Defining Life Learning / Unschooling: What it is and what it isn’t

Defining Life Learning

Understanding the concept of life learning is not easy for many people who have attended school, which, in our culture, is most of us. When defining life learning, knowing what it isn’t is a good place to begin – hence the commonly used alternate word “unschooling.”

By Wendy Priesnitz

Most people in our culture went to school, some of us for many years past childhood. That background tends to make us think that learning happens only in a dedicated place on certain days, between certain hours, and managed by a specially trained professional. However, an increasing number of people are questioning whether or not what goes on in school is real learning.

Within the schooling framework, no matter how hard teachers try and how expensive their text books are, many bright students get bored, many slower students struggle and give up or lose their self-esteem. The ones who make it through the process of school have struggled to memorize a certain body of knowledge long enough to regurgitate the information on tests. But in spite of a brutal regimen of standardized testing, longer hours, and less recess, huge numbers of young people are reaching the end of the schooling process exhausted, burnt out, medicated, unhappy, and just plain unprepared to make the transition to adulthood.

Living as if School Doesn’t Exist

In reaction to this, a growing number of families are choosing a radical alternative to school for their children. They are living as if school doesn’t exist. And they are calling it “life learning” or “unschooling.” It falls under homeschooling laws, in that the children are exempt from compulsory school attendance regulations. But “homeschooling” is a poor descriptor, because learning happens everywhere, life learners are definitely not closeted at home (as their peers are in school), and none of the schoolish paraphernalia is involved.

When it comes to defining life learning, it is important to understand that the tools used in schools, such as text books, lesson plans, testing, grading, report cards, course requirements, motivating students, homework assignments, blackboard writing, bulletin board decorating, schedules and attendance regulations, are all designed to manage the efficient delivery of information in a publicly funded school setting. They have little to do with how people actually learn.

The term “unschooling” was coined in the 1970s by educational reformer and author John Holt. Those who use the term find it liberating in the same way that some other words using the “un” prefix are, such as unfurling, unchaining, unleashing, and so on. But I find it to be non-descriptive and therefore inadequate for describing a way of life and learning that is respectful of children and is based on trust rather than coercion; is personalized and interest-led rather than directed by parents, schools, or other “experts;” preserves the curiosity with which humans are born; and nurtures their independence and self-management.

Here, then, are some things that will be helpful when defining life learning.

Life learners know that learning is not difficult, that people learn things quite easily if they’re not compelled and coerced, if they see a need to learn something, and if they are trusted and respected enough to learn it on their own timetable, at their own speed, in their own way, and in relation to their own needs. They know that learning cannot be produced in us and that we cannot produce it in others – no matter what age and no matter if we’re at school or at home.

Life learning happens independent of time, location, or the presence of a teacher. It does not require mom or dad to teach, or kids to work in workbooks at the kitchen table from nine to noon from September to June.

Life learning is learner driven. It involves living and learning – in and from the real world. It is about exploring, questioning, experimenting, making messes, taking risks without fear of ridicule, making mistakes, and trying again.

In defining life learning, remember that, in conventional education (whether it is school- or home-based), the curriculum rules. It must be completed so that testing, grading, and reporting can begin. In this sort of atmosphere, accurately duplicating the results of scientific experiments that others have already performed is more important than finding out something new. Finishing pages of math equations is more important than understanding how the numbers relate to each other.

Natural Desire to Learn

But kids are natural scientists and don’t need to be taught science. They are also natural mathematicians and don’t need to be told how to count things. The late developmental psychologist and Harvard professor Robert White called this instinct to learn, to manipulate, and to master an “urge toward competence.” What he meant is that we are born with not just a desire, but the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control and understand the world in which we live.

We do not just sit and wait for the world to come to us…unless we are among the unfortunate majority who are told to sit down, line up, be quiet, and wait to be told and taught what someone else thinks we should known. Life learners are intrinsically motivated to actively to interpret the world, to make sense of it. Of course, this drive to discover means we are constantly learning…and also experiencing the pride that comes with having understood new things and having mastered new skills.

Trusting Children

So life learning is about trusting kids to learn what they need to know and about helping them to learn and grow in their own ways. It is about helping children access the real world and respecting the resulting everyday experiences that enable children to understand the world and their culture, and to interact with it.

Children learn two of the most important and difficult things they will ever learn during the first two years of life: how to walk and how to talk. Why? Because they want to. So they work hard at learning the necessary skills, purposefully, passionately, constantly. As parents, we encourage, support, protect, cheer from the sidelines and model the behavior. But most of all, we trust in their ultimate success.

That early learning is a model for all self-directed learning and is helpful to keep in mind when defining life learning. As parents, our role is the same as it was when our children learned how to walk and talk. We talk with our kids and answer their questions honestly; we provide opportunities for interaction with other people (including elderly family and community members); we share and model learning; we create a secure environment for practice and exploration by supporting the risk-and mistake-making processes; we keep their world whole rather than breaking it up into subjects; we enrich their environment with books, films, trips, and other opportunities; we celebrate their accomplishments; we learn about and help them utilize their individual learning styles; and we provide access to the real world and the tools that are part of it.

We also provide the time for our children to investigate their own ideas. And – perhaps the biggest challenge for many parents – we are flexible and patient observers of a highly personalized process that is not particularly sequential or organized, in spite of what the curriculum writers would have us believe.

Life learning is not a method of education, nor are there any step-by-step guidelines or rules for doing it the right way. It is a way of life, a way of looking at the world and at children. It is about self-direction, about respect, about learning from life and throughout life. It is about kids, families, and communities regaining control over their days, their learning, their money, their resources, and their ability to direct and manage themselves.

And (and this is another of my beefs about using the term “unschooling”), life learning is far from being “unparenting.” As easy as learning is for kids when they’re ready and interested, it can be hard work for parents, if only because it challenges virtually everything we know about children and their ability to learn. Trusting our children is difficult when we weren’t trusted as children! It requires us to relinquish control and replace it with guidance. Being aware of our children’s interests and needs requires vigilance and communication and presence. It can also be lonely, since life learners are still a minority in our society.

You can read a variety of other articles that are helpful in defining life learning / unschooling on the definitions section of the Life Learning Magazine website.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning Magazine and author of School Free – The Homeschooling Handbook, Challenging Assumptions in Education, and Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn’t Exist. This is adapted from Life Learning Magazine; an earlier version of this article originally appeared in the magazine Child’s Play in 1988.