deschooling, Discipleship, Education, Home-Based Education, Life Learning, Natural Learning, Unschooling

What is in a name? What shall we call it?

In the Drabsch (2013) e-brief to the NSW Parliament, Home Education in NSW, it is reported that distance education is not considered to be a form of home education/home schooling by the NSW Department of Education, because the children are directly enrolled in a Department controlled school, and are subject to Department supervised schooling.  However, it is identified that amongst those who educate at home, the terms home education and home schooling are used interchangeably.

I would like to suggest that it is important that members of the home education/home schooling community commence a discussion about the terminologies that are used when talking about education that is outside the Education Department controlled schooling system.

I am happy to allow the Department to own the term Distance Education.  However, I would prefer the term to be Distance Schooling, because I do not necessarily agree that what is delivered in schools is an education.  In schools, students are schooled and many receive a schooling.

In my PhD Dissertation I spent time differentiating between receiving an education and being schooled (Box, 2014, pp. 33 to 122).  From my perspective, it is possible to be schooled at home, so I would like to reserve the term home schooling for the process of reproducing the school environment in the home.  On the other hand, home schooled children, in most cases, do receive an education, therefore I am pleased to identify home schooling as a subset of home education.  This being granted, I think that it is better to call home education, “home-based education”.  The reason for my recommendation is that one of the significant criticisms of home schooling is the potential for children to be home-bound, whilst being home schooled.  This is not the case, in the majority of instances, but it has been the case for some children who were home schooled.  It was definitely the experience of one of the adults I interviewed who had been home schooled during their teens.  The person hated the concept of home school, and was quick to admit that during their home schooling experience:  “I didn’t know any other kids. Home schooling was a horror experience, not primarily from the program, but from the complete package. We had our own church, our own school, there was nothing outside of the home.”  This was definitely the minority view, and no other home-based educating family reported anything resembling the home-bound nature of this case.   The term home-based education implies that home is a base from which an education takes place in a range of settings.  The children return to the base, and the majority of the basic education tasks are conducted in the home, however, home-based education provides a range of social and other educational activities outside the home.

On page 2 of the Drabsch (2013) e-brief, three approaches to home-based education are identified.  These three are:

i.     Structured learning environment — families in this category closely follow some kind of curriculum and learning is structured in a way similar to the classroom.  (I would like to call this approach: home school / home schooling);

ii.   Informal learning environment — those in this category may use various resources, including some textbooks, but they are less structured in their approach than those in the first group.  (I would like to call this approach: unschooling.  Many who call themselves unschoolers would object to this because they tend to work more in the next category.  However, bear with me.  The purpose of this exercise is to provoke broader discussion, and in the end come up with some terms that every one understands and agrees to.  I am not precious with these ideas.  Others may have a better idea, and that is fine, as long as it is clear that we all understand what we mean when certain words are being used).

iii.  Unschoolers / natural learners — This involves no structured learning at all, due to the belief that the best learning takes place by maximising the opportunities present in the various activities that constitute daily life and by following the child’s interests. (I would like to call this approach, radical unschooling.  Once again, I know that will upset some who call themselves unschoolers, but who really radically unschool; and upset the radical unschoolers who like to call themselves unschoolers.  Be that as it may, I am looking for some consistency, and this is where I have started the discussion).

So, I am suggesting that the umbrella term for the three approaches (as identified by the e-brief) is “home-based education”.  I am then arguing that the three approaches seem to be fairly fair appraisals of the broader clusters of home-based education styles.  As suggested above, I would like to call these three approaches: “home schooling”, “unschooling” and “radical unschooling”.

Outside of these terms there are a large range of other terms that are used in the home-based education community.  These terms include (but are not limited to): natural learning, life learning, discipleship, hands-on learning, academic, child-centred, child-focused, self-directed, eclectic learning, family-friendly education, activities-based learning, kitchen-table learning, practical learning, and many more.  In my dissertation (Box, 2014, pp. 155-166) I argue that these are emphases within the three main approaches.  Therefore, one might have a home schooling approach with a discipleship emphasis, or an unschooling approach with a discipleship emphasis, or an unschooling approach with a natural learning emphasis, or an unschooling approach with an academic emphasis, and so forth.  I have commenced the discussion on the definitions elsewhere in this blog site, but would really like to engage in further discussion around the topic.

I am not wanting to unnecessarily offend good people who are doing good things in the home-based education community.  However, I would like to be able to write using terminology that the majority of people are happy to employ, and that the majority of people are in agreement as to what is meant by the terms.

I am proposing that some kind of wiki be set up so that the ongoing discussion can proceed in the broader home-based education community.  Any thoughts?


Box, L A. (2014). A Proposal to Deschool, then Unschool Australian Biblical Christian Education. Unpublished dissertation submitted for fulfillment of Doctor of Philosophy, in the School of Applied Theology, New Geneva Theological Seminary, Virginia, U.S.A.

Drabsch, T. (2013). Home Education in NSW. Sydney: N.S. W. Parliamentary Research Service. e-brief 15. Downloaded 25/09/2014, from:$File/Home%20schooling%20GG%203.pdf

Education, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 17: Don’t wait to be taught: have a go and learn.

