Is "Unschooling" a
|Beyond my sense that “unschooling” is an inadequate term, I feel that when it is used in certain ways it becomes misleading.|
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. 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 how those things happened, or to 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. 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? I like “self-education” these days as a short-form. Give any of us two hundred pages or an hour or two of conversation 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 editor and the author of twelve books, including Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society and Beyond School: Living as If School Doesn't Exist.