A shorter version of this interview was published in the December 2012 issue of The HomeSchooler (known prior to that issue as California HomeSchooler). It was available only to members of The Homeschool Association of California but they have plans to make it a national publication very soon. (Not international, for postal reasons.)
As of April 2013, subscriptions are open!

Unschooling in the World: "Intro, and Joyce Fetteroll "

Joyce Fetteroll, interviewed by Sandra Dodd

With this issue, HSC's magazine is beginning an expansion beyond California, and I've been invited to be a columnist, to write about unschooling. There are enough people in California to help Californians, but what have unschoolers in other parts of the world been doing? In each issue, I will introduce you to the ideas and experiences of someone who has lived comfortably with unschooling and examined those surroundings.

A Rich, Supportive Environment

One of my favorite unschooling analysts is Joyce Fetteroll, of Medfield, Massachusetts. Joyce has been writing about unschooling since 1995, when her daughter, Kathryn, was four. Joyce has an engineering degree and worked for a while as a software engineer and technical writer for a communications company. Her husband, Carl, teaches college math, and is also involved with providing recreational activities for blind children.

Joyce writes about unschooling every day, answering questions at a few yahoogroups (Unschooling Basics, Always Learning), at a Radical Unschooling NING site, and sometimes other places. Her writing is particularly rational and logical, and is read by people all over the world.

A mom in India wrote to Joyce:

"I thought I'd wait a while before writing and thanking you but I can hold it in no longer. Your wise and insightful writing is a HUGE inspiration. I have been recommending your website to anybody who will listen. It is excellent for newcomers like me—neatly laid out with all the topics visible in one page, not at all overwhelming. It addresses most of the questions and doubts a beginner might have. But best of all is the way you write. There is something special about it, I'm trying to put it into words but I can't do it justice. It's non-threatening and soothing. And it's so brimming over with wisdom and understanding and compassion and empathy that it makes me want to consider what you are saying, even if it so goes against all I 'know' is true."
—Santhy George
The website to which Santhy referred is named by and for Joyce in reference to the "Joy" in her name: JoyfullyRejoycing.com

I asked Joyce about some things I thought you might be interested to know.

Sandra: Joyce, when you first began unschooling, did you expect it to last until Kathryn was high-school age?

Joyce: My motivation for homeschooling was for learning to be fun and interesting whether first grade or twelfth grade.

As a learner I tend to absorb whatever runs by me whether it's from teachers droning or an engaging movie. That's why I did well in school. But it made no sense that school needed to be dull when outside of school was fascinating. I knew there had to be a better—funner—way to learn.

So that was my primary motivation for looking into homeschooling and ultimately choosing unschooling.


Sandra: Are there things that increased your confidence, that might help other newer unschoolers relax?

Joyce: There are two ideas.

The first idea held me back in understanding unschooling. For me, successful learning looked like my learning: sucking in lots of information and pulling patterns from it. To get unschooling I needed to stop generalizing what was important to my learning. I needed instead to look for the key elements to anyone's successful learning. And two key elements are engagement and a rich, supportive environment. For successful unschooling the primary key is to support that engagement. And the second is to swirl interesting, fun experiences through their lives to give them a taste of the variety the world has to offer.

That idea is at least easy to pass on.

The second idea kept me from trusting. Most people only know kids who are force fed academics. When those kids aren't being made to learn, mostly they avoid anything that feels like school. That makes it seem that unless kids are made to learn, they'll avoid what they need for college and jobs. So the idea that unschooling could allow kids to gain the mastery they need to be adults is counter to the behavior of (schooled) kids.

Now, after 17 years of observing how Kathryn learned, reading how other unschooling kids learn, seeing my daughter move on to successfully living on her own, it's easy to see that learning is the norm for kids—for people, really. It's the pushing of unwanted learning on kids that damages the desire to learn. As Einstein said, "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." And for many, many kids curiosity doesn't survive.

Learning that's pulled in will look like play. It will look like kids engaged with what interests them. That might be a video game or helping rake the yard or TV shows or getting a job to earn money or taking classes in college.

The unnerving thing is that it looks like very little is going in! But the important-to-learning part happens inside: kids pull in information to use it for reasons that matter to them. They use it to solve problems. They use it to create and test theories of how the world works. What you use, sticks with you. (Which is why most of what's learned in school doesn't stick.)

What's really hard to grasp is that this learning-that-looks-like-play prepares them far better for being adults than school does. It can even prepare them better for college—if the kids have a desire to pursue their interests that way.

Compared to school, with unschooling what you see on the outside looks inconsequential to what they'll be doing as adults. It looks like fluff. It looks like play. But as long as they're in a rich environment with parents who are curious about and engaged with life themselves, when kids explore what interests them, they pull in what is important to their right-now selves and create the foundation for their future selves.

