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Learning without school

The Words We Use: 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 - who choose to live as if school doesn't exist - 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.” That's largely because few of us fit perfectly into any one category, and certainly not children, who are developing, growing, and changing at a fast rate. Nevertheless, categories and the words used to distinguish them from each other are convenient if we are going to discuss ideas.

And, as a writer and 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 "unschooling," "life learning," "deschooling," "home-based education," "self-directed learning," "child-led education," "autonomous learning," "natural learning," "autodidacticism," "free-range learning," and "homeschooling." In many ways, each of those words describe – however imperfectly and imprecisely – various stages along a spectrum of school-free learning; each of those terms could also be seen to have its own spectrum.

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 over the past forty or so years, 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...and often seen by the mainstream media as belonging to stereotypical evangelical Christians. It no longer is seen to accurately describe 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 (and the associated thinking) 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 1970s by educational reformer and author John Holt, who used it in the second issue of his now-defunct newsletter Growing Without Schooling to describe "taking kids out of school." It has since come to describe the learner-directed, trusting, and respectful type of education (and attitude towards children) that he championed (and that we write about in this magazine. He said at the time that the word was inspired by a popular commercial for the soft drink 7Up, whose ad agency was differentiating it from the pack by describing it as unconventional, hence the Uncola. Unschooling 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. (That usage seems to me to be redundant, since Holt himself promoted freedom for children in all aspects of life.) Others have begun to use the term to describe things that are not about children learning without school, such as Sudbury Valley Schools (learner-directed but with compulsory attendance...and still schools) and adult education (sometimes confusing it with "life-long learning."

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 I think 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 not doing, 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. Unschooling may be a useful word to open the minds of those who equate learning with schooling. Beyond that, it’s not particularly helpful as a way to help people understand what life can look like when we move beyond schooling.

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, I think it's important to minimize the sorting, slotting, and categorizing, as well as the principles, rules, requirements, labels, and dogma that go along with that.

Please help me popularize the use of terminology that puts the emphasis on living through learning rather than on being taught, and that signifies moving forward rather than looking backwards. The term our family coined back in the 1990s is "life learning," and I think it works well to describe the natural unfolding of a self-designed life.

Wendy Priesnitz is a pioneer in the field of learning without schooling, the founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, and author of School Free - The Homeschooling Handbook, Challenging Assumptions in Education, Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn't  Exist, and a number of other titles, as well as the editor of the anthology of essays from Life Learning Magazine called Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier. She has two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and '80s.

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