Living As If School Doesn’t Exist

by Wendy Priesnitz

Schools sort, slot, categorize, package, and label. And they teach students that those activities are important. Most of us learned the lesson well. Even those of us who have rejected schooling for ourselves or our children carry those remnants with us.

However, few people fit as neatly into categories as our grade four teachers would have liked. I’m no exception and perhaps that is why I have long refused to label myself – especially with words ending in “ism” and “ist.” Nevertheless, categories and the words used to distinguish them from each other are convenient if we are going to discuss ideas.

And, as someone whose mission has long been to help create social change, I like discussing ideas. I also know that words are extremely powerful and can either help or hinder change. Since education and parenting are emotionally and politically charged, and change involves the challenging of some very deeply-held assumptions and beliefs about children and their place in the world, I like to choose my words carefully.

There are many words used in reference to education without school, including but not limited to “homeschooling,” “deschooling,” “home-based learning,” “home-based education,” “self-directed learning,” “child-led education,” “autonomous learning,” “natural learning,” “autodidacticism,” “free-range learning,” “life learning,” and “unschooling.”

The generic term is “homeschooling.” For the first decade or so of the modern homeschooling movement, that word worked fine, since the few thousand of us living that way shared a general understanding that we were experimenting with something that was as far away from the school model as possible. However, as the movement has grown, the number of approaches used by families has grown too. And now, the word “homeschooling” has come to be identified with the parent-driven, school-at-home end of the spectrum. It no longer accurately describes a curiosity-based, learner-driven, self-managing style of education, which uses life and the world as its resources, and that doesn’t look at all like school.

Naming Learning Without School

Since school is such a part of our culture, it initially made sense to describe a rejection of school (whatever one’s motivation) in terms of school. The word “deschooling” was used in the late 1960s by author Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society, Harper & Row, 1971) to help people realize that school is not the best way for people to learn and to describe the process of removing school from people’s lives. It remains a useful word for that process. And those of us who are already living and parenting without school are at the forefront of deschooling society.

The word “unschooling” has been used by many people to describe what life looks like after deschooling happens. It was coined in the late 1970s by educational reformer and author John Holt to describe the learner-directed, trusting, and respectful type of education (and attitude towards children) that he championed. He said at the time that the word was inspired by a popular commercial for the soft drink 7 Up, whose ad agency was differentiating it from the pack by describing it as unconventional, hence the Uncola. And it was a useful – and sometimes in-your-face challenging – play on words that helped to differentiate not-school-at-home from school-at-home. In recent years, some people have begun to preface “unschooling” with words like “radical” and “whole life” to further identify families who extend the trust in and respect for children beyond education and into their whole lives.

We are now seeing the next step toward a world without school. Web-based information and the devices to access it have become widely available, allowing learners to bypass schools altogether, even if they don’t consider themselves to be “unschoolers” or “homeschoolers” or have never even heard the terms before. Nevertheless, the concepts of learning and schooling are still synonymous for most people. Most have yet to leave behind the belief that one “gets” (or is given) an education through attendance at school, and that “unschooled” therefore means “uneducated.”

Moving Beyond School

So this is a good time to move beyond any terminology that involves the word “school.” If we truly are living as if school doesn’t exist, we can stop describing ourselves in school terms! We can de-couple learning – and the life we’re living with our families – from the institution of school. When we use words like “unschooling,” we are reacting to school, rather than leaving it behind as the short-term social experiment it was. I believe we will help society to move beyond narrow definitions of education when we stop defining our lives in terms of what we’re notdoing, rather than by how we are living.

But there’s more, especially relating to the use of extensions to the word “unschooling” to describe family life beyond academics. To portray how we interact with children in school terms simply gives too much credence to the place of education in our lives. Learning is simply life. We are always learning and can never stop learning, no matter how hard we might try. Children emerge from the womb eager to explore and learn; they make no distinction between what we have come to call academic learning and the other pieces of the puzzle that make up their world and the way they relate to it. As parents, we are here to facilitate that…to trust, respect, support, and love. I think that’s too big a role – and too big a paradigm change for most people – to describe by sticking “un” onto the front of a word that describes an institution of training.

I look forward to the day when the transition from passive learning to active living has ended and we all see the word “school” and its various forms as a strange little artifact of the past. That will be the day when there is no longer a need to label how we live (and inevitably learn) in our families, to devise parameters for those labels, or to judge those who disagree about their definitions.