When you and I and others began unschooling years ago, it was impossible to see enough kids who were successfully learning this way to counter the far more common image of (schooled) kids. Now there are conferences. Now there are blogs. Now there are massive archives of Yahoo lists describing profound learning happening effortlessly and joyfully. It's still scary to let go, but being able to see and read about kids learning well this way makes it easier.


Sandra: Your analysis of a situation is often the most logical. Do other people's emotional arguments irritate you? You seem very patient with the discussions, after many years of helping other people see unschooling more clearly.

Joyce: Emotional arguments aren't necessarily illogical. In fact I enjoy pulling fears apart to explore why people believe what they do. Why people believe and see the world as they do fascinates me. So it's not patience you're seeing. That's engagement.

People's emotions may not listen to logic, but I know fears can create an idea so strong that it can hold its own against reality for many people. Which doesn't make logical sense, but does—according to emotions anyway—make emotional sense.

People can argue how addictive TV is, how it turns people into blind consumers. When it's pointed out that radically unschooled kids can watch way more hours of TV than anyone they're likely to have met and yet aren't addicted, aren't wild consumers, they can ignore those "data points." It's because they have experts to back up their fears, and experts trump our layperson's observations of our real kids. At that point their arguments reiterate what they've already said, ignoring the counterarguments, and it's a waste of time to continue.


Sandra: Do you have a favorite page on your site, or a couple you think would be useful to new unschoolers?

Joyce: My favorite topics are chores and television so all those pages. One crystal clear "Aha!" moment that drew me toward unschooling came from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. The authors pointed out how mom could see a situation one way and kids could see a situation a different way and both be right. It was something I knew but had never put into words.

Those two topics, chores and television, encapsulate for me how important for unschooling it is to move our understanding into our kids' points of view. If a mom can understand why her child sees the world as he does, she's miles closer to relating to him. If she can understand why he sees the world as he does—chores as conscripted labor for instance, if she can understand it comes not from lack of understanding the "right" way of seeing the word, if she can understand it comes from being 5 or 10 or 15, she's going to be able to listen and truly hear what he says and be able to respond in a way that relates to his understanding.


Sandra: Parents who are afraid their unschooled children won't learn enough might have forgotten how little learning actually happens in school. Short-term test-taking "learning" isn't nearly the same as the kind of learning unschooled kids gain from their hobbies and games and friendships. Even though I had read John Holt in college, and studied "the open classroom," I was still pleasantly surprised at how much learning came so easily, to everyone in the family.

Joyce: If parents saw how little kids learned, they'd either blame schools for not teaching properly or blame the kids for not learning properly.

Even when studies show how schools fail kids, what can parents do with that information? Parents have zero confidence they know what kids need to succeed in life. So parents trust the "experts"—the schools—to one, know what kids need, and two, give it to them.

But if parents don't know what kids need, they can't tell whether schools are giving it to them. Do parents judge by how many kids graduate? But the schools determine the standards for graduation. Do they judge by how many are accepted to college? If colleges only have dreck to choose from they'll take the best of the dreck and work with that.

What's unfortunate is that since schools determine what kids need, when kids haul these big textbooks home, parents assume all that knowledge is necessary. Parents know they'd never get their kids to learn all that so they're grateful schools know how.

But the question parents aren't asking because they can't know is: Do kids succeed as adults because of school or in spite of school? It's impossible to tell what effect school has on kids without a control group. How can anyone tell what effect X has unless there's a group with no X to compare it to?

Of course unschoolers know there is a control group: our kids! And since our kids grow into self-supporting adults and go onto college if they want, we know the whole song and dance schools do is unnecessary. Kids learn not only without teachers but without textbooks full of information poured into them.

It will take a long time before the rest of the world sees us as a control group, though. Most people don't know what unschooling is. Those who have heard of it, think it's for nonconformists. It will be many years before enough unschoolers take the "normal" routes like college for them to show up on people's radar. It will take time before enough professors notice unschooled kids are "normal"—not weirdos, not hippies—except better: better prepared, more engaged, more interested in learning, not just filling a seat until they're handed a degree. When enough people say "Hey, we want more kids like these unschoolers. Schools are screwing kids up," then parents will be able to see where schools are failing and why.

Joyce's writings are thought-provoking and I have never once wondered whether she had really thought about these things. Her clarity is a treasure. She will be giving (past now) two presentations (one with her husband, Carl) at the Always Learning Live Unschooling Symposium in Albuquerque December 27-30, 2012. (SandraDodd.com/all)

In the next issue I will share with you some of the ideas of Pam Laricchia, of Ontario, and give you a peek into her new book, Free to Live.

Sandra Dodd has spoken at HSC conferences, and lives in Albuquerque.

Other Interviews and HSC articles More by Joyce Fetteroll Interviews by others