But it seems to me this is just the consequence of schooling and children being made to learn in unnatural ways. If children are learning what is meaningful to them, when they are actually interested, then they are much more likely to remember what they have learned. Especially as they understand how it is actually relevant to their lives. On the other hand if you’re coerced into memorizing things every day that are of little importance to you then it’s unlikely you’re going to remember without regular practice.

Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn

Learning is not linear. Unfortunately though, it is made to be that way for most kids. When I see the way my kids learn, the excitement in their eyes, the passion, and the sense of achievement, I am grateful they are allowed this freedom. This is something I never want to take from them. Yes, we know a lot about how children learn in schools. But that tells us nothing about what true meaningful self-directed learning looks like. We know a lot about how children perform for adults when instructed, but we’re not confident in the power of children to educate themselves because they are rarely given this right. For our children’s benefit I think we need to get more familiar with what natural learning looks like.

I wonder what the consequences are of routinely ignoring the powerful way children learn and replacing it with a step-by-step, one size fits all, adult imposed ‘education’? I do not care to find out. It seems to me we are doing children a great disservice. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to work with children and let them learn how their brains are wired to learn, instead of fighting against them and potentially damaging their innate desire to learn and their contagious passion? I think so.

Learning Is Not Linear: How Unschooled Children Learn


February 1, 2016 at 3:43 am

I love reading about how unschooled children learn. There’s very little data on that, so it’s interesting to read your experiences with your kids (and those of some other unschooling parents I follow).

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I teach college English myself, and I always try to give them as much freedom as possible within the confines of a school-setting :). Anyway, as my profession might suggest, I’m not wholly against school, but I do see some major problems with it. I love pretty much everything about unschooling; it’s a philosophy that makes sense to me.

I have been thinking about one big skill, though, that I feel would be difficult to gain while unschooling: critical thinking. Of course, when kids are as young as yours, that’s really not an issue. They should just play and do their own thing. Even once they get older, I agree that they should STILL be able to do their own thing. However, as they get closer to “voting age” I think it’s of crucial importance for people to be able to read and think critically. I, myself, have benefited a lot from teachers and professors who asked very difficult questions and assigned even more difficult readings. It pushed me to think beyond surface ideas and helped me to understand things about our society better (poverty, race relations, those types of things). Class discussions, too, have been very helpful, because classmates would sometimes offer perspectives I had never considered.
All of this helped me to become less ignorant, more informed, and also more empathetic.

I’m not saying that unschoolers are not critical thinkers (and I definitely know that they’re empathetic ;)). But I AM wondering how to get to that next “level” of thinking without someone who asks the kinds of questions you may not have thought of on your own.

Whew, long comment. Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

    February 1, 2016 at 10:12 am

    We often play the “what was your favorite____?” game. Be it a movie, trip, party, etc. it opens the floor for discussion and different points of view. I also employ the “on the other hand….some people feel”..tactic. Or I may present two opposing views and ask for an opinion.

    Helen Krummenacker
    February 1, 2016 at 9:34 pm

    Actually, I think children learn critical thinking much better from conversing with informed adults than they do in a school setting. There’s always expectations behind “critical thinking” assignments in schools that often don’t allow students to really think deeply and explore fully.
    I learned logic from games and puzzles, coached by my father, long before my math class got to logic. I learned to expect reasoning behind opinions and to also pay attention to the reasons that people took opposing stances and consider their merits. I learned far more about critical thinking from my home life than I did in school.

    I’m more worried that it’s difficult to keep children from thinking mathematics is boring and tuning it out before they get to the good parts.

      February 2, 2016 at 1:23 am

      I’m glad you had such fun with your father – that sounds like a really good experience :). I agree that you can learn a lot at home, too. The only thing I wonder about though, in your comment, is the “informed adults” part – who counts as an “informed adult”? I think very often, children and students have as much to offer as specialists, and in a classroom setting we have kids from a very wide variety of different backgrounds which makes discussion very interesting.

      I also agree that some schools could go much further in pushing students’ thinking, but in college humanities classes they are definitely pushed a lot.

        February 3, 2016 at 10:06 am

        Personally I think that unschooling and college are two very separate things – and would best work in combination. A childhood spent in unschooling, will allow a child to focus in on what actually interests them in a very specific way – and if this teen decides the next best step is college, then they are ready for it! I myself feel like 90% of my elementary and high school was a complete waste of time, but in University I learned a great deal. Higher learning is a sacred place and personally though I lean towards unschooling.. I would never try to dissuade a child from going to college or university, once you get into those higher levels, unschooling is simply called life! College and University don’t hem you in within a jail like setting, in the same way school does for young children. By that time, you’re a grown adult. It’s complimentary to this life!

