Once upon a time, a long long time ago, and also not so long ago and also still today in some spaces, children participate/d in their communities in whatever ways that were appropriate for their bodies and minds. They lived and learned simply from being part of the community. There was no special place or time just for learning, removed from living and the broader community. Then came schooling, with special buildings reserved specifically for learning. Alongside schooling, homeschooling emerged, where the learning that would have taken place in those special buildings now took place in the home. And alongside schooling and homeschooling, emerged the families in which living and learning just happened as part of life and participating as far as possible in now drastically different community structures compared to pre schooling communities.
A New Word is Born
These families that were living and learning outside of the institutional system of schooling were lumped together with homeschoolers. According to Wendy Priesnitz, a veteran life learner, writer, and advocate for life learning, this yet to be named group of families were the dominant group of families outside of school. The homeschoolers and religious homeschoolers came later. The two groups couldn’t be more different . The who, the what, the why and the how of their parenting and education journey differed markedly from the homeschoolers at the time. In the schooling system the government-corporation duo are the masters, in homeschooling the parents (and oftentimes God) are the masters, so what about those families where there was no master, just partners?
In the 1970s in the USA, there was a soft drink, 7 UP, that was also lumped together with other drinks, as a cola, though it wasn’t a cola. It was an UnCola. Well at least that’s the way the advert went. John Holt, educational critic and advocate for living and learning without coercion was quick to make a play on Uncola and coined the word Unschooling. That’s the way the story goes at least.
So the the word unschooling was born as a response to and as a differentiator from the dominant education paradigm at the time – schooling – as well as the dominant alternative phrasing at the time – homeschooling.
Objections to the Word Unschooling
While it was and clever conception and really useful, there are two common objections to the word unschooling that I am aware of.
1) The ‘un’ in unschooling
Many people dislike the ‘un’ component of unschooling. It feels mostly negative to them and it also feels like it doesn’t provide any kind of description of what unschooling actually is. A group of unschooling mothers put together an awesome list refuting the negativity of the ‘un’ in unschooling, which I have adapted slightly below.
2) The ‘schooling’ in unschooling
Wendy Priesnitz, in an insightful piece titled The Words We Use: Living As if Schooling Doesn’t Exist argues that it is time to drop unschooling precisely because it incorporates the word schooling.
“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 decouple 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.”
Cue Alternative Phrasing
For the families at the time and familiar with the advert, the word made much sense. It stuck around and it is still here today. But it is not a well loved word and does not resonate too well with many people.
A number of other phrases have been put forward and are commonly in use. Life Learning Magazine has done some incredible work in promoting the phrase Life Learning. It was coined by Wendy Priesnitz and her husband in order to reflect their lives in moving beyond unschooling. It is a phrase that is hard to fault: it is a pretty accurate description of what unschoolers actually do – learning from life and living.
Recently, with the launch of the recently formed, North American based Alliance for Self Directed Education (ASDE), Self Directed Education (SDE) seems to be gaining some traction. SDE is also umbrella term under which unschooling, democratic schooling, free schooling and non coercive learning spaces fall.
For a long time, Natural Learning was the dominant phrasing in India. Freelearning is also a popular word in India. While they are both still in use I see unschooling popping up more regularly.
Consent Based Education (CBE) is a fairly new encounter for me, and Sophie Christophy is doing some great work around consent based education. I don’t see it being used as much outside of Sophie’s work.
The psychological function of words
All these phrases hold an important space and contribute to the diversity in education narrative. For me, for now, unschooling and all these phrases hold distinctly different psychological spaces.
I find Spirit in Action’s Theory of Transformation a useful tool to help me orient myself in staying my path. Actions towards transformation could serve the function of Reform, Resistance, Recreation or Reimagination, with lots of potential overlaps. My work and energy is dedicated to resistance, recreations and reimagination. I stay out of the reform space as far as I can. Staying out of the reform space does not in anyway imply that I am indifferent to the challenges of parents who have no choice but to utilise public schools for their children’s education. I care deeply and I know there are way more people working in the reform space. All my activities tend to serve the other three categories.
