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how to describe unschooling

Is "Unschooling" a Helpful Word?
Taking Possession of Our Lives and Our Learning

By Wendy Priesnitz

I find language to be a difficult thing. As a writer, I spend a great deal of time choosing my words, wanting to find just the right ones. Some words seem inappropriate; others seem inaccurate; still others have too many meanings. That pickiness, coupled with my belief in the power of words to create change, often makes me a lot less prolific than I would like to be.

I especially struggle with the terminology that relates to the topic I write most about: education (even that word can be problematic!). For instance, anyone who has read this magazine for awhile, or my blogs, or any of my books will know that I am not fond of the word “unschooling.” As the term and what it stands for have become more public in the past year, people have been challenging me about that, although I am not the only one who experiences difficulty describing this way of life.

Those who favor the term “unschooling” argue that it is positive and liberating, in the way that “unleashing,” “unbinding,” “unfurling” are. As yes, the process is all those wonderful things. In fact, I think “unschooling” is a fine description of the process of liberation from school and its mindset and trappings. And since that process is a continuum, its use is helpful on an ongoing basis. (Its increasing popularity also makes it necessary as a website search keyword, whether I like it or not.)

The term can be traced back to John Holt. From what I remember of the discussions I had with John in the 1970s and early 80s, I’m quite sure he coined the word (based on a 7-Up commercial branding it the “un-cola") to describe that very process of taking/keeping kids out of school – away from the school mindset – and allowing them to learn naturally.

However, ever since I first heard John use “unschooling,” I have thought that it’s an inadequate descriptor of the way of life that results from that liberation process. I doubt many observers – friendly or otherwise – think of its similarity to those other “un” words without prompting. And I see that everyone spends a lot of time trying to define it. The fact that it has been extended in recent years with terms like “radical” and “whole life” points to the need to remedy its inadequacy. Unfortunately, those very valid attempts to move the word from mere academics to other aspects of life just result in the very sort of slicing and dicing that school creates! And they also, I worry, lead people to believe that "unschooling" is a thing in its own right, with a clear definition and parameters – that there is a right way or a wrong way of doing it. (And there really isn't, except in the minds of some who seek to redefine the term beyond Holt's original usage, or to claim it for themselves.)

Perhaps describing this way of living with children (and learning as an adult) is impossible using just one word or a phrase. And that certainly limits attempts to help others understand what we’re talking about!

But my problem goes deeper than that. Beyond my sense that “unschooling” is an inadequate term, I feel that when it is used in certain ways it becomes misleading. I cringe when I hear young people saying they’ve been “unschooled” or parents saying that they “unschooled” their kids (meaning, of course, that they were freely living, doing, being, developing…without attending school, without rules or compulsion, etc.). So why does that bother me so much? Aside from the obvious suggestion that the “unschooled” person has grown beyond compulsory school age, it has to do with activity versus passivity, and with doing something rather than learning to do it – both of which I think are key components of this difficult-to-describe way of living.

The way of living that we’re talking about (and the “education” or “learning” that’s part of that life) is an active one. It is not done to us or for us. It is something we do, rather than something we are given. Yes, children and young people must go through the process of being “unschooled” – or perhaps “deschooled” (presuming their parents favored the school mindset when they were born) in order to live in this autonomous manner. And that advocacy, protection, etc. is a gift, for sure. But after and beyond that, and if we really mean what we say we mean when we try to define the terminology, everyone is on his or her own.

There is a Buddhist saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That means that when we’re ready to understand (to learn, as we say) or to do something, we will. Things that others say, observations of our environment, passages read in books, will all come to our attention as opportunities to make things “click.” Life learners like to define “ready” as when interest, curiosity, and need are present. It’s all those things and probably more, including a bit of serendipity.

That’s why most of us life learners don’t know – or can’t describe – how our children learned to read. Those kids just began to do it. And I don’t think it is even necessary to try and understand or describe how the learning took place.

Secondly, does learning ever end so that one can say a person’s “unschooling” is in the past? Learning is not a finite thing. When exactly does the process of learning to read end? When we can identify a stop sign? Read Dick and Jane books? A newspaper? A games manual? War and Peace? Like you, I am still learning to read, to comprehend more, to expand my vocabulary, to read more quickly when I want to, to explore different genres and styles of writing, and to retain the focus and attention span that are being eroded by reading short online pieces. My learning to read will probably never end; at some point, I may have to learn to use Braille!

The popularity of, and trust in, the institution of schooling in our culture means that something so simple is so difficult to explain and to understand. We’ve been brainwashed by the education industry to think that knowing results from learning, which is orchestrated by teaching. And that good teaching is created and supported by a whole infrastructure of curriculum, manipulation and motivation techniques, teacher educators, text book writers and publishers, and so on.

So where does that leave me as a writer grasping for words? These days, I like “self-education” and “life learning” as short-forms. Give any of us two hundred pages or an hour or two of conversation (or the many hundreds of articles on this website!) and we’ll be able to make a good start at describing this way of living and being. Maybe “living” is the best word of all – if only we can help people get their heads around the idea of letting kids be!

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning’s founder and editor, and the author of thirteen books, including Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society and Beyond School: Living as If School Doesn't Exist. She has been an advocate for children's rights and life learning since the 1970s, and is the mother of two grown daughters who grew up without school.

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