          February 5, 2016 at 3:10 am

          I completely agree with you, Carol. I like how you say that “a childhood spent in unschooling will allow a child to focus in on what actually interests them in a very specific way” – that’s exactly how I look at it, too! Good to hear from others who feel that way :).

        Heather Brenner
        June 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

        Any adult that knows more than the child about the subject currently of interest to the child can be an “informed adult”. For that matter, “informed person” is more accurate than “informed adult”. There are some subjects of interest to my 7 year-old that the 14 year-old next door knows much more about than I do (and they aren’t video games! ?)

    February 5, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Hi Bee!
    I have never really considered it a problem because I don’t think school fostered any critical thinking skills in me. It was pretty much think this, memorize this, be tested on this. We have so many interesting conversations with our kids already I see it just progressing from there! Along with other people they meet in the community 🙂

    February 12, 2016 at 4:32 am

    Bee, I have five homeschool graduates who were unschooled all the way through school. All five have gone to college. Two have graduated and have full time careers in the tech industry, the other three are still in college and work part time. Not that the above information in and of itself tells you that they have critical thinking skills but I can say, they do. In fact, I am amazed at their level of critical thinking! It is much more advanced than mine was in my early aldult years. Our home was one where we talked, read, watched, and pondered many points of view. Anywhere from critiquing a movie to politics and world events. And I can say that their opinions do not necessarily reflect those of their parents in many cases. (And that is a good thing!) I think people given the right environment, freedom of thought and time will think critically. Unschooling lends itself quite well to that.

    February 22, 2016 at 11:07 am

    I find critical thinking is often stifled in school…especially with all of the common core pressure to perform on yet again another test. A College English class is far different than a middle school or even elementary school English class. I praise you highly for encouraging it. Critical thinking is what deschooling is all about. We have open ended discussions and problem solving constantly at home, much more than at school, where time is spent working towards testing, not discussion. I have 2 school kids and one who is going through the unschool process. We all have our own way of learning. All a child needs is an arena to express themselves in the proper way, and that is usually at home. I hope most parents have open ended discussions on a myriad of topics that can help their children think critically.

    February 23, 2016 at 10:20 am

    In my house I present the kids with a problem and let them work through to one or more solutions.

    July 6, 2018 at 8:22 am

    If children’s parents think critically/outside the box, there is a high probability their children will naturally learn this through life. I strongly disagree with the notion that children/school aged children are successfully learning critical thinking skills in the classroom. As small business owners, the greatest weakness we have noticed in our employees/interns from all walks of life/all ages of life is their lack of higher level thinking. They literally do not know how to solve problems. They generally give up quickly and want us to solve any problem they encounter. This may be a combo of lack of motivation/work ethic and difficulty problem solving. I went through the traditional American education system and the only class where I ever learned about critical thinking, directly or indirectly, was the logics class I took my freshman year in college. My husband has his doctorate within the medical field and unfortunately, many of his peers lack higher level thinking skills as well. So it doesn’t even matter what level of education you have. I think individuals who are naturally independent thinkers, who see problems and want to seek solutions, who are life long learners, are going to be the ones who have the greatest ability to think outside the box. I think a lot of this may be innate for many people, but surely learned for the rest.

February 1, 2016 at 10:43 am

I love this! I just posted on FB tonight about my 5 year old son who showed a sudden & immediate interest in composing a message to his daddy, who was in the bathroom. Mason asked how – we got an envelope, he got a pencil and asked for paper, and we were off! He even got a sticker himself to use as a stamp. In one sitting, he learned so many things, all because he wanted to. Learning is truly not linear.

February 1, 2016 at 11:23 am

I so wanted to ‘un-school’ my three incredibly talented daughters now aged 20,25 and 27, but my then husband wouldn’t hear of it.
Fast forward many years and I think the result of institutional ‘learning’ is the years of confusion that have followed as my girls go back to the drawing board and learn about who they are as they re-acquaint themselves with their inner child and their natural born creativeness. What a joy it bhas been to watch them uncover what schooling had them stuff down to make way for what they ‘should’ be learning. Such incredibly talented and compassionate girls I have.
A beautiful read and one that resonated deeply and made me wish I had stood my ground way back then in the interests of my girls.
Thank you. x

Natalie Lord
February 2, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Beautiful article! Us home schoolers and unschoolers need as much back up as possible! Gets tiring trying to prove why or give evidence in support of our choice and children’s freedom! Thankyou!

