Brain Wars: Unschooling vs. Brain Science

As I read about cognitive and neuroscience and all the amazing ways our brain learns I often see why I was attracted to certain educational philosophies and also why I didn’t jump all in. In other words, most of the educational philosophies popular in the homeschooling world have clear strengths and weaknesses when viewed through the lens of modern brain science.

It is time to judge these philosophies against the truths revealed by science. This is not to disparage any one philosophy of education, or even to elevate science above philosophy. It is simply that when we consider education from more than one angle we can often get to the heart of the deepest, universal truths. Yes, I said universal truths. Learning is not all relative or unique. Yes, humans are all unique and our kid’s brains may work in slightly idiosyncratic ways. But what goes on in our brains when we learn is much more similar to what happens in every other person’s brain than it is different.

So, even though we may tweak the details of our children’s education to personally suit them, we do not need a separate philosophy for each child. Understanding the big, deep, universal truths about how humans learn can transform our homeschooling adventures. With understanding comes confidence and discernment. There is no getting around the fact that our self-embraced freedom as homeschoolers means we have a million choices to make about our child’s education. Making good choices, knowing what each child needs and when, is an art, but that art, like any other, has underlying principles. Once we understand those principles we will be able to compose a beautiful education each day and week, month and year, for our child, with greater ease.

This art of education is more important than any other art in the world, as we are forming souls and shaping the future of humanity. And this art is closer to our heart than any other artistic endeavor we will attempt throughout our lifetimes. These are our children, and we want not only to get it right but to paint the most beautiful childhood for them that we possibly can. In fact, we desire to paint a perfect picture…but the thing about art is that it defies being defined as perfect. Certainly, art comes in various qualities and styles, some works fading away and others enduring over time. But no one piece of art is the ‘perfect’ piece towards which all artists strive.

It is the same with parenting and educating our children. There is no one perfect outcome. There is a nourishing and unfolding of beauty, a discovery of what this canvas is capable of holding and being and doing. There is no perfection.

Here, we dive into what every human canvas, the brain, needs to develop.

Defining Unschooling

Unschooling is perhaps the most obvious way for a homeschooler to make it clear that education in their home does not look like education at school. But where did the term start and what is the specific meaning attached to it? The essence of unschooling is childhood freedom. Instead of the parent or curriculum leading the child’s learning journey, the child is the director of their own learning experiences.

They decide what they want to learn. When they want to learn, how they want to learn, and when they want to go back to daydreaming in the hammock. This does not mean the parent is univolved as they will provide the child with the resources needed to learn the topics the child has chosen. Parents using this approach also often focus on surrounding their kids with a rich environment in order to pique their curiosity about various subjects.

You can read this article for more information on where the term came from and what the philosophy means. Another great post that dives into unschooling is Unschooling: What on Earth is it?.

Biggest Brain Strength of Unschooling is Interest

Since unschooled children always get to choose what they learn it is hard for them to get bored. This is actually an advantage to their brain. When you are learning in a relaxed enviornment your brain will send the information to the higher parts of the brain for processing. It is unconcerned about survival because there is no stress.

This is actually a really important part of learning that often is neglected or ignored. The amount of repetition needed for a child at play to learn is much lower than the amount needed with uninspired drilling. Children who are not continually told what to do every moment of the day spend a lot of time playing and playing is good for the brain.

Boring education hurts children and unschoolers don’t have to worry about their child’s education being boring. If their kids get bored they will simply move on to a different topic or subject.

Many who are new to homeschooling find it necessary to embrace this learning style for a time even if they do not plan to use it long-term. This is because in certain cases the school system has trained the child to enter fight or flight response every time they see a book, worksheet, or teacher. This response actually blocks information from being sent to our higher processing areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex. It is essential that this habit be unlearned so the child can move forward in their learning journey. The best way to teach these wounded brains that learning should not induce panic is to allow them to explore at their own pace.

Biggest Brain Weakness of Unschooling Philosophy is lack of Memorization

Why should we care if our kids memorize anything in an age where information and answers are never farther away than the tips of your fingers? When we don’t actually know what information they will need to know to be successful in life?

Because to memorize something is to know it more completely. When we memorize information and ideas we can quickly connect that information to other information in our brains. This is how we form new ideas. It is difficult to come up with new ideas if you don’t have any ideas to start with.

Knowing lots of stuff by memory gives our working memory the space it needs to connect ideas, form new ones, and understand old ones in a deeper way.

I would argue that without memorization deep learning does not exist. You simply cannot know a subject deeply without knowing many things about the topic by ‘heart’. The term ‘know it by heart’ tells us a lot about what memory is, the information we memorize starts to form who we are.

Both cognitive and neuroscience point to memory as being essential to learning. If you don’t think it matters, please read more about it. Memory does not have to be done using boring drills.

