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 www.LifeLearningMagazine.com.