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An Interview with Sandra Dodd

by Emily Subler, 1998

published in a shorter version in Home Education Magazine
and full length in Moving a Puddle

Finding clear ideas and a philosophy of learning is a daunting task. We may strain to hear a voice that solidifies our ideas concisely and fortunately for many unschoolers, Sandra Dodd's vocal presence is a bright spot of lucidity. Her mind is a virtual box of magic, her innovative ideas for learning are just plain fun, and her passionate belief in unschooling articulates a philosophy of life.

A former junior high school teacher, Sandra lives with her family in New Mexico. Her three children have never been to school. She serves as editor of the HEM Online Newsletter, and is host of the weekly HEM Unschooling chat. Sandra travels the country spreading the word about unschooling whenever she can and is currently writing her first book.

With clarity, certainty and humor, Sandra's wisdom reminds us to keep asking questions and maintain flexibility when looking at the world. Recently, I was able to attend Sandra's workshops at a homeschooling conference and as a new unschooler, I was struck with the depth of her conviction. Our subsequent e-mail correspondence led to the following interview.

Unschooling may appear overwhelming to some people who misunderstand its fundamentals. Why do you think it's difficult to understand the concept of unschooling and why are many folks aggressive in their attacks of its philosophy?

People attack what they don't understand. I think I stole that line from a movie. There's a lot to be learned in movies. I could take a class on philosophy, but I've picked up so much “ground fall” philosophy that it's starting to fit together like a 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle, and I never had to “study” or concentrate or take a test. The real test is whether people can apply what they've learned to everyday situations.

Those who went to school (and that's over 99% of those reading this) have based half their lives, give or take a decade, on school's rhythm and labels and categorizations. When things like “the school year” are as much a part of a culture as “family” and “sunrise,” it's a radical departure to consider that maybe one of those three is unnatural. For many people, it disturbs the fabric of their lives. Some people's life-fabric is already kind of rumply, or they hated school and are glad to consider alternatives, but for those orderly folks who have life all neatly arranged in their heads, who do more accepting than questioning, unschooling is a disturbing thing. They literally cannot understand it. It's too foreign to what they have always accepted as natural and inevitable.

You taught public school. What led you to unschooling?

When I taught I didn't go by the book. I didn't use the textbook. We used games and things I made up (handout-type things, I mean, and projects) and sometimes things the kids made up. I could go on and on about this, but it's off the topic so I shall restrain myself (I hope). We played with dictionaries a great deal. Every Friday we “just” did a ballad. Every Friday I sang them a ballad and provided the words. Afterwards I'd talk about what was interesting about the story, what else it seemed related to in folklore or other songs, how old it was believed to be, and what the evidence was. I didn't do it in a teacherly way, and for most of each school year many of the kids thought we were “doing nothing” on Fridays, that it was time out. No homeschoolers will be surprised to hear that the kids learned more on Fridays than any other time of the week, but because it was low pressure and there was no “accountability” it was joyous and easy.

Every single year some kids would moan when they got a glimpse of the first 20-verse ballad, “Aww, do we have to memorize this?” I'd assure them they did not have to learn it, but by the end of the year through requests for repeats of their favorites, I doubt there was a kid there who couldn't have sung at least one of the ballads and maybe ten from memory.

That was a heck of a lab to have, and most unschoolers don't have that advantage when they start out, of having seen “loose” learning situations up close. I was brave enough to try them when I was teaching because in college I'd been assigned to read lots of school reformers, including John Holt. This was in the early 1970's, at the height of the open classroom movement, and my professors believed in that principle so strongly and calmly that it just sounded like simple truth to me.

What happened was that it couldn't work in practice when kids were compelled to be in school. It works best when kids have the option to come or go, but in some very real ways the purpose of school is to keep the kids in the building, which defeats the benefits of natural learning. That's why I think so many schools gave up on it—that and they couldn't imagine it would work, and if you can't imagine it you can't do it.

What proof do you have that it is working? How would you suggest parents reassure themselves that this path is providing everything their children need?

Well starting at the end, there is no path that will provide everything for a child. There are some that don't even begin to intend to provide everything their children need. Maybe first parents should consider what it is they think their children really need.

As to proof of whether unschooling is working, if the question is whether kids are learning, parents can tell when they're learning because they're there with them. How did you know when your child could ride a bike? You were able to let go, quit running, and watch him ride away. You know they can tell time when they tell you what time it is. You know they're learning to read when you spell something out to your husband and the kid speaks the secret word right in front of the younger siblings. In real-life practical ways children begin to use what they're learning, and as they're not off at school, the parents see the evidence of their learning constantly.

