Unschooling: learning about life from life at home

Gerardine Hansen with her son Hansen and the 3D printer he built.
Gerardine Hansen with her son Hansen and the 3D printer he built.  Photo: Wayne Taylor

Saxon Hansen has rarely been to school, yet in March the 17-year-old will start an advanced diploma in engineering technology, specialising in mechatronics, at Swinburne University. 

Barring a year or so, the youngest of four, like his two older sisters and brother, has been at home getting unschooled.

Mum, Gerardine Hansen, a former primary school teacher, says her son received a more structured education until he was eight, but after that he learnt from "good conversations" and "lots and lots of reading".

Unschooling, she says, facilitates learning that is natural to the child ... learning that they are gifted in.

 "You are always assessing," Ms Hansen says.

"What's he interested in today? What's he interested in this week, this year?"

Saxon's interests have ranged from playing the piano and robotics to building his own power supply and even a 3D printer. When needed, there have been English and maths tutors in exchange for mowing the lawn and babysitting. 

His desk showcases his eclectic interests: from Augustus Caesar's world to NASA's space exploration to German language.

Sue Wight, Home Education Network co-ordinator, says people have different definitions of unschooling, which comes under the broader umbrella of home-schooling. 

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Ms Wight says home-schooling puts a greater emphasis on adapting school curriculum, but unschooling starts with the interests of the child. 

"My definition is that it is education that doesn't look like school," Ms Wight said.

"It is more of an organic type of education where you start with the child and work with their needs rather than starting with the curriculum.

"When you respond to [the child's] questions, then follow up on their interests, they remember what they learn very efficiently." 

She says there are as many ways of unschooling as there are families doing it, because "everyone finds their own needs".

There is no official data on how many people actually unschool, but according to the Education Department there were 4192 home-schoolers in Victoria last year.

Ms Wight says a 2015 survey of the network's 700 members showed that 20 per cent were unschooling.

An Education Department spokesman says families practising unschooling are expected to register with the Victorian Qualification and Regulations Authority and required to meet the same standards as home-schoolers.

This means making sure the home-schooling addresses the key learning areas, including English, maths, science and humanities.

Both home-schooling and unschooling might come under more scrutiny in the future as the Victorian Government considers a raft of new proposals, including parents submitting one-off learning plans detailing how they will deliver on the key learning areas.

Public consultation is under way, but the learning plan model has drawn criticism from the network's Ms Wight, who says it will not only force parents to replicate the school model, but also make it difficult for them to choose home-schooling. 

Lucas Walsh, Monash University associate professor in education, says there is a paucity of good evidence on whether self-guided learning works.

"There is an importance to recognise that there is not a one-size-fits all," Associate Professor Walsh says. 

"Parents are often uneasy that their kids are not getting freedom to learn within crowded curriculum, within high-stakes standardised testing, that they are not getting these opportunities to grow and learn their passions.

"But what they might overlook is the everyday benefits of being in school, to do with socialisation, the types of learning that take place between young people in educational settings ... but also [being] able to identify where students are falling behind."

For Saxon, at least, the answer is straightforward.

"In school you have no time to really discover what you like ... school doesn't prepare you for life," he says.

"When you come out [of school], the life you live is totally different, because you [have been] sitting in class all day."