Meanwhile, please help me popularize the use of different terms like “life learning,” “self-directed learning,” and “whole life learning,” because they put the emphasis on learning rather than on being taught, and signify moving forward rather than looking backwards.

Wendy Priesnitz is a long-time homeschooling advocate, the founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, executive editor of three other magazines, and the author of twelve books, including “School Free: The Homeschooling Handbook,” “Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society,” and “Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn’t Exist.” She is also the mother of two adult daughters who lived and learned without school. You can read more of her writing about unschooling and self-directed learning at


  1. Peter- Finished your book this weekend. Well done.

  2. This discussion is absolutely fascinating! I, too, a formal trained teacher who has also gone from career to “home schooling” mom. I often feel internally challenged and know that by making this social change in education by keeping my child out of the school system it will be for the better. I’ve found that I have had to undo most of what I thought worked in the world. I continue to break down my own barriers of understanding during this process. Not easy and it is a step out of my comfort zone. I completely agree that not putting children in a formal academic setting (school) shouldn’t have a negative association such as un-schooling. Even in graduate school the idea of school and the place of school has always been unreal to me. There is absolutely nothing about school that mimic’s the real world or the world right outside the school building. Nothing! No where in your life will you ever be sorted by age to perform on a task. No where in your life will you be confined to a desk without choice. No where in your life will you be asked to take a test at the end of every week to demonstrate your progress for a company. Developing kids as readers doesn’t mean they are allowed to check out “one” book per week and not check out another one until the previous book is turned in. No where in your life will you work a full day and then be sent home a full nights worth of work to do on top of your X hours. No where in your life will you be told you have to use the restroom at these two times. And the endless list of how school has nothing to do with the outside world continues. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with the discussion of schooling as I am the first to go to college, go to graduate school, continued education, and first to home school in a family of academics in a highly conservative part of the country. But I have peace of mind when I hear personal stories of what is happening to the youngest of kids in school, in social settings, on the bus. I hope that in my lifetime I will see radical changes for the positive happen in education and I think that home schooling parents are just starting to pave the way for future generations.

    • :D Laurie, I too was a classroom teacher for a very long time. My self-directed child is now learning at home with me. We both shrugged off traditional education. The really funny thing is that probably 1/2 of the homeschooling moms I meet these days are former teachers. We saw through what they’re calling education these days!

  3. Anne Sheridan says:

    Perhaps throwing another word into the mix isn’t what’s needed, but I am very fond of the term consent-based learning because to me it gets to the heart of the issue which is the problem of attempting to force other people to learn. It’s also what is needed for every age group not just “school age”. I do agree with the use of positive terms rather than reactive ones.

  4. Jennifer Bouchard says:

    I am homeschooling/unschooling, child led learning my seven yr old son and soon my four yr old daughter. I worry that I am too much of a push over and that I am going to mess these kids up. I guess I have a hard time letting go of how I was brought up, school is important , both of my parents spent years in college and now make good money. they have the hardest time accepting what I am doing. My son did try school and because he is quite shy he kept getting sent for hearing and speech evaluations and he can hear and speak great but he freezes when a new person or fairly new talks to him or asks a question. He flat out refuses to answer. so at five yrs old and only three weeks into his kindergarten year the teacher mentioned him being held back. I think failing a child is so horrible , at that age they shouldn’t fail at anything or be made to feel like they are not good enough. So I took him out and planned in going back at six. He was 2 1/2 months premature which made his birthday just in time for school him being the youngest and smallest , if he had been born on time he wouldn’t of been able to go til six yrs old. At six yrs we went back to school , a different one a charter school , that talked a good game . Personalized learning plan tailored to kids interests . On the first stinking day at pick up time his teacher decided to lie to my face. I could barely believe it. She said after I left my son didn’t stop talking all day and had a blast. Now while I am sure he had fun, I know he didn’t talk all day. Why did she lie? I just couldn’t bring myself to take him back after that. There was no reason for her to lie. And not once did anyone mention his learning plan instead he was sent home with algebra homework in the first day and a list of sight words he already knew. Of course no one would know he knew because he won’t talk until he feels comfortable. My daughter us the opposite of him and talks and talks and talks. They help each other , she helps him come of his shell and he helps her not talk to EVERYONE. I really don’t see the sense of teaching so much stuff at such a young age. Let them be kids for a while. Don’t overburden them with being the same as every other kid and knowing what everyone else knows.
    I go back and forth on whether or not I am too protective and hurting him or justified in my instinct to protect him while he is young.
    I read the news and some stories absolutely horrify me and I cannot even fathom sending them to such a terrible place to learn about God only knows what. My whole family disagrees with my decision and it makes me doubt myself.

