What’s in a name? Lots, when it comes to describing something that’s as emotionally and politically charged, not to mention as full of assumptions, as parenting and education.
In many cases, the terms “homeschooling,” “deschooling,” “unschooling,” “home-based learning,” “home-based education” and “self-directed learning” are used interchangeably. Unfortunately, there is no standardized terminology that everyone understands as describing the type of learning lifestyle that involves self-directed, non-tested, non-graded, non-curriculum, community-based learning from life.
Although “homeschooling” has become a generic term, it has many uses and contexts, some of which are not always accurate or precise. I have unquestionably helped popularize the term “homeschooling” since beginning to promote the phenomenon in the 1970s, but would rather not use it today because it has come to describe a parent-driven, school-at-home style of education. It is not accurate to describe a learner-driven style of education, which uses life and the community – even the world – as its resource, and which most certainly doesn’t look like school. (The trappings of school, such as grading, testing, labeling, compulsory attendance, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and so on, have nothing to do with learning and, in fact, get in its way.)
Some people find the terms “deschooling” and “unschooling” and even “radical unschooling” preferable to “homeschooling.” Others see them as a subset of the homeschooling movement – one end of a spectrum of styles, in effect. However, I dislike them just as much as I dislike the term “homeschooling.” If used at all, I believe, they should be used as verbs.
The late educational reformer and author John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in the 1970s and author Ivan Illich used the term “deschooling” in the late 1960s to describe the process of removing school from people’s lives, and to help people realize that school is not the best way for people to learn.
The term “unschooling” (sometimes prefaced with adjectives like “radical”) is now used by some people to describe an informal, learner-directed style of homeschooling – and I sometimes use the term in my writings and public speaking as a useful shorthand way of describing learning without school or its trappings. But I dislike using “deschooling” and “unschooling” as nouns, since they are negative, describing what this type of education isn’t, rather than what it is. Further, the type of learning I espouse is not a method of education; it is, rather, a way of looking at the world and at children…a lifestyle or even a worldview.
Unfortunately, the concepts of learning and schooling are tied together in most people’s minds, even though untold numbers of people around the world are proving every day that learning is a lifelong pursuit that doesn’t require schooling, teaching or any of the institutional formalities of formal education. That is why I believe there is a need for some new terminology. Please help me popularize the use of terms like “life learning” and “self-directed learning” because they put the emphasis on learning rather than on being taught. If you have any feedback on the use of these terms – or ideas for others – I’d be glad to hear from you.
This essay first appeared in Life Learning Magazine in 2009.
Photo by Galt Family Archives. Sam Hauka family nn their farm. Circa 1950 -1960.