Homeschooling, deschooling, unschooling… What does it all mean, and how do you decide which approach is right for your family?

Meet Dr. Gina Riley a career academic who both homeschooled her own son and has done extensive research on the process of unschooling.

Learning about this new approach to education can be… perplexing at times. So hear from experts like Dr. Riley about how to make the most of this experience. Your kids will love you for it.

How do you define unschooling and self-directed learning?

Unschooling and self-directed learning go hand in hand. A great way to think about it is learning through life experiences and following the learner’s interests. With this approach, there is no need for a formal curriculum.

There are plenty of online schools and non-traditional education programs available,  which align with the unschooling philosophy. You can learn more about Galileo XP here. When you focus on your child’s interests and they get to make decisions about what they do with their time it is a winning combination.

Can kids really learn without direction?

Absolutely yes, kids can learn without direction. Truthfully, kids probably learn best without direction.

We already know our kids have the capacity to learn. They learned to walk. They learned to talk and they acquired language.

It is best to move away from teaching subjects and move toward facilitating learning instead. It is even better if you can facilitate exploration and the love of learning.

Often, when we try to direct the learning by making suggestions, it is possible that we squelch the childs’ self-determination, self-direction, and intrinsic motivation.

Yes! It is absolutely possible for children to learn on their own with just a little bit of facilitation.

Is it dangerous to give kids too much control? What if they play video games all day?

Really, it is up to you as a parent.

You need to know what fits with your own parenting philosophy. But if you want to foster intrinsic motivation for your child, and you also want to impose a structure on their learning, you’ll find a conflict. Unfortunately, you can’t have both.

If you want your child to live an intrinsically motivated life there are things as a parent that you will have to let go of.

It is natural for a parent to want to control their child’s learning. We naturally want to control things. As human beings, we feel safe when we feel like we are in control and taking action.

Sometimes what the child really needs is for the parent to take a step back and allow the child to follow their interests. Even if that means they are playing video games all day.

Don’t stop there. Dig deeper to discover why your child is interested in playing video games all day. What part of playing video games has captured their attention?

Is the artwork or colorful imagery?

Is the act of leveling up?

Is it the music or the sounds?

Then, really listen to the answers.

It is important to listen more than it is to talk. Knowing why they are interested will give you insight into what is really being learned. Follow the child’s interests even if it is not an interest you would choose for your child.  

How do you feel about strewing?

In the homeschool world, there is a popular methodology known as strewing. In some cases, strewing has been elevated to an art form, by laying items in the child’s path that will capture their attention and hopefully spark interest for further investigation.

Every child needs something different.

If your child is naturally curious and likes to explore on their own they may not need to have items placed in their path. Other children might benefit from having breadcrumbs to follow.

The key thing here is to understand and know what will work for your child.

What is deschooling and why is it important?

Intrinsic motivation is inherent in little kids. They play freely and they know what they want to do with their day. Very often very young children do not have a difficult time homeschooling, especially if they have never been to school.

For children who have been to school, making the transition from a traditional environment to one that is at home… can be challenging. Because the first environment imposes a structure and fosters extrinsic motivation, while a homeschooling environment is geared toward intrinsic motivation.

This transition, called deschooling, may require lots of time to rest, relax and maybe play video games all day.

Once a child becomes accustomed to being told what to do all day, it takes some time to readjust. Before they can begin to realize what they are interested in and how they want to spend their time, they need to play.

Deschooling is a time to transition to new expectations and a time to explore interests. This period of stagnation is important and is followed by a period of growth.

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What about learning gaps?

We all have gaps in our learning.

Whether or not a person attends a traditional school there will always be learning gaps. A lot of learning is dependent on cognitive readiness.

In research, young adults who were unschooled definitely report that there are gaps in their learning. However, they also report that because they understood how to learn when there was a learning gap, they knew how to fill that gap.