February 12, 2016 at 12:16 pm

I needed to read this today. Although I’ve been following a Montessori philosophy for our homeschooling journey, and I do use some of the albums and materials, this year we have not been able to focus. We are selling our home, and our materials were packed away for the first half of the school year. We’ve been completely unschooling, and I recently unpacked the materials, and was hoping to use them, but life has been so busy we haven’t had a full day of school. My son is 13. I sometimes worry that I’m not doing enough, but after reading your post I recognize the same bursts of interest, appetite for knowledge, then a period of processing. And the next time he comes to the subject or information, he has advanced without any interference from me. There are so many examples of it. Thank you for sharing some of your observations. I truly appreciate the perspective of other homeschool parents.

February 13, 2016 at 11:09 pm

I found this article to have an unnecessary anti school education bias. All children spend a significant part of their lives not in school and it is in this time with those who care for them that the freedom to learn and to play imaginatively happens. My son is 5 and I honestly consider that for him a formal, structured,learning environment works well and he clearly is loving school and learning in a way I could not provide for him. I think the facts are that children learn differently not that one way is necessarily right or wrong. I also work in child protection and see children who are home schooled so their parents can hide abuse or neglect and children who do not attend school or receive support to learn at home and consequently develop a range of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and for those children the chance to attend school would provide increased safety.

    February 14, 2016 at 6:37 am

    I find it odd that homeschoolers are never allowed to say anything bad about schools but homeschooling is up for public scrutiny. If school is so great then I’m sure it can handle a bit of criticism.
    We unschool and made that choice for a reason. I don’t agree that imagination should be limited to the small amount of time kids get to themselves each day outside of school. I do not agree with coercive schooling so you won’t find any support for that here.

      February 14, 2016 at 9:02 pm

      I absolutely think any system of education should be open to scrutiny, challenge and constructive criticism. I don’t think that there should be a one size fits all approach. Some children clearly thrive without formal education and others do not. One system is not universally better than the other. There are choices to be made and we have the responsibly to try to make the best choices for our own children. That is why I have chosen for my child to learn in school as I believe it works for him and does not restrict his capacity to learn in a child led way. I felt the article did not reflect that for some children school works and for others it doesn’t.

    February 14, 2016 at 6:50 am

    When I was in school, I was so overloaded with homework — every night, every weekend, sometimes even over holidays — that imaginative play with parents or peers was severely limited. School stole my childhood and nearly snuffed out my love of learning. If we could get the ridiculous busywork reined in, then yes, school might be part of a balanced childhood. But not when children are basically working two jobs.

    February 14, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    I think our educational system is unnecessarily biased against our children, who were born knowing how to learn.

    March 3, 2016 at 3:28 am

    Your son is only 5…which means he has only started in the school system. I have 4 kids, 14, 8, 2, 9mos. My oldest 2 were in public school until 2 years ago. What seemed right as they started, definitely changed as they got older. The excitement and love for learning they had when they began had become non existent, more like little robots trying to perform specific functions. Just wait until every minute of their free time is taken up with homework that they have no interest in. Or something that they may be interested in, only to be able to study it for a very brief period before they are pushed into something else. I wish I had known about unschooling when they were younger. But now I do, and my youngest two will not see the inside of a school building, unless they decide that is something they want to try when they are older. They, along with their sisters, will be unschooling from now on! I hope your son continues his love for learning, but never say never. Unschooling is always an option!

February 23, 2016 at 12:40 am

I have 6 daughters between the ages of 11 and 1. Our family started off with public school. We quickly noticed it wasn’t for us so we moved on to homeschooling very structured, then eclectically. Now we’re unschoolers. It was a natural progression the more peaceful our parenting became. A very beautiful journey.

February 23, 2016 at 5:19 am

Great post… I couldn’t agree more and it’s also why we unschool, well, Christian Unschool our kids. The two terms are not mutually exclusive and I elaborate on this a bit. Love your beautiful blog!

March 7, 2016 at 4:41 am

Very insightful

March 21, 2016 at 11:16 pm

Hi, just wondering how initial reading skills are learned in unschooling and number knowledge? I can see how literacy skills could grow and develop through exploration once initially attained but I assume the children have to be explicitly taught letter sounds, blending skills etc at some point? Similarly with letter formation and number structure?

