The Words We
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
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
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
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
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,
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.