The most powerful thing a child can learn is to decide what they want to do, understand what they need to know in order to accomplish it, and then know where to find that knowledge so they make it happen.

This is the power of unschooling. Whatever learning gaps unschoolers have they can fill them and they can do so independently.

Do you see the elements of self-directed learning ever being used in traditional schooling?

Yes! Absolutely. In a post-pandemic world the greatest challenge in the world of education is to reimagine what education can be. Educational leaders in school districts across the country and around the world are thinking deeply about the possibilities for the future of education.  

It is happening slowly, but we’re beginning to see more districts providing more choice in curriculum and more freedom about what kids learn and when.

Virtual schooling has given us a taste of what freedom of schedule might look like.

There are schools that are already doing this like,

Galileo XP, and online school for unschooling worldschoolers

High Tech High in California, and The Independent Project in Massachusetts.

There are also Sudbury schools, Free Schools, and Democratic schools which are all focused on intrinsically motivated, self-directed-based learning.

The hope is always that self-directed, intrinsically motivated learning will be the model of the future. It is clear that the teachers want that.

These schools are experimenting and seeing success. The more people can see success the more it will catch on.

Tell us about the research you did with Peter Gray about Unschooling

Dr, Riley was part of the team that conducted the first large-scale study of unschoolers where they interviewed 232 unschooling families.  This study helped the researcher to more fully understand the experience of unschooling families.

It was revealed there is a spectrum of unschooling. Over time people have given themselves labels like the relaxed homeschoolers, or radical unschoolers,

Through this study, it was discovered that there are both benefits and challenges of unschooling. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the criticism from people who are outside of the unschooling community.

Overall, the families in the study all felt that the benefits outweighed the challenges.

Some of those benefits were that families love the intrinsically motivated, self-directed learning they observed in their children. They also loved the freedom of their schedule and that education was based on student strengths. Parents saw their kids happier which in turn made parents happier, too.

The team also conducted a study of young adults who were unschooled to learn more about the process of unschooling from the perspective of the student.

Researchers Interviewed 75 students and used the data in two studies. The first study focused on college and employment. The second study focused on experiences. Much of the information in these two research studies confirmed what the parents were saying, but there was some conflicting information.

Parents reported that their children had no socialization issues. However, the students said that while they appreciated the benefits of age mixing they sometimes felt isolated from their peers.

Parents and young adults alike agreed that overall, the benefits still outweighed the challenges.

Most of the young adults who were interviewed had no problems getting into college, had great jobs, and were financially independent. They had careers in the creative arts, STEM and some were entrepreneurs. This finding makes sense because these young adults spent a lot of time outdoors trying to figure out how things worked. It was as if the world was their maker space

Nothing is perfect though. Out of 75 young adult unschoolers who were interviewed only three felt their experiences were negative. Of those three, two had higher degrees and all three came from families with either mental issues or that were highly religious. Those three young adults reported that if they had not been educated this way they would not have accomplished all that they had.

Dr. Riley has also conducted research on the following topics related to unschooling:

What other projects have you worked on and how can people connect with you?

Dr. Riley is super excited about a book project where she looks at all of the research done on unschooling and provides a narrative. It is the book she needed as a 20-year-old single mother who chose unschooling. She needed it to be written by an academic at a traditional school of education.

The book is called “Unschooling: Exploring Learning Beyond the Classroom”, and it is available at all major book retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Dr. Riley is currently involved in a large-scale study along with Peter Gray and a few others which are focused on Sudbury Schooling and is continuing to do research on unschooling with kids who have special needs. She is also working on an edited book with contributions from many people who have been active in the self-directed space.

As an academic, Dr. Riley does not have a website but you can find her here at Hunter College. She is also on Facebook and Twitter - tweet her!


Dr. Riley researches unschooling while also training teachers for the New York City Department of Education, which has really helped her to keep a balanced perspective on her work.

Are you ready to explore what a self-directed education could look like for your child? Join the Galileo Learning Community today!