Life learning (sometimes called unschooling or self-directed learning) is often said to be easier to define by saying what it isn’t, than what it is – hence the commonly used word "unschooling." Our own schooled backgrounds have convinced us that learning happens only in a dedicated building on certain days, between certain hours, and managed by a specially trained professional.
Within that schooling framework, no matter how hard teachers try and no matter how eloquent their text books, many bright students get bored, many slower students struggle and give up or lose their self-esteem, and most of them reach the end of the process unprepared to make the transition to adulthood. They have memorized a certain body of knowledge long enough to regurgitate the information on tests, but they haven’t really learned much, at least of the official curriculum. So "unschooling" is anything that is not school. (However, that is a bit too simplistic. Some who use the term find it liberating in the same way that some other words using the "un" prefix are, such as unfurling, unchained, unleashed, and so on. But I find it to be non-descriptive at best, and negative at worst.)
Life learners, unlike those who support schooling for children and young people, know that learning is not difficult, that people learn things quite easily if they’re not compelled and coerced, if they see a need to learn something, and if they are trusted and respected enough to learn it on their own timetable, at their own speed, in their own way. They know that learning cannot be produced in us and that we cannot produce it in others – no matter what age and no matter if we’re at school or at home.
They understand that the tools used in schools, such as text books, lesson plans, testing, grading, report cards, course requirements, motivating students, homework assignments, blackboard writing, bulletin board decorating, schedules and attendance regulations, are all designed to manage or account for the efficient delivery of information in a publicly funded setting. They have little to do with how people actually learn.
Life learning happens independent of time, location or the presence of a teacher. It does not require mom or dad to teach, or kids to work in workbooks at the kitchen table from nine to noon from September to June.
Life learning is learner driven. It involves living and learning – in and from the real world. It is about exploring, questioning, experimenting, making messes, taking risks without fear of ridicule, making mistakes and trying again.
Life learning does not involve memorized theory so much as it requires applying knowledge. And that often means moving around, talking, experimenting, thinking, jumping up and down...and sometimes appearing not to be doing anything at all. It allows flexibility, independence and freedom from all the school-type interferences that can get in the way of real learning.
In conventional education, the curriculum rules. It must be completed so that testing, grading and reporting can begin. In this sort of atmosphere, accurately duplicating the results of scientific experiments that others have already performed is more important than finding out something new. Finishing pages of math equations is more important than understanding how the numbers relate to each other.
But kids are natural scientists and don’t need to be taught science. They are also natural mathematicians and don’t need to be told how to count things. Developmental psychologist and Harvard professor Robert White calls this instinct to learn, to manipulate, to master an “urge toward competence.” What he means is that we are born with not just a desire, but the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control and understand the world in which we live.
We do not just sit and wait for the world to come to us...unless we are among the unfortunate majority who are told to sit down, line up, be quiet and wait. Life learners try actively to interpret the world, to make sense of it. Of course, this drive to discover means we are constantly learning...and also experiencing the pride that comes with having understood new things and having mastered new skills.
So life learning is about trusting kids to learn what they need to know and about helping them to learn and grow in their own ways. It is about respecting the everyday experiences that enable children to understand the world and their culture and to interact with it.
Children learn two of the most important and difficult things they will ever learn during the first two years of life: how to walk and how to talk. Why? Because they want to. So they work hard at learning the necessary skills, purposefully, passionately, constantly. As parents, we encourage, support, protect, cheer from the sidelines and model the behavior. But most of all, we trust in their ultimate success.
That early learning is a model for all self-directed learning. As parents, our role is the same as it was when our children learned how to walk and talk. We talk with our kids and answer their questions honestly; we provide opportunities for interaction with other people (including elderly family and community members); we share and model learning; we create a secure environment by supporting the risk-and mistake-making processes; we keep their world whole rather than breaking it up into subjects; we enrich their environment with books, pens, paper and other learning materials; we celebrate their accomplishments; we learn about and help them utilize their individual learning styles; and we provide access to the real world and the tools that are part of it.
We also provide the time for our children to investigate their own ideas. And – perhaps the biggest challenge for many parents – we are flexible and patient observers of a process that is not particularly sequential or organized, in spite of what the curriculum writers would have us believe.
Life learning is not a method of education, nor are there any step-by-step guidelines or rules for doing it the right way. It is a way of life, a way of looking at the world and at children. It is about self-direction, about respect, about learning from life and throughout life. It is about kids, families and communities regaining control over their days, their learning, their money, their resources, and their ability to direct and manage themselves.
As William Butler Yeats is said to have written, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning and author of School Free - The Homeschooling Handbook, Challenging Assumptions in Education, and Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn't Exist. Learn more about her and her books. An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the magazine Child's Play in 1988.