But there is no evaluative evidence available and doubts of success can be a significant source of questioning the unschooling philosophy.

What would evaluative evidence look like? First, I'm not sure there is none available, but I'm sure I don't need any myself. If I had a financial dependence on other people accepting unschooling (that is, if I were selling it), then I would want some data to back up my claims. I'm living it, though, and it's not scaring me, and so I'm not looking for statistics to prove that I'm justified in seeing what I'm seeing. Do the schools have evaluative evidence? They have some evidence, but is it a clean catch? Where's their control group? Either what I was taught in school (three or four times) about scientific method is wrong, or the schools are based on faulty results, as their “test” was not set up according to the method they themselves espouse. How do they really know that every kid in their school didn't learn math and reading at home during the 185 days they're not in school? Or during the many-more-than-six hours they're home on those 180 school days?

I'm going to be part of their control group for the future. They need to know whether some kids can learn those things without being subjected to all the measures and instruction school is based on.

Actually there are researchers who have proven years ago that the principles of interest-based learning work best, but because it can't work well in a school atmosphere, it goes by the wayside, pretty much. Homeschoolers, though, can pick it up and run with it.

One of the many things that give me confidence is that I've looked teenaged unschoolers right in the eyes and talked to them, and seen thoughtful, whole and confident people. I've looked hundreds, maybe over a thousand, schooled kids in the eyes and seen fear, defiance, shame and other such defensive things. Maybe it was because I was a teacher or the parent/guardian of a friend of theirs, but the ability of schooled kids to interact with adults is purposely discouraged. Kids in school are expected to defer to adults and obey them and fear them, not much more. So they avoid them during their “off hours,” and during the school day they just avoid eye contact.

What long-term benefits do you believe unschooling holds for your children?
If I saw it simply as a means to get them to college, I might be nervous. I see it as a way to live. I don't see it as keeping the kids out of college or hampering their opportunities for formal learning if they go that route, I'm not holding college up to them or me as “the goal.” The goal, for me, is that they will be thoughtful, compassionate, curious, kind and joyful. That's all. That's not asking much, is it? I think if those traits are intact in them, they will continue to learn their whole lives.

A quote from you: “I don't really know the magic words to get people to be calm and realistic about expectations and results. To proceed without looking into the school-windows-of-their-minds all the time.” If this is so, how can regular folks convince themselves that unschooling will work?

There is no switch I can flip. Just with other teaching/learning situations, all the learning takes place inside the learner. None can be inserted by a teacher.

If budding unschoolers will look at how they learned things outside the classroom, and use that as a model and a goal, that helps. They don't really have to hunt down other unschooling families, although it doesn't hurt. A family isolated from other unschoolers might do well to brainstorm examples of things they've learned informally and naturally, and to look around for other people learning things in the same manner.

Take unschooling itself or homeschooling in general. Who went to college to learn that? Whoever might read this later, are they doing it “for credit”? Are they doing it as an assignment they're required to complete? (Well, maybe there are a few husbands who will be “persuaded” to read home-schooling articles somewhat against their will...) No, I think they're learning about unschooling because they have a need and a desire to know.

You believe that unschooling cannot be a part-time affair. Given that, is it possible to unschool one child while another is using a structured curriculum? What if one child wants to go to school?

I believe that ideal learning takes place when everything is considered valuable, and the parents don't single out one or two subjects to “teach.” I think that spoils the integrity of the set-of-everything, to say, “Math we won't risk, but the rest of that you can learn on your own, or not.” It sets up an object and a field. Math is a Must-Know, and the rest is less valuable. I think setting “academics” apart from the rest of cool stuff to know is just as bad. Is science more important than auto-mechanics? HEY, it IS auto-mechanics, everywhere but at school, where auto-mechanics is in one building, and has one teacher with one set of credentials, and science is in another building, different teacher, different book, different line on the report card. In real life there is no single building, teacher, book, line or report card. There are thousands of buildings, and teachers, and books.

If one child in a family is using a curriculum because he or she wants to, and the work is done her own way, that's not as disruptive as I think it would be if the parent were inflicting a curriculum on one child while claiming or attempting to leave another child free to learn naturally. How could one prevent comparing? Maybe if the personalities were sufficiently different and the parents had no doubts that unschooling would work it would be doable. I wouldn't recommend it, though.

