Unschooling & Labels

 We’ve always used the label Unschooling for our choice of lifestyle and I wanted to clear some of the misconceptions surrounding the term. I’ve recently noticed many families shy away from using the term Unschooling to describe their home education choices because of the seemingly negative connotations attributed to it. Here’s my take on the label.


Firstly, what does Unschooling actually mean? The most commonly used understanding of where the term originated is by author John Holt who apparently saw a television add for a brand of soda which was pitching itself against Coca Cola (of course the market giant) and claiming to be ‘Un-Cola’. So this drink was Not Cola in the least and therefore different and original. I assume Holt really liked the simplicity of using just a prefix – the prefix ‘un’ means ‘not’ –  to differentiate its brand, and the point of the commercial as the obvious disparity between the two, one was Coca Cola and the other was most definitely NOT Cola. In any case, soon after, the label Unschooling was born and when broken down the term Unschool essentially means ‘NOT School’.

If we define school by what we experience in the western world it is easy to see why Holt liked this explanation of the learning lifestyle that he was championing – very little of the institution of school ever makes  it into the lives of Unschoolers. Holt obviously hoped that by clearly defining Unschooling as NOT School people would easily understand the meaning of this choice. However, the perplexity seems to reign in the definition of School. I’ve discovered that most people seem to believe that the term school is equal to the term Education and when you look up the meanings for each word, it’s easy to understand the confusion. However, if we look at the broader meaning of Education we find that in essence, the process of inquiry and gaining knowledge can be applied to many facets of every day life, so therefore Holt choosing Unschooling to mean NOT School makes absolute sense.

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Some families – and even some of the bigger names in the alternative home education movement – dislike the term Unschooling because it seems to focus on the negative; on what it is NOT rather than what it IS. However, I disagree about it being negative. If school is such an integral part of our western society then it is easy to assume that most children would attend school at the appropriate age. When we say we are Unschooling, we are basically saying that we are Not inviting school into our lives and choosing to continue living our lives Without School. Our life looks nothing like school – we live and learn from daily life – so the term feels very fitting for our family.

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I’ve observed that there seems to be a hesitation with using a specific term for the choice of home education a family has chosen, and that people are shying away from using labels altogether. While on one hand I understand the desire to rebel against societys need to categorise everything, on the other hand if we do not label what we do, then how do we find our tribe? How do we find the community of people who truly understand our ways of thinking and can best support us in this evolving journey? Especially when you are making decisions that are on the outer of mainstream understanding, it is wonderful to have people in your corner who really get you and where you feel you belong.

In this case, I feel labels are important and I honestly believe that once we get really comfortable with the choice we’ve made, we usually have no problems sharing it with the world. So is the term Unschooling the problem, or the making of the decision which is causing angst?  For us, we’re happy to stick with the term Unschooling because we see learning as a natural and every day process, not something that is manufactured and systematised.

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Using the Unschooling label helps us identify with other families who are choosing a similar route, to gather support when we need it, and even to inspire others who feel this is a path they want to take. Labels don’t have to be about comparison or negativity, not if we choose not to engage in that way of thinking. It feels very positive to us to use the term Unschooling, and I encourage you to own the various decisions and ways of living you’re making with your family and use those labels far and wide. Build your village and community and revel in the fact that you’ve made choices that feel good for you!