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After a discussion with Hanna last night about unschooling vs. homeschooling vs. home-based education (as vocabulary choices and as philosophies), I wanted to clarify a couple of things re: word choice in my blog posts about nontraditional learning.

We were talking about the language I used in my recently-published interview as a “grown unschooler.”

In my life, I tend to use all three of these terms (and variations thereof) to talk about myself and my life experience. As a child, I used “homeschooling” because that was predominantly what my parents used. As a teenager I discovered “unschooling” as a term to differentiate more child-directed forms of homeschooling from those which sought to replicate school-at-home (this usage dates back to the 1970s), and found it more usefully described my particular experience of homeschooling — particularly as a way to distinguish myself from the majority of homeschooled teenagers in my area who were politically, socially, and pedagogically conservative.

More recently, since I’ve been doing scholarly reading and writing on the subject of education, learning, schooling, and pedagogy, I’ve become more varied and more deliberate in my choice of words to describe learning and teaching experiences. In my academic writing, I tend to use the word “school” to mean formal, institution-based educational experiences specifically — while “education” means learning and teaching experiences in a broader sense. Learning, of course, can take place even when deliberately-planned educative environments and/or experiences are absent. But home-based education is, usually, planned. Even if to the extent that parents have chosen to allow their children to grow outside of the default option which, in our culture, is formal schooling (public or private).

“Unschooling.” It’s an unsatisfactory word to me for a couple of reasons. One is the prefix “un” which right away gets us into negative territory. Instead of being for something (home-based education; learner-directed education) we’re defining ourselves against something (institutional school). The second, related, issue is that it still frames learning as something to do with school — even if set up as school’s opposite.

In fact, I think — and I imagine most self-identified unschoolers would agree — that learning and education are much, much bigger than mere school or its opposite. Learning can take place in, but is not bound by, formal schooling or deliberate educational activities. So these days, I try to move away from “school” terms as much as possible when I describe my own learning background pre-college.

At the same time, I continue to use all of these words, depending on the audience, the context, and the topic. I’m happy to accept the label “unschooler” when it allows me to talk about my experience outside of school; I’ll use “homeschool” or “home-based education” when that seems like the most useful choice. At the end of the day, I believe words are what we make of them — words are tools — and the more and the more varied the words we have at our disposal to describe our experience (and, most importantly, the more willing we are to be flexible in our language use) the better-equipped I think we are to articulate our being-in-the-world in all its myriad permutations.

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