What I have recommended and can't get out of is that if one of my children wanted to go to school, I would go along with it. I have several justifications behind this. One is that I think the worst thing about school is the powerlessness of the students. They have to be there whether they want to or not, so there's no virtue in those who want to be there, and no joy in those who do NOT want to be. When families force their children home but the children would rather have stayed in school, the same powerlessness exists. I want my children to be home because they want to be. I try not to turn my kids against school. Every year I've asked each if they're happy with the way things are, and whether they might like to try school. We talk about it a bit, and they've always said, “I want to stay home.” So far so good; if they change their minds I would be scared and nervous and irritated with the idea of having to get on a schedule and live around the school year, but I'd try go with it. Part of the reason I would go with it is that I would not expect it to last. I've made their home-life pretty fun, and school would have to be fantasyland to compete with what they have at home.

In any case in which a child is in school and the parents want to divorce themselves from the school instead of being fully involved and supportive, they might just shift a few degrees to where they let the kids (and teachers if necessary) know that homeschooling IS an option, and that if the child wants to stay in school he's responsible for his self-chosen involvement, not the parent. If the parent has separated learning from school in his or her mind, the pressure on a school-kid will be much lower than if the parent really believes this is the source of knowledge and success. Unschooling parents will be confident that the child can and will learn in spite of school, and around school, and maybe even in school, but they won't depend on the school to “educate” their child fully and completely as so many parents seem to do.

So while I think it's luxuriously easy if everyone in a family is committed to unschooling, I don't think life will be over for them if some of them are involved in formal learning. I think where unschooling and formality are side by side, unschooling will win out every time, because it's joyous and friendly.

You once wrote: “We have voices and ghosts inside us, and conditioning, all of which keep us from homeschooling clearly and joyfully and calmly. We have guilt and fear and “ideas” [BAD ideas] tied up with our thoughts of learning/education, and it just gums up our brains and our hearts.” Tell us more about what these “bad ideas” might be, and about the importance of “deschooling.”

People think learning has to happen on a schedule, and incrementally, and they get that idea from “courses” of study, and school years and semesters and graded textbooks. People fear that if teachers go to school for years to become teachers that they must KNOW something and that this arcane knowledge is the key to learning. People fear that without “A Permanent Record” their child will grow up without an identity, without a reality, and might never get married or reproduce. School phrases like “being a student is a full-time job” and “what you do here will affect your entire life” and “you have to learn to get along with people [so no, we're not going to transfer you to a teacher you can stand],” live in the heads of people who went to school for twelve to eighteen years, and if we didn't question them then, are we safe to question them now, with our tender children's futures in the balance? Those kinds of fears.

Another level of questioning comes along: “If this was not necessary, how might my own life have been different if I had not been subjected to school and all its shame and labeling and pressure?” For me these questions were much addressed by four years in Adult Children of Alcoholics, which meetings I attended from before I was pregnant with my first until after the birth of my second. I've accomplished a lot of personal healing and family progress by treating my children the way I wish I could have been treated when I was their age. Instead of using a script from my own childhood, instead of saying what my mom or one of my teachers would have said to me, I really look at my own child and I try to say what they need to hear, what will make their life and learning easier and less stressful.

Deschooling means dismantling the overlay of school. Gradually (or just all of a sudden, if you have that ability) stop speaking and thinking in terms of grades, semesters, school-days, education, scores, tests, introductions, reviews, and performance, and replace those artificial strictures and measures with ideas like morning, hungry, happy, new, learning, interesting, playing, exploring and living.

I've been a teacher. From that point of view the world IS most definitely revolving around years and semesters, school districts, standardized test schedules, federal title monies, school bus contracts, cafeteria funding, library cuts, parking-lot pavement... all kinds of stuff that has nothing much to do with kids, their hearts, spirits and ideas. Shuck it away. Don't live there.

You believe that everything is educational. Is that for you the essence of unschooling, the bottom-line?

Yes.

You are clearly unwaveringly committed to unschooling. Why are your convictions so concrete? What makes you completely sure of this choice?

For whatever reason, I have very clear memories of childhood, and more than what happened (which I remember pretty well, some incidents back to baby days), I remember what I was thinking and feeling. I remember as early as second grade, talking to the other kids about their feelings and theories. I decided when I was in first grade that I wanted to be a teacher, so in parallel with the kid-interviewing (not really, but I did find a lot of talkative friends) I was watching the teachers because I wanted to steal the good ideas for when I grew up. If I'd known I would grow up to be an unschooler, I couldn't have had better preparation.

Many teachers and parents have forgotten what it felt like to be little, and what sorts of things they could and could not understand in those days, so they end up expecting too much or too little of kids. They tend to present information as though it exists as a block that can't be broken down, instead of letting the child take in bits of it now and then according to his needs and his ability to understand. People don't take in pre-measured blocks of information. They assimilate one new thing at a time. Giving someone 25 pieces of information in five minutes is only useful if the recipient is very actively engaged in the situation. If they're not alert and curious, giving one piece of information is a waste of time. So for that reason I think it's better to provide clues and let others pick them up, rather than making an appointment with a person for the purpose of attempting clue-insertion. That's not how learning works best.