    March 22, 2016 at 7:51 am

    Nope, no need for explicit teaching, unless they ask 🙂 This article explains it really well: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201002/children-teach-themselves-read

    March 26, 2016 at 10:19 am

    My 3.5 year old is learning to read. I am certainly not forcing him to (I’m actually relaxed about reading later, when a child isn’t going to get the , I couldn’t stop him if I tried. It’s just his thing, from when he could say around 30 words aged 2 (he was a bit ‘later’ talking than expected), he could recognize 2 of them written down. When you see a child learn himself, much younger than we would have tried to teach, you realise how oddly formal the way reading is taught can be in comparison. Yes, we do sometimes sound out words he’s trying to read to help him work it out (or just say the word, or just accept whatever he guesses, whichever seems right at the time) but we haven’t sat him down to learn the letter sounds. He’s picked them up from things like alphablocks but I wouldn’t say that he necessarily knows them all. He’s not learning it in a linear way. He’s picking up common words from the stories we’ve read, listening to the way we say things. Most days he’ll surprise me by reading a word or two that I wasn’t aware he knew, so he’s progressing anyway.

    It seems a bit odd maybe (he’s bright cetainly but I wouldn’t assume he’s a genius) till you begin to think about all the other things all children could learn without being taught – the names of all the thomas engines, or pokemon, sports teams and results, all the weird dinosaur names. No one usually sits down and teaches children these things because they aren’t seen as important, but kids learn them anyway. It’s possible for them to learn things adults value too, in their own time at their own pace if they are interested.

    My son likes numbers too, many of those first words after family names were numbers and he loved pointing them out in the environment, and if you like numbers then clocks and time are fascinating, so are battery charge percentages, temperatures and weather, scales and measuring.

    Adults think this stuff is boring because we were made to learn it maybe, but if you are a kid and you discover it, it’s interesting – at least for some children. Others might be moved by art, music, dance, sport etc and come back to reading or numeracy as a means to an end because they are motivated by something they need to be able to read or count to understand.

    Heather Brenner
    June 27, 2016 at 9:15 am

    My kids are 9, 7.5, and almost 5. We unschool, except that we use Life of Fred as a math curriculum. My kids have learned how to read in the way described in the article. We have Leap Frog’s phonics videos, and all 3 kids have used them, plus being read to, helped to sound out words on their own, etc. I find that each child has followed (is following, in the youngest’s case) the same path in learning to read as he or she did in learning to talk. At the moment, the eldest can and does read anything with words, including non-fiction written for adults. My 7.5 year-old hasn’t quite made the jump to adult stuff yet, but soon. And the almost 5 year-old has all the tools he needs to start reading, and is capable of writing neatly. Sometime soon, he will decide to read. But, with 4 other people willing to read to him, he may take a little bit yet

March 26, 2016 at 10:23 am

I was going to say but forgot near the beginning of my post that children in school who read late, may experience stigma or poor self esteem when they feel they are behind the rest of their peers. Children who focus on reading when they are older, without the stigma associated with it in school, don’t have to feel behind and can learn in other ways.

April 24, 2016 at 6:06 am

I love the way you describe unschooling here, I am a home educator, I prefer facilitator, we do unschool, but we also do project based work through choice. It’s the ebb and flow that always amazes me, when I feel I am failing and we have achieved very little, then in the next breath they have grabbed an idea, and are running with it, to the point of obsession, as a parent it is one of the most satisfying parts of home schooling, when they hit the ‘zone’ there is no stopping them, then even when we look back at the end of one of our ‘lazier’ day’s we are always able to look back and find many learning moments. I think it has been my most satisfying journey to date.

August 3, 2016 at 8:20 pm

So how about if i am a doctor, how would i homeschool? I love saving lifes, but do i just leave my kids home alone for them to educate themselves? Do you think we need doctors in this world or we can be all self employed and homeschool our kids to take care of their health for themselves? How about if your homeschooled child wants to be a pilot, dos he or she just drop his passion and homeschool like you did?

July 1, 2017 at 2:35 am

I’m a father of a toddler and a newborn. I’m curious to find out about families’ capability to do this financially. Does one parent stay home? Does the other’s salary enough to satisfy the family’s needs?
Both my wife and I work and we’re able to manage not having to use daycare. Any information on making this lifestyle work financially would be great from those with experience!

November 5, 2017 at 4:44 pm

Well said! We were destined by God to seek truth and understanding – we’re wired to learn. Sharing this on my Facebook page 😁

May 8, 2024 at 12:59 pm

This article wonderfully illustrates how learning is not always a linear process, especially for unschooled children, echoing my own belief in the diverse paths of education. It’s inspiring to see how children thrive when given the freedom to learn according to their interests and pace, reflecting the richness of my own educational journey.

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