Skip to content

Unschooling, Museums & Learning Models for this Century

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

One trend highlighted in TrendsWatch 2012 is America’s jittering progress towards a new educational era. I’ve been exploring a number of alternate futures for our learning landscape, in this blog and in the article “The Future of Education” I coauthored with Scott Kratz of the National Building Museum. In today’s post Shauna Edson, an emerging museum education professional, helps extend this exploration, speaking as a learner who never enrolled in the formal educational system.

I’m something of a poster child for unschooling: California kid, pre-school dropout, tree-hugger, tie-dye collector, fiercely independent and curious about nearly everything. I taught myself instead of having my parents as “teachers.” I followed my interests, not a curriculum. I never took a test until the SAT in preparation for college, which I got into just fine. And anything that I didn’t learn at the “designated time” in my youth (such as, say, botany) I am teaching myself as I need it in my adult life.

In January, I knew almost nothing about orchids.

Photo Credit:  U.S. Botanic Garden by Liz Fort.

 In February, I was teaching other people why orchids are special (and why we should care).

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

I’ve been asked the usual questions countless times throughout my life (“what about socialization?” “how did you learn the things you had to?”). But recently, Elizabeth Merritt asked me something that I was delighted to answer: how could the unschooling model become a guide for the new direction of the American educational system, and how can museums play a role?

Musing on an answer to that question is the main component of my “Voices of the Future” video. The many skills that I gained from unschooling include self-motivation, confidence, problem-solving, resource-finding, the cultivation of lifelong learning, the freedom to be creative, and the ability to cooperate with adults and younger children, not just my peers. Do those ideals sound familiar? You might know them as 21st Century Skills.

I think the unschooling philosophy is one of the best ways to foster the skills every employer claims to be seeking. In a redesigned education system, students could decide what they were interested in, join teams, dream up projects, and solve real problems. Now before you panic at the thought of that, remember that this kind of learning doesn’t require a “teacher”; the role is more of advisor, facilitator, resource, sounding board, audience, and even (gasp) colleague.

I will be the first to admit that unschooling isn’t for everyone. It fit perfectly with my family’s situation, my personality, learning style, and interests, but learning isn’t one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer the structure of a curriculum, classes, and didactic teaching

On the other hand, kids and young adults can teach themselves a whole lot more than we allow them to do in most schools. When they’re given the freedom to do that, most of them won’t play computer games all day; they’ll eventually get up and do something that feels useful, worthwhile, rewarding and, above all, meaningful. If you’re interested in graphics or art, building programs in ARTLAB+ when you know real people will see them and use them is pretty compelling. Hold that up against creating a PowerPoint presentation for your assigned-topic history report, which will be seen by your 20 classmates and then forgotten. 

Museums, zoos, aquariums and National Parks have the fantastic ability to present a host of those real situations, and they are free-choice by definition (with the exception of school groups, the visitors are a pretty self-selecting bunch). The CFM has discussed this potential in two previous unschooling blogs, A Fringe Future of Education and Unschoolers on Museums Here’s my take on museums and unschoolers.

Personally, I spent tons of time at the Exploratorium, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Yosemite National Park when I was growing up. All of those places invoke very vivid memories of discovering and marveling at something I had never experienced before, and the common thread is the interactive component. I learned what “4,800 feet of elevation” meant by hiking to the top of Half Dome. I learned the difference between a skate and a manta ray by touching real ones and watching them closely for many fascinated hours. My learning wasn’t organized into classes or even subjects, so I don’t remember us taking any “courses” or similar programs offered by museums. We preferred to do our own thing.

For museums that want to better serve the homeschooling and unschooling community, I say this: have a wide range of options available. Some of us will want to just wander on our own, and we’ll do whatever self-guided things you have if they seem interesting. Others will want camps, course-like programs, or group activities that bring together lots of local homeschoolers and unschoolers. Some museums that are doing this kind of thing are the Science Museum of Minnesota, the National Building Museum, the Museum of Natural History in Providence and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Really though, museums, just keep doing what you do so well.  We love you for everything you already are.  You’re there, you’re real, you’re interesting, and you don’t make us do anything.

