Unschooling High School (Can You Do That?)

Unschooling High School

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At various times in our homeschool journey, we chose to unschool. When my son was young, we just received a few sideways glances…”Oh, you’re one of those. We don’t do that…” It got annoying, but whatever.

As he got older, though, those glances turned into concerned comments.

Am I damaging his college prospects? (He’s currently a senior in college with a 4.0, so apparently not!)

Will he ever get a job? (He’s had a few, and has risen pretty quickly in them.)

Won’t he be unable to work as part of a team? (As I write this, he’s helping lead a volunteer team for a political campaign. He also travels to other countries with missions teams several times a year. I think he’s good.)

I’m not writing this to brag on my kid, because, well…he hates it when I do that. I’m writing this to dispel some long-standing myths about unschooling. That way, you can take an honest look at it and figure out if it might work for your family!

So What Is Unschooling?

I think a lot of the misconceptions about unschooling come from a misunderstanding of what it is. Simply put, unschooling – or delight-directed learning, as it’s often called – is allowing your child the freedom to learn about what interests them in the way that makes the most sense.

Pretty easy, right? But that definition is also pretty broad. Sometimes, it’s easier to define something by stating what it’s not.

Unschooling is not . . .

Get LORD OF THE FLIES (AFFILIATE)• Unschooling is not a Lord of the Flies type of educational philosophy. It does not involve setting your child loose in the savage wastelands of academia, hoping that they emerge unscathed on the other side.

• It’s not a child-run dictatorship in which you bow to your child’s whims, never requiring them to learn anything they don’t “like.”

• Contrary to popular belief, unschooling does not require you to move to the mountains and live completely off the land, forsaking society and its comforts. You’re welcome to do this if you choose, but it’s by no means the norm.

So How Do You Unschool High School?

That’s kind of the thing about unschooling; there is no set blueprint. It really does look different for every family. That’s also the point, though.

In unschooling, you don’t set the course of study by yourself. You don’t require your child to fulfill it according to the teacher’s manual.


Instead, you work with your child to determine what best fits them. Discuss their goals, their likes, their strengths and weaknesses – and then work with them to set a plan.

This plan might involve textbooks (yes, they’re allowed in unschooling!), internships, mentoring programs, or afternoons out in the woodshop. It might involve hours spent researching the details of what fascinates your teen, and then hours more learning to put that information to use.

For my son, it meant a huge Audible library of political theory and philosophy, as well as a few dozen rolls of duct tape to make an arsenal of medieval melee weapons. (He’s now a Politics & Policy major and a Military History minor. Go figure!)

It also meant several hours of comparing his favorite novels to their movie counterparts in order to figure out the details of storytelling on paper and onscreen. (He’s currently planning a novel trilogy with what he’s learned.)

And when he couldn’t sleep, because he’s a teenage boy, it meant hours on YouTube watching Disney clips from the 40s through current movies. I found out later that he was analyzing the social messaging. He then compared it with cultural changes he noticed in literature and politics. (Funny, I just memorized the songs!)

An Important Note on Unschooling

It is really important to note that unschooling is not the right choice for every child. If it was, other methods wouldn’t exist!

If your child is not self-motivated to learn, unschooling might not be the right choice. Notice, however, that I said “self-motivated to learn.” I didn’t say “self-motivated to learn with the method we’re currently using.” There’s a big difference!

If your child needs a strong structure with daily checklists and clearly defined boundaries, you may want to check into something like traditional textbooks or classical education. Unschooling does offer some amazing opportunities, but the boundaries are pretty loose. This is freeing for some students, terrifying for others.

That’s ok, though – do what works best for your child!

Getting Down To It

In future posts, I’ll go through ideas you can work with to unschool your high schooler – everything from writing and literature analysis to science and math, and everything in between. There will be plenty of ideas for out-of-the-box subjects and projects, too. They’re incredibly effective and fun!

So if unschooling sounds like something that might work for your high schooler, stay tuned – there’s lots to come. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below with any questions or topics you’d like me to cover. I’m happy to help!

Jennifer Duncan is the founder of A Helping Hand Homeschool, providing resources, unit studies, support, and consulting for homeschool families. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram!


Unschooling Books

(affiliate links are used in this post)

Home Grown Unschooling (AFFILIATE) The Unschooling Handbook (AFFILIATE) Unschooling Rules (AFFILIATE)
Radical Unschooling (AFFILIATE) Free to Learn (AFFILIATE) Big Book of Unschooling (AFFILIATE)

affiliate links are used in this post

NOW AVAILABLE: It's Homeschooling, Not Solitary Confinement (AFFILIATE)


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  • Reply
    Carolina Coca
    November 21, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    Hi thered i loved your artical at the moment i homeschool grade 1 5 and 8 and my grade 8 has a hard time to focus specially on subjects he don’t really like, I am enrolled with the christian school here in Canada, I would like to be more free on my teaching and been contemplating the idea of unschooling and how that would work for us.
    please help with some advice

  • Reply
    Jen Duncan
    December 6, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Hi Carolina,

    I’m sorry for the delay! I’m in the US, so I’ve been researching homeschooling laws in Canada to make sure I give you correct information. 🙂

    You still need to follow the laws of your province, but from what I’ve been able to find, unschooling is legal throughout Canada. If you live in a province with stricter requirements, you’ll need to keep your records according to those, but you can teach in the way that works best for your children.

    For example, when we studied science, I realized that my son doesn’t work well *just* with textbooks. He needs the application and discovery in order to really understand the information. I used textbooks to get a general schedule and figure out what he needed to learn, but then we found ways to put that information into real-life projects. Biology was rooted in environmental science and zoology, since those were two things he really enjoyed. He learned the specifics of plant life and then put that into practice with projects at a local nature center, including writing pamphlets for them. Zoology took place at the zoo, where he spent time observing different animals and talking with docents. Online research, videos and documentaries, and the library rounded out those courses.

    For history, we combined many of his courses with literature. He doesn’t remember facts from a text, but he learns well from stories. Again, I used the texts as a spine, but let him use the novels as his main source. We discussed a lot, he asked about or researched anything he didn’t know, and we worked with visuals, maps, and timelines to help him put it all together.

    It’s a bit more preparation time on my part, at least at first, but for us it was worth it. I would suggest talking with your son and discussing what he would like to study and how. Unschooling allows the two of you to work together to put together courses that are really meaningful for him, and your younger children could benefit as well!

    I hope that helps? Please let me know if you have any other questions. Thank you for your comment!


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