Life Learning Terminology

by Wendy Priesnitz

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," "self-directed learning," "autonomous learning," and "life learning" are used interchangeably. Some people prefer the word "autodidact," which means "self-taught," and others like the idea of "informal learning" or "natural learning." There are also many subsets of those words, and a variety of different styles and philosophies within them. There is no standardized terminology that everyone agrees with, but they all refer to learning without schooling.

"Homeschooling" is the original word used, and is often used in governmental regulations in Canada. Although it has become a generic term, for many families -  mine included - it is not particularly 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 school-at-home, in which I do not personally believe. Although some families do, indeed, bring the school style of education home, using pre-packaged curriculum materials, "homeschooling" does not accurately describe the lives of the growing number of families who favour a learner-driven style of education, which uses life and the world as its resource, and which most certainly doesn't look like school. (In fact, the trappings of school, such as grading, testing, labeling, compulsory attendance, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and so on, have nothing to do with real learning and, in fact, mostly get in its way.)

Some people find the terms "deschooling" and "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.