Also, we like showing up on weekday mornings when it’s not crowded–it’s a major perk of having an unschooling “schedule.”

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership



  1. I think we need to be clear about un-schooling vs. de-funding education. State governments have a miserable track record when it comes to "opening the walls" Look at what happened when we decided to close our psychiatric institutions. Spending for the care of people was cut as well. This was the root of the explosion of the numbers of "homeless people." The same would happen to public education. Museums aren't strong enough, large enough or influential enough to pick up the slack.

  2. An excellent point, Greg! And growing up in California, I've seen the impact that closing the psychiatric institutions had. De-funding education without any sort of transition would be a disaster. I envision a paradigm shift that would keep the funding but use it in new ways.

    I agree that museums in their current form are not equipped to take over all of what the schools currently do. However, I do think that the existing school infrastructure could be used with a completely different approach. If we do away with the idea of grade-levels and classes, and instead allow individual students to pursue interests in a more free environment, then museums could become an integral part of the new "curriculum" that emerged (i.e. they would be a resource for self-directed students and their adult facilitators).


  3. I remember being thoroughly impressed with the Summerhill School in England when I found out about it during an educational philosophy class. Their system still has a reasonable amount of structure (whenever you have a physical school and classes offered, you've got structure), but their internal philosophy sound a lot like unschooling. Which in turn sounds a lot like the free-form exploration that happens in many museums. Imagine the confidence people would bring to their museum experiences if they were already experienced with guiding their own learning that way!

    Here's the link to their website:

    Thanks for the great post, Shauna!

  4. One of the models for self selected learning opportunities that our family used extensively was 4-H. This youth program offers a huge list of 'projects', which 4-Hers sign up for and, working with an adult leader, do hands on building/making/raising of a variety of things from livestock to garments to canned food to telescopes. Learning to judge things on a scale of actual excellence ie does the telescope you built work well? is so helpful. If every entry in the county fair in a given category was excellent all got Blue ribbons. If none was, and all got white ribbons and a lot of feed back on how to improve, learners were mentored and not given gratuitous awards for mediocre work. Shauna learned what excellence looks like which can be very useful especially compared to what I see in the college where I work ie students submitting sloppy incomplete plagiarized work frequently, with no shame. Bottom line- actual learning is not what is often happening in school. Dodging bullets is- figuratively and sometimes literally. Museums can offer open ended or perhaps sequenced exhibits with hands on opportunites to give learners ways to delve deeper, ponder things and figure stuff out themselves.
    K I will stop…I could go on for weeks.

  5. These types of environments have been present since the 60s and 70s in the form of Free Schools. And even longer before that when you count the times before formal public education was even an option 🙂

  6. Caitlin, that school looks fantastic! There are places that really do try to work from that kind of philosophy. Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools, as well as some charter schools, are succeeding to various degrees.

    Vanessa, you're absolutely right; homeschooling/unschooling was the original way to learn! It pre-dates any and all formal schooling systems.

    And in case you didn't figure it out, Carol is my mother. 🙂 I did learn a great deal of fulfilling skills in 4-H, and it was all by doing real things (making jam, leading a project, being president of my 120-member 4-H club, etc.).

  7. Shauna & Carol, I totally agree. I have said many times that I've found the things I learned in 4H infinitely more valuable that my undergraduate education (I was a history major and I work in a history museum). To this day, I'm a kid who doesn't sit well and learns by doing, which is what museums do best — self-directed experience and opportunity to engage more deeply with topics of interest through programming.

  8. This young woman is extraordinary. Most of are not. Using her as a model for restructuring education is, well, ill-advised. We must do something better than what we are doing–nuther subject for endless discussion, but thinking that self-motivation will bring a bright young mind in Detroit, MI or Grundy, Va to a PhD in physics simply isn't a realistic plan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.