    • Peter Bergson says:

      Jennifer, I hear your anxiety loudly and clearly, and I applaud you both for recognizing it and for forging ahead in spite of it. Hopefully, following the entries (blogs, articles, etc.) on this website will steel your convictions and help you continue to do what you think is best for your young people. May I make an additional suggestion (which I realize you may already be implementing)? That is to find one or two kindred spirits, preferably locally, with whom you can share both your “successes” and your challenges openly as well as hear about their experience of unschooling (or whatever you prefer to call it) as well. I used to shrug off the concept of a “support group”, or support of any kind, because I thought one should be able to thrive merely on the strength of one’s own convictions. I now see, however, that if one is faced with continuous assaults from both outside (e.g., extended family and school-based “friends”) and inside (the wounds of our own schooling), then there is nothing wrong with, and a lot to be gained from, receiving counter arguments and encouragement from those who share our values, goals and choices. Hopefully you live in an area where there is some learning resource center, unschooling network, or other group of like-minded souls from which you can find such a friend. Otherwise, the internet will have to suffice for the time being–or you could post a “Friend Wanted” sign in your local library, Whole Foods or farmers’ market, or other such hang-out which might attracted people who share your mission and vision. And of course, keep checking in with…and who knows, maybe you and your new friend(s) will create your own center and build a larger group of soul mates and fellow explorers. Whatever, keep on keepin’ on–you’re doing well, I’m sure.

  5. This has come up a lot lately in our house. We’ve gone from “unschooling” to “traditional school” to “unschooling” and now have moved onto a “free school”. Those are the words I use to describe it. But if you were to ask my son he would say: we had life, then school, then life at home again and now I go to Alpine Valley. If I by accident use the word school in describing the place he spends many days of his week as a school he yells at me. As someone who has made this journey from school teacher to living a life as a family mama, he is teaching me so much about how to frame the way we look at education. Thank you for adding words to this conversation.

  6. Trish Watts says:

    I have been homeschooling four of my five children. I am enjoying it, but now my children are telling me that they don’t feel that it is a “real” education and two of them are having socialization issues, but honestly I still think they would have anyway because they are introverts like their dad.

  7. Peter Gray says:

    Great post, Wendy. I, too, look for the day when we can “leave school behind” in our terminology about education. I’m not sure if we are completely there yet, however. As you say, for most people education still equals schooling. The advantage of “unschooling” is that it makes it clear that we are educating without schooling (even without homeschooling, in the traditional sense). Life learning, and self-directed learning, of course, are things that everyone does, whether they go to school or not, so those terms used generically apply to everyone. All of us learn much more from life than from school, and all of us direct our own learning, our real learning, what we incorporate into our minds, even when we are in school (because that can never be a passive process). So, my tendency for now is to use “life learning” or “self-directed learning” when we can, and for whom we can, but, for now, to keep the term “unschooling” when we want to make it clear that we are talking about education without schooling.

    • Learning is synonymous with being alive. We simply can’t separate the two. Allowing ourselves to sleepwalk into an “existence”, however, leads the way for us to allow ourselves and our kids to continually be institutionalized and told what to do and how to think. Thank you Wendy and Peter for what you are doing to wake people up from this Matrix scenario!

    • After spending K-5th grade in public school, we learned about Unschooling. The lightbulb came on and we pulled our daughter from the traditional system.

      Over the last year I have tried to think of another name to call this process, as I can see how confronting it is to those who are still part of the main-stream system. I’ve tried all if the titles mentioned above, but none if them roll off the tongue for me. The problem is, that for my daughter, even the words “learn” and “educate” have become negative. They mean nothing more than “sit still”, “pay attention”, don’t be a distraction”. We have to use a completely different vocabulary around learning for her. I have given up trying to reframe or redefine what it means to learn, instead choosing not to define the process at all. Which feels right, because this isn’t my process. It’s hers. When she discovers new information or practices a new skill, that’s a deeply personal experience. How can one word or phrase sum that up correctly for every individual?

      So I’m going to call it what it’s not: Unschooling. To me it’s an act of rebellion, one that refuses to define what is a sacred and personal experience. One that allows the individual the freedom to to own and experience the process and the results as their own.

      Besides, when we use the word, it puts a smile on my daughter’s face. It’s the only one of that ilk that does. So for her, I think that Unschool is right.

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