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Defining Life Learning / Unschooling
by Wendy Priesnitz, Editor

unschooling definition

Life learning (which you may also see called unschooling, radical unschooling, natural learning, free-range learning, homeschooling, and autonomous learning, to name just a few of the terms people use) is, at its most basic, self-directed learning that happens without attending school and without using any of the methods used by schools or conventional parenting – including coercion and extrinsic motivation. It is informal, active education about all aspects of life that results simply from living as if school doesn't exist. As you will see from reading the articles linked below and elsewhere on this site, it is based on the knowledge that people are learning beings, and will learn eagerly and well, based on their own intrinsic motivation.

In short,

  • People don't need school to learn;
  • School often gets in the way of learning;
  • Kids and other people learn what they need when they recognize the need.

In my family, we have used the term life learning for many decades to describe personalized, non-coercive, active, interest-led learning from life – for people of all ages. Although John Holt coined the term "unschooling" in the late 1970s, its use has increased over the past few years, often by families wanting simply to differentiate their secular, natural learning lifestyle from the more formal, religious, structured, curriculum-based type of education that many people now associate with the word "homeschooling."

Life learning children generally live and learn, with the support of their families, based on their own interests and their own timetables, and without curriculum, tests, grades, or coercion. But that can be difficult to envision, because most of us attended school, with its passivity, control, and artificial motivation. So that limiting experience has become the norm, against which everything else is measured. And anything other than school is considered not to be education, or even deviant, scary, irresponsible, or "unparenting."

The close to 500 articles from Life Learning Magazine that appear for free on this website illustrate a reality that is different from school (even democratic and free schools, many of which require compulsory attendance). They also differ from the way some families practice conventional homeschooling. This reality is one that is respectful of children and is based on trust rather than coercion. It is personalized and interest-led rather than directed by parents, schools, or other "experts." It preserves the curiosity with which humans are born; and nurtures their independence and self-management (with, of course, respect for their safety and health - topics that are, admittedly, somewhat fraught with controversy).

As parents, our own experience with schooling has helped convince us that learning happens only in a dedicated building on certain days, between certain hours, and managed by a specially trained professional; that children must be taught how to learn; that knowledge is sliced up and organized into various segments; that testing and grading are integral to learning; that children can't manage their own lives and learning; and that, if left to their devices, children would "do nothing" all day and make poor life choices. Hence, our difficulty with imagining life without school for children, let alone ourselves in a life-long learning context.

Aside from that, life learning is not necessarily simple for parents (and is definitely not "unparenting"), because it requires us to be partners in our children's learning and growth. That means we balance care, guidance, inspiration, interaction, behavior modeling, and communication with respect for our children's huge ability and eagerness to learn about themselves and the world in their own way and at their own unique speed. But the effort is worth it, allowing children to remain whole, curious, happy, and empowered. And it results in independent adults who love learning in the same way they did when they were first born.

Some families use the term "radical unschooling" to describe the way in which purely academic learning without school extends, almost inevitably, into other aspects of parenting. In my experience with two daughters who lived and learned without school in the 1970s and '80s, trusting them to learn reading, writing, math, science, etc. led naturally to trusting them with decisions about food, clothing, bedtime, and other things. We found that when trust in children allows the boundaries between academic subjects to be erased, boundaries between other aspects of life fall away if we let them.

So, for many people, questioning the institution of school leads to questioning how we deal with our health, how we govern ourselves, the role of corporations in our lives, and so on. I don't use the term "radical unschooling" in my own writing, and we try to avoid it in the magazine, because I believe that, in our culture, trusting and respecting children is radical, and the rest is details, to be worked out, on an evolving basis, by each individual family as they walk the parenting journey. I am also, personally, moving away from the term "unschooling," since it is now also used by many people who run schools and learning centers of various kinds.

Life learning looks a bit different in each family; it has a few basic principles (trust, respect, dignity, non-coercion, autonomy, family support) but no "rules."

I invite you to read the articles on this site as a great way to develop a full understanding of this way of living and learning. Or you can purchase one of our books on the subject.

Meanwhile, we hope that the following articles will present you with the beginnings of a sense of this joyful, progressive, and increasingly popular way of living with children and young people (and of learning for adults).

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