Need to learn more about memory? Check out these posts: What’s the Matter with Memory, Why Johnny Can’t Think Like a Scientist Until He is One, Exploring Intelligence: The Magic of Memory.

Sometimes memory is shunned because it is seen as a shallow type of learning, you memorize the date a war started but you don’t understand why the war started. Both the facts of ideas of different subjects are important things to memorize.


Willingham (cognitive scientists and author) points out that while deep knowledge is desirable and leads to the ability to do things like chunk the information together, shallow knowledge can also be useful and should not be shunned. We cannot attain deep knowledge of everything and shallow knowledge is much better than no knowledge.

Daniel T. Willingham in Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom

Of course, advocates of unshooling may argue that just because they do not require their children to learn does not mean that their children don’t learn. They believe learning is a natural process and that adult interference in that process is more of a hindrance than a help, so they stay out of it.

Often this theory is explored in more depth, meaning they are generally hands off parents not only in academics, but also other areas of life such as eating habits, and sometimes even chores. (Although some do utilize chores as a way to teach their kids that there are some things in life you have to do.)

But if direct instruction can change the course of brain development, perhaps we want to wisely use a little bit of that magic sauce.

Unschooling is Good, but is it Excellent?

Although I understand many of the reasons people choose to be unschoolers, I find it is only a partial answer to the problem of our current educational models. A bit of a knee-jerk reaction, but still, there are plenty of case studies of successful adults who were unschooled as children. I don’t doubt the outcome of unschooling in many ways is more positive than the current outcomes of public education.

However, I am not completely convinced that it is the key to unlocking the full potential of every child. One trend I noticed in case studies I read of grown adults who had been strictly unschooled was the large proportion of them that had chosen professions in the arts.

I am not knocking the arts in any way, and in many ways, arts are a worthy pursuit. But so is math. Math and creativity are sorely needed in our world. The same person, possessing both skills, helps the modern world run. None of the adults interviewed had gone into the sciences or math, or any tech fields, to me, this seems somehow lopsided and I can’t help but wonder if a little direct instruction, led by an adult, would have uncovered some kids with a passion for math, science, and tech fields.

Because thinking is hard, there is a human tendency to avoid it. A problem we all must overcome if we are to be fully human. When we choose not to think the world is a darker place for it. To me, purposely teaching my kids, and being the leader of their educational journey, even if some subjects and choices are tailored to who they are, is an obvious choice.

Being a leader is hard and not a skill I expect my kids to come out of the womb with. Leadership is more easily obtained by example first, and then a gradual takeover. I feel purposefully leading them on a journey of learning helps them learn how to be good leaders. As they grow, they can explore leading their own educational journey, but to make wise choices they need an active mentor. Sometimes this means I tell my teen exactly how much math he will do each day and week. It is not his choice, because he is not smart enough to know that neglecting math may be something he regrets later. Part of my job is to keep his doors of opportunity open so that when the moment comes, he can walk through the one of his choice.

Adults know more about the world than kids. We know what there is to learn. And so, we can lead them better than they can lead themselves, especially if we are also willing to nourish their own abilities and interests. But to me, some of the biggest soft skills my kids learn come through the subjects they don’t love. The struggle is where they learn how powerful they are, how they can overcome obstacles, and how to work hard. Without struggling to learn hard things that they don’t love, they don’t develop the ability to throw themselves completely into the things they do love. They don’t realize what they are capable of when they just keep going unless someone stands between them and quitting, at least sometimes.

When we push our kids through tough subjects, instead of closing the book and letting them decide they don’t want to learn about that anymore, we teach them the growth mindset, we show, through their own hard work, sweat, and tears, that they can learn. One year they think they will never get it, and then the next year the same thing comes easy. How do unschooled children learn this?

I am not saying they don’t. I just think it is an innate weakness of the philosophy.

Unschooling is a new idea and although I understand the popularity of why it has caught on the term itself disturbs me. Because school does not just mean the public system here in the Untied States. School comes from the Greek word schole and means ‘leisure’. That is what school is meant to be. But leisure does not mean you can’t have a systematic and beautiful plan. In fact, I find more leisure in the days that are planned out than in those that are not because I am not plagued with making a million decisions. I can rest in action, knowing that I made my choices and need only follow the plan. Of course, we know how easy it is for kids to derail our plans. But that does not mean we should stop planning, it simply means we have not mastered the art of planning to teach yet.

I know many unschoolers do not fully embrace the philosophy and being a new term, it also comes with a bit of a squishy definition. But I have done my best here to assume a more purist form of the idea in order to sort out the strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, this will help both those who are exploring different educational philosophies, and seasoned unschoolers to honestly assess what they can do in their homeschool to avoid these potential pitfalls. You don’t have to give up the idea completely to embrace the need for facts as a foundation of education.

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