I asked this question when I first heard the term. I have been asked this question since we first started using the term. I don't particularly care for the term. I much prefer autodidact, but that's a word too few have heard and so I find I return to the more familiar "unschool".
Unschool is a term that came about in the era of the Uncola. It doesn't so much describe what it IS as much as what it is NOT. Unschool is NOT school. It is "living as if school didn't exist". I like that description, but since school DOES exist and everyone we've met so far is aware of school and understands its measures, it makes it difficult to understand what we mean when we say that we live "as if school didn't exist".
We have tried to explain it by asking the person to reflect back to "remember when you or your child was 3 and there was just LIVING and LEARNING", but the problem there is that for many people the holy grail of school was looming and they were prepping to be "successful" in school. Many have already enrolled their child in some sort of PRE-school program by the age of 3 or even at 2. So, it's hard for them to remember a time when they weren't preparing their child for school rather than for life.
We have also tried to explain it by asking the person to think about their life post-school, but the problem there is that many folks have had the joy of learning pushed to the recesses of their minds and they don't engage in a life of exploration and experience. Instead, their lives are full of day-to-day chores and survival with the only "learning" being mandatory work-related training or going back to school to get a new degree for a new job or a promotion.
You see, it's difficult to explain what unschooling is when you're trying to explain one paradigm to someone from a life of a whole different paradigm. There is a gap in understanding.
What our family means when we say that we unschool is that we don't learn "subjects" then try to integrate them into our lives. We simply live and know that the subjects ARE being covered. We don't, for instance, do worksheets with math problems like:
6 x .07 =
Instead, we are at the store in a town that has a 7% sales tax and we find a $6.00 book and look to see if the $6.50 we have in our pockets will cover the purchase. Yep, it will AND we can buy the 5 cent Hershey's Kiss on the counter display and deposit the remaining coins in the Take a Penny, Leave a Penny cup. THAT is REAL LIFE. THAT is REAL MATH. THAT is a normal event in life. But, if you ask our children if they "do math", they will respond, "nah, we don't really do math" because our lives are not broken into subjects. Our lives are simply our lives and learning occurs naturally...SO naturally, in fact, that we are hard pressed at the end of the day to regurgitate "what we learned".
We know that learning occurs from the most common and the most uncommon events. We know that playing video games provides many opportunities that are often discounted. We know that reading comic books and funny pages provide lessons in sociology, anthropology, humor, politics, finance, history, geography, vocabulary, grammar, and more.
We know that learning doesn't have to hurt.
Life is WONDERFUL (but not always) and it is perfectly okay to ENJOY IT! Learning is EXCITING (but not always) and can lead you to all sorts of interesting places!
For years, I gave my husband almanacs as gifts. He always delighted in them and would pour over them reading and comparing and laughing and learning about all sorts of really interesting (and sometimes boring) facts. No one was making him do it. He wasn't furthering his career. He wasn't working toward a degree. He was just interested in the world in which he lives and in learning about the changes from year to year.
School assumes a person is not a person. School assumes a child is going to become a person. School assumes that there will come a point when a child has reached personhood and no longer needs to learn.
Unschooling embraces the person right exactly where they are whether they are 4 or 40, 7 or 70, toddler or teen. We are ALL living and learning. Learning CAN occur at all hours, in all places, through many means. Unschooling depends on the idea that their is an innate DESIRE to learn.
We are not worried about who or what we or our children will become. We are interested in providing a rich, diverse, eclectic environment in which we can all pursue our interests and encourage each other.
Still have questions? Just ask and I'll keep editing!