I went off on a tangent, but often the best stuff is off on tangents, not on the prescribed trail. That's true in conversations, on vacations, and in learning. If you're telling your kids all you know about Egypt and they ask how big baby crocodiles are, are you going to say, “Wait, I'm not through telling you about the three best theories on the construction of pyramids” and keep going with your lecture? The kid's the one doing the learning. Maybe in a year he's going to say “How did they make those pyramids without cranes?” and then you unfold all the rolling/floating/levitation theories you've ever heard in your life. (Levitation is a bit of levity—I was thinking of Kurt Vonnegut's “variable gravity” principle in which he suggested that gravity goes through phases like the weather does, and just as there are ice ages, there are periods of heavy and light gravity, and on a light gravity day the stones were just chucked up there).

I'm completely sure of unschooling because I believe in people's desire and ability to learn wonderful things in quirky ways if they're given the opportunity. Some people don't believe in unschooling, and one reason, I think, is this: They have a mental vision of “high school graduation”—of a set of facts and skills. They see that as their goal and destination. They work backwards from that incrementally and they want to put their kids on the straight and narrow road to that goal. They look at unschoolers, and they don't think unschoolers can get to their goal, so they reject any further thought of it. I think it's their goal that's straight and narrow.

If I wanted my children to reach high school graduation, I'd put them in school. That model channels all of life toward one small set of information on one small day (May 22 of the year the child is closest to his 18th birthday), after which the project ends. The model I'm operating on channels all of life toward a greater appreciation and understanding of all of life and it never ends, barring incapacitating brain damage or death. School and school-at-home sometimes teach people not to learn, or at least not to learn anything for fun without direction because “it won't count.” I think everything counts. I think everything can be fun. When I say “I think,” I very often mean “I am absolutely convinced after years of careful consideration and observation with no evidence to the contrary, and my original idea became a theory which has become a conviction.”

Most of the best stuff I learned as a kid I learned in girl scouts, 4-H, from involvement in music of one sort and another, from visiting friends' homes and asking questions about the stuff there—houses are like museums, when they're not like hotel rooms. I really don't like hotel-room houses, but real houses are museums. I think a house that's like a hotel room might be hard place in which to unschool. I remember the geography and anthropology (I didn't know that term but I was collecting the facts and ideas in advance) I learned came from a Rocky & Bullwinkle quiz game I ordered off a cereal box. It had punch cards to mount on a little frame, and if you put the pointer into the right hole a light bulb came on. That's what programmers were doing in the early 1960's to make my life better. I loved that toy, and learned what I would have learned in a year in school. I got a series of National Geographic booklets with a sheet of perforated photo-stickers printed in color I had to lick and stick on the right pages. Sometimes the taste of certain stickers reminds me of pictures of Thailand even today! The teachers at school thought they had taught me all that geography. I'm sure they were proud.

So with my kids, I got them a GeoSafari , some geography games for the computer, and they get the mystery adventures from Highlights, and none of that is considered learning, just playing around. They play with maps, draw them, follow them, ask me a hundred questions, but I don't think they know the scope and definition of “geography.” Someday they'll figure it out, and by the time they do they'll know so much about so many people and places it won't occur to them that they should have waited until they were older, or that it even needs to be named and categorized, since it's so integral a part of the fabric of Everything, and they're learning about Everything.

Since unschooling is a lifestyle, how can a family wanting to embrace these ideals begin the process? What encouragement would you offer?

Play. Joke. Sing. Instead of turning inward and looking for the answer within the family, within the self, turn it all inside out. Get out of the house. Go somewhere you've never been, even a city park you're unfamiliar with, or a construction site, or a different grocery store. Try just being calm and happy together. For some families, that's simple. For others it's a frightening thought.

Try not to learn. Don't try to learn. Those two aren't the same thing but they're close enough for beginners. If you see something *educational* don't say a word. Practice letting exciting opportunities go by, or at least letting the kids get the first word about something interesting you're all seeing. If a family experimenting with unschooling can try to go some amount of time—a week, a month—without learning anything, but during that time they keep active, talkative, busy with life, maybe some art, some music, theatre or movies, walks to collect things (in the woods, in the dumpsters, it doesn't matter)—just being, but being busy—at the end of that time (or halfway through) I think it will become apparent that learning cannot be turned off. Given a rich environment, learning becomes like the air—it's in and around us.


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