In my reflecting on education as well as my acting in education, words like Life learning, SDE, freelearning, natural learning and even CBE all represent the Reimagine and Recreate spaces as part of transforming how I understand and practice education as Ivan Illich implores:
Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step forward. If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.
Not only are we telling an alternative story, we are living it too!
In defense of Unschooling
Unschooling on the other hand represents my resistance to the dominant model and the resulting dominant mindset of compulsory schooling and all that it represents.
For me, schooling is THE most potent agent of continued colonialism. It is the master’s tool to keep the master’s empire intact. It is where we learn to live in and uphold empire. It is colonizing by nature: the pedagogy; the coercive nature; the content and mindset that speaks to white-heteropatriarchal-capitalist power, planetary destruction, creative destruction, competition, adultism, epistemicide, cultural extinction and language extinction.
And so unschooling is resistance: It is by nature decolonizing, it is more in tune with nature, open to all knowledge systems, embracing of the multitude ways of learning, nurturing, cooperative, culturally regenerating, child honouring and consent based!
Of course there are and always will be the dissenters and disruptors that emerge from the industrial schooling system, swimming against the tide and resisting the effects of schooling (lf you’re reading this then you’re most likely one of the dissenters!). But by and large, as we all exit the schooling system, we exit with our minds colonised into a particular understanding of the world, of what constitutes knowledge and learning and how learning looks. This is not something we can simply shrug off. It takes considerable work to deschool from this and potentially a lifelong process of deschooling. In the meantime communities, children, families and the earth suffer.
While I was working on this piece I was going to suggest that maybe our native unschoolers, as the next generation, can shrug off the word as Wendy proposes. But then I got a massage from Ben Draper that debunked that thought. He writes about the influence of those schoolish messages that now show up for him as a father, even though he grew up relatively free of the coercive schooling institutions. The influence of the school mindset extends to even those that have lived and learned outside of it!
Finally, schooling epitomises social injustice. Its compulsory nature takes away the right of a child to have any say in her education. It is adultism in action, laying the foundation for the other kinds of oppressive practices, like racism; classism; sexism; cissexism; heterosexism and ableism. It would make sense that schools should be the agents of change instead of agents of entrenchment. They aren’t. Unschooling begins with social justice. First for the child, which by its nature requires us to investigate and then resist the systems that perpetuate the multitude of societal oppressions that is supported by the schooling structure.
And that is why I can’t give up on the word unschooling. That is why it resonates with me. That is why I am comfortable with the word schooling being there. It needs to be there. In the same way that colonization makes up the bulk of the word decolonization – which serves to name that system that fundamentally changed our psyches and cultures and societies and continues to do so, I want to understand it , name it rather than erase the source of how I came to be. Similarly, I don’t want to erase the role and responsibility of schooling in how I now think, act and feel and that thanks to schooling I am in need of constant introspection to safeguard myself from reverting to patterns of thought and actions dictated by my constantly lurking schooled mindset. Schooling has a significant historical and contemporary role to play in how society functions. It is ever present and therefore the need for the word unschooling is ever present. For me.
Maybe John Holt didn’t envision this word unschooling to represent decolonization and social justice in this way, But I am claiming it for myself. That is the nature and evolution of words.
As long as schooling is around and it influences how we see children, learning and is instrumental in creating and upholding this unjust society , I will be using this word uschooling. Despite Ursula K Le Guin’s warning that “To oppose something is to maintain it”.
I fear I am unable to take heed of her words just yet.
Mother | Wife | Unschooler | Education Freedom Advocate | Child Rights Advocate | Learning Reimagined Conference Convenor | She/Her
For the last 25 years, Zakiyya has been experimenting with living and learning in freedom, also known as unschooling. She is an advocate for freedom in education. Her three children have never been to school, living instead as if the idea of schooling doesn’t exist. She has been supporting and has been consistently sharing her reflections on the intersections of unschooling with decolonisation, social change and unschooling’s foundational role in social justice. She convened the Learning Reimagined Conferences of 2017 and 2018, both groundbreaking in their own rights with the 2018 conference being the first conference globally to focus on the socio-political dimensions of Unschooling, Decolonisation and Social Change.