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 48  “School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.  Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition.”

It has been very painful to watch someone I know struggle with the helplessness that they feel because their schooling has instilled in them that unless they are taught, they cannot learn.  Actually, this is the condition of a number of people that I know.  They have been schooled, and they have been schooled exceptionally well.  These people live less than satisfying lives because they are always blaming their lack of knowledge on not having been taught such and so.  It is a debilitating condition to be in.

I remember that I did not really start learning to drive until after I had been given my driver’s license.  I was taught the basics, but the real lessons came from repeated practice on the open road, and having to learn how to adjust to the unpredictable as it came in my ongoing driving experience.

A proper education is like this.  At the beginning we do need to be taught some basics, such as: moral precepts, decoding/encoding skills, mathematical tables, and some basic historical, geographical and scientific facts.  However, if we are spoon-fed beyond the basics, then we lose the capacity to self-learn, and as a consequence become dependent upon others to teach us.  Those who have been institutionalized by schooling and its spoon-fed learning model, are not able to cope with the learning opportunities that life throws up at them.

The best context for learning is to have a go, fail, consider the lessons that can be learned from the attempt, then have another go with better insight.  To wait until someone teaches you, before having a go, means that you are ever learning, but never arriving at the truth, or never learning at all.

Certification, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Teaching

Reflections on Illich 16: The best learning takes place when contextualed, not from instruction in a hot-house

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 40  “Most learning is not the result of instruction.  It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.”

This comment by Illich does not negate instruction.  Clearly, instruction is an important part of the learning process.  I am a teacher, and instruction is one of the things that I do.  I cannot help myself.  It is how I am wired.  However, it is the insistence that all instruction must be conducted by a state-trained, state-certified, state-registered and state-monitored teacher that is the issue in question.  Classroom teachers are not the best people to instruct children.  Parents are.  Second to parents are the experienced custodians of relevant knowledge.  And these are often not the state-trained teachers, they are the practitioners in the field who have years and years of practical experience.

Just recently I heard a story from a friend who is a qualified Engineer.  He holds a Masters degree in Engineering.  However, he has discovered that in his field, the best custodians of relevant knowledge are the long-term tradesmen.  He told me the following story:

A newly graduated Engineer (not the one telling the story) was put in charge of a project.  The Engineer instructed a tradesman to implement a course of action.  The tradesman said to the Engineer, “It will not work.”  The Engineer over-ruled the tradesman, because of his qualification.  The tradesman then did what the Engineer told him to do.  The project completely failed and wasted a large amount of money and resources.  The tradesman was asked, “Why did you think it would not work?”  The tradesman replied, “Because I have been working in this field for a very long time, and I just knew it would not work.”  The Engineer’s mathematics, calculations, book learning, examination passing, and credentialing was no match for the knowledge gained from practical experience gained by working in a field for an extended period.

Yes, there are things that we would like people to have theoretical knowledge about before they start practicing: vital organ surgery, for example.  However, simply being instructed in a field, and being exposed to a lot of theories, does not replace hard-earned, long-term practical experience.  Credentialing often creates a pride that blocks learning from those who have worked in the field, but who do not have the pieces of paper hanging on the wall.

Being exposed to a relevant environment, where real work is being conducted, is often the best context for receiving instruction, especially when that instruction is being delivered by someone who has mastered his field over a long period of time working in the industry.

Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Schools

Reflections on Illich 10: The characteristics of schools

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

pp. 26-27  “… I shall define ‘school’ as the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum.”

The characteristics that Illich refers to as being defining characteristics of schools are:

1.   age-specific (and age-segregated) learning contexts;

2.   teacher-related (teacher-centred) processes;

3.   full-time attendance (compulsory attendance); and

4.   obligatory curriculum (centrally determined, and obligatory for all to complete).

Each of these characteristics militates against efficient and effective learning on the part of the students. 

Firstly, age-specific and age-segregated learning ensures that learning will be pitched at the mediocre, with very little attention to the needs of those students at either extreme of learning capacity.  Age-specific and age-segregated cohorts are created on the assumption that all children pass through the same stages of development at the same times, which is not true in all areas for all children.  There are developmental differences that enable many children to be at different stages at different times in different areas of their lives.  This assumption of equal development suppresses individuality, and creativity, and ultimately prevents most children from becoming excellent at anything.

Secondly, teacher-related/teacher-centred processes focus on the interests, strengths and abilities of the teacher.  Effective learning takes place when the student has a particular interest or passion that is being catered for.  Learning should not be totally child-centred and child-focused, however, the individuality of the student needs to be taken into consideration, including favoured learning styles, previous learning, orientation, interests and passion of the child.  All these need to be taken into consideration when facilitating learning opportunities.

Thirdly, full-time, compulsory attendance does not take into consideration the powerful learning that takes place when spontaneous opportunities in the context of living life present themselves.  It is important to have the time and the flexibility to respond to these learning opportunities.

Finally, a centrally determined, obligatory curriculum does not take into consideration the myriad of variations of learning needs that are spread across families, communities, regions and so forth.  No one person can learn everything there is to learn.  And no one person or group of people can choose from the full range of possible things that can be learned, which are to be the universally required core learnings.  These are local decisions.

