The semantic bleaching of ‘unschooling’

Even though semantic bleaching, the evolution of a word’s meaning over time, is a natural process in language, it can sometimes create confusion, annoyance, and even protest (think of the ongoing media lament over the word “literally”). In homeschooling circles, the current buzz is all about the word “unschooling.”

Weeks ago I wrote about it on this blog. I’ve also seen and heard the topic discussed on social media and in conversation. One of the difficulties in talking about the definition of unschooling is that it’s never really had a formal definition.  John Holt coined it in the 1970s upon hearing a 7-UP commercial dubbing the soft drink “the uncola.” He applied the prefix accordingly and came up with “unschooling.” In the late 1970s when he started the magazine Growing Without Schooling he said the word would be used “when we mean taking kids out of school.”

ball shaped blur close up focus
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on

In the ensuing years unschooling became a descriptor for a certain style of homeschooling, one that eschewed recreating school at home and prioritized trusting children’s innate abilities and curiosity. Some unschoolers believed that its principles should be applied in all areas of child rearing and coined the term “radical unschooling.” In the nascent world of e-lists and the internet, debates about the definition of unschooling raged and weren’t always fruitful.  I remember, for instance, being accused of harming my relationship with my kids because we didn’t have a television.

Although I embraced and lived the tenets of unschooling, I shied away from using the term. To me, it was always more of a philosophy and a way of life than a dogmatic method. The very idea of creating a set of rules for it seemed ironic and ludicrous. When I started writing more about homeschooling, I began to use the term to help describe my experiences.

Today, as the semantic bleaching of unschooling has moved into new territory, I find myself inclined to use the word less and less, because unschooling is now used as a term to describe enrolling children in school. Elon Musk unschooled his kids, we hear, by sending them to the school he created. The Boston Globe recently published a piece on unschooling that turned out to be mostly about the growing number of self-directed learning centers.

I think a range of educational options is beneficial for all of us, so I have nothing against learning centers, but I prefer to call them what they are: alternative schools. I understand that they don’t want to think of themselves that way, and in many cases can’t, since they’re using homeschooling law to operate, but a building designed for the purposes of education, regardless of the philosophy behind how that education is conducted, is a school. Of course there are thorny issues involved. For example, when a child is attending only two days a week versus four or five, from a legal perspective is that child attending school or not? In my state, to my knowledge only one learning center has tackled that question, becoming a private school while also offering a homeschooling program (1-3 day enrollment means you’re a homeschooler, 4-5 day enrollment means you’re in the private school). At others, children are legally classified as homeschoolers even if they’re being dropped off all day, every day.

While alternative schools can provide excellent part-time or full-time options for many parents, they often target homeschoolers as a market, sometimes eroding local support groups and other forms of community vital to many homeschooling families. As my friend and colleague Sophia Sayigh wrote in this article, they also make it less likely that new homeschoolers will engage in the hard yet rewarding work of community building. There is also, of course, the underlying message that parents need experts to raise and educate their children.

All this is a far cry from what I and many others have known as unschooling, a lifestyle that, as much as it prioritized trusting children, included nurturing family relationships and connections to the wider world. In my situation, with both parents having to work, we sought jobs with flexibility that allowed us to trade off being with the kids and/or take our kids to work with us. My kids attended countless professional rehearsals and meetings, finding a quiet space to read, draw, play games, or engage in whatever activity they brought along while the adults did their work. They spent time at the park, the beach, the library, museums, historic houses, the theater, the conservation area near our home. When we went to Food Not Bombs, they helped serve meals with us. When I organized a folk music coffeehouse, they were there to help set up, house manage, sell coffee and treats, and clean up. When they and their friends wanted to write, we started a creative writing workshop, meeting weekly during off hours at the restaurant owned by another homeschooling family. At home, we spent time together reading books, playing games, and talking about whatever interesting topic came up, but as often as not we were in our own spaces, reading, working, making art, building puppet theaters, being with the ducks in the backyard, or doing whatever else needed or wanted to be done. This was unschooling to us, living each day in the moment with our work, our friends, our passions, our world. I can’t imagine having done it without that larger world, and the people and places we connected with and learned from every day. An alternative school can offer many wonderful things, but it can’t offer that kind of range, independence, and freedom to explore.

Nevertheless, as homeschooling grows it evolves and the semantic bleaching of unschooling goes on, which means that going forward I’ll talk less about unschooling and more about slow homeschooling, and continue to share my own thoughts and experiences while advocating for and supporting those who choose independent homeschooling.




8 thoughts on “The semantic bleaching of ‘unschooling’

  1. I’m sorry to hear you’ll be talking less and less about unschooling, Milva. I’ve loved your perspective!
    I agree that there’s been multiple attempts to co-opt the word. But I don’t feel like giving up on it yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the term is being co-opted because of it’s familiarity from press coverage. It has a certain caché these days. But I don’t like how it’s being intellectualized and repackaged to make it more palatable to parents who still need it to look like school from the outside. Thanks for tackling this topic, Milva!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Terrific post, as always, Milva! I am deeply grateful for the too-short time my kids and I had with you, Sophia, and so many others in the Homeschooling Together community: real-life, chaotic, wonderful, thought-provoking, sometimes infuriating but always family. xottf

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed your article! This part especially resonates with me:

    “….we spent time together reading books, playing games, and talking about whatever interesting topic came up, but as often as not we were in our own spaces, reading, working, making art, building puppet theaters, being with the ducks in the backyard, or doing whatever else needed or wanted to be done. This was unschooling to us, living each day in the moment with our work, our friends, our passions, our world.”

    I’ve been moving away from the word “unschooling”, too. I’m just not comfortable with terming our learning as something containing the word “school”. Too often, society has the assumption that school is THE place where learning happens, and we know that isn’t true.

    I’m not sure what title to give us, really, but “life learners” seems accurate. Aren’t we all learning in life? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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