Discipleship, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Unschooling

Reflections on Illich 09: Learning in life ensures that education is relevent and real

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. 23  “A deschooled society implies a new approach to incidental or informal education.”

In a formal schooling situation, learning is standardized and presented as a curriculum.  However, much of the learning that takes place is learning for examinations, not learning for life.  Very little of what is learned for examinations is retained beyond the examination.  In fact, a whole lot of self-learning usually needs to take place, after schooling has finished, for young people to become useful in a vocation.

On the other hand, learning in life (expanding knowledge from the events, situations and opportunities that present themselves as you go about daily routines) ensures that learning is anchored in reality.  This incidental and oftentimes informal learning is usually the learning that remains.

At this time, society tends to give more value to formalized school learning.  However, those who have been unschooled, and especially those who have been unschooled with a discipleship emphasis, will prove to be the most useful and adaptive participants in the broader society, because their learning is relevant, and much more anchored in reality.

Education, Education Delivery Programs, Ivan Illich, Life Learning, Schools, Unschooling

Reflections on Illich 07: Drill and education are not in competition but are complementary

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

pp. 17-18  “… (the) two-faced nature of learning: drill and an education.  School does both tasks badly, partly because it does not distinguish between them.”

This is a critically important distinction that needs to be embraced in the context of unschooling with a discipleship emphasis.  Schools are very bad at distinguishing between drill and education, and very often swing to either extreme; i.e. fill the school day with drill and call it education, or fill the day with ‘education’, but neglect the importance of drill at critical times in the educational life of the child.

Both drill and education are required.  Both have their place, and one cannot substitute for the other.

What then is meant by education, and what is meant by drill?  How are they different, and how are they complementary?

By education is meant the living of life for the purpose of learning how to live life richly and fully.  An education needs to be liberal, in the older sense of being exposed to a very broad range of experiences and cultural expressions, and being able to engage in social intercourse around around such cultural life.  An education includes exposure to good music, beautiful works of art, great accomplishments in architecture, reading of excellent samples of literature from a range of historical periods, and so forth.

On the other hand, being able to live life requires the mastery of specific skills.  Skills mastery often requires repetition, so that there are mental and physical stimulus-response tracks created in the brain and muscle fibres.  Such drill could include the learning of algorithmic facts (i.e. times tables, addition/subtraction facts), phonics coding and decoding cues, geographical features such as rivers and mountains, and names of states and capital cities, lines of Presidents and Prime Ministers and Kings and Queens to create historical pegs upon which can be hung other historical facts, sport and athletic disciplines, and so forth.

Mastery of such skills is not an education, but neither can an education be complete without the mastery of such skills.  The two must be understood, their part in the unschooling process embraced, and their complementary nature fully appreciated.

This just does not happen in most school contexts.

Education, Education Delivery Programs, Home Schools, Home-Based Education, Ivan Illich, Life Learning

Reflections on Illich 01: Home-based education is education in community, not in isolation

The 1970s work of Ivan Illich has been an important point of reference in my PhD dissertation.  In many respects, Illich understood a Biblical Christian approach to the education process.  I am hoping to comment on a series of quotes that are recorded elsewhere in this blog (Illich quotes) .  This is the first of the quotes.  The full text can be obtained:

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. Cuernavaca, Mexico: CIDOC.  Downloadable from:

p. xix  “Universal education through schooling is not feasible.  It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools.  Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.  The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”

Here, as in other parts of Deschooling Society, Illich identifies that schools and schooling, because of their very essence, are unable to deliver true education.  Reformation of schools will not bring about the changes that are necessary to enable education to be accomplished.  Schools are, fundamentally, anti-education.  The thing that schools do best is school its attendees.

No amount of reformation, according to Illich — adjustments to the ways schools are constructed and run, changes in teachers’ attitudes to students, the use of technology in the classroom, and even a change in how students are engaged — will alter the outcomes of schooling.  Schools can only school.  And they can only school, and not educate, because they are total institutions that are designed to control every participant and process within them towards a stated end: egalitarianism and unquestioning submission to the state or some other dominating institution, i.e. an organized religion.  This is not an education, it is indoctrination.  It breeds narrow-mindedness, and an incapacity to think independently.

Schools are not to be reformed, they are to be abandoned altogether, and the vast resources that are taken from families and businesses (through taxation) to fund the schooling industry, should remain with the families and the businesses to fund home-based education and more financially viable private enterprise.

The proper context for education to take place, according to Illich, is living life: “the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”  And the support structures for a thorough education are “educational webs.”  Education must be in a context greater than the family.  The family is an essential base from which children move in and out.  Parents are important gate-keepers, who must vet and monitor the kinds of influences that their children are exposed to in the marketplace.  However, no parent is able to provide everything that the child needs for a well-rounded, reality-grounded education. 

There are three essential agents in an education, from a Biblical perspective.  The three agents are: the family, the church and the marketplace.  And the family needs to engage both the church and the marketplace as important sources of educational moments and experiences, not just lock their children away in a family fortress, as some (a small minority) home schooling families do.