Improving Unschooling

Transcript of an interview of Sandra Dodd, by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko, 16 March 2004, on her radio show

In case you want to read along:

A shorter version was published in Life Learning Magazine as "Living Unschooling, with Sandra Dodd." It has photos of me and my kids, and can be read in PDF form here: http://sandradodd.com/interviews/radioFreeschoolTranscript.pdf
A version of this appears in the book Natural Born Learners, as Chapter 18, "Improving Unschooling through Strewing and Spirituality," page 199.
NOTES and comments, with the original sound file, are here: SandraDodd.com/radio

I’m Sandra Dodd and I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have a website, sandradodd.com. There are many pages there, mostly about unschooling and parenting.

In the old days, before the internet was so big, all the homeschoolers were in one place on a user group. I learned a lot because we were all mixed together.

One day, someone who was very skeptical of unschooling said, “Well, how do you get all those things in front of your children?” and I said, “I just strew it around. I just strew their paths with interesting things.” And the concept stuck. The idea is to just have things in your house that are interesting enough to pick up and turn over and mess with. That can cover a whole lot of science and history and math all by itself. If we had a little building set (I find things at thrift shops), or magnets, maps, books, or things that had been given away from fast food drive-throughs; we just collected four or five sets so that we could build something bigger.

There's a book in our bathroom right now about archaeology. I didn't say anything to anyone—I just put it in there. We have a little bookshelf in the bathroom. My fifteen-year-old son came out this morning and said, “Did you see in that archaeology book that they think they know why people believed in the Minotaur and the maze?” I said no, and he told me a long story about some archaeologist on an island off Greece. And if no one had ever mentioned that book, if it looked like nobody had ever read that book, it wouldn't have hurt my feelings, because I just put the things out there and then periodically switch them around.

I think I got that idea from when I was studying education, in the early 70’s, which was the height of the school reform days. I was in New Mexico, which was kind of a hotbed of school reform. There was a book called The Open Classroom, written by people in New Mexico.

And so I went to school with professors who just took for granted that the schools would be reformed, all of the research of the 60’s and 70’s as going to be implemented in a flash, and everything would be better. I was young and idealistic and wanted to believe that too.

One of the things they taught us about how the open classroom worked is that it doesn’t make sense to try to drag a class of thirty kids through one activity. Just put the interesting things out and they’ll discover them and they’ll show each other, and they’ll ask you questions. I did that a little while I was teaching and it worked. And I've done it with my children and it worked. But before we had children, my husband and I were together for seven years and we did that with each other. We were involved in a medieval studies club, we made costumes, he made armor, we made tents together. That took geometry, but we didn’t say so, you know. It was making tents—trying to go from historical paintings and trying to figure out how with triangles and rectangles they had made a tent with one center pole. So we had a lot of activity like that between ourselves. We had a lot of friends who were artists, and interested in history, interested in music, and when you have the information swirling like that, you start to see that everything is connected.

Some of the things we have from when we were younger are in our house and the kids will just pick it up. And they know things about those items or they will say, ”How do they keep the patterns straight on those India-print bedspreads?” I don’t know. Let’s go find out. But we can pull up a sample of block-printed cloth from the house. I know that some people live in houses that look more like motel rooms, and I don’t know how they do that sort of thing. But it’s been easy for us to just rearrange the things in our house so that they discover something new.

That’s what I was going to ask next—the idea of the home as a kind of museum.

I think everyone's can be. We went to our neighbor’s house and he pulled out photos from when he was growing up and they were places my son and I were about to go and visit. People don’t think to ask. You don’t pull of a book off someone's shelf and say, “Oh you know that author? It’s autographed!” I think people forget. People think of museums as other buildings far away that belong to the state, and their house as just a house. But sometimes that word "just" gets in the way of seeing the possibilities and how rich each thing, each place is.

We found some castle blocks. I saw them when my son was a baby but they were very expensive and they were from Spain. But having seen those…. I think it’s worth looking in catalogues at things that you can’t afford because then, when you are at the thrift store and you see it, you know what it is. And they make really nice castle models.

I don’t ever say, “Alright! Attention every one! I’m putting out the castle blocks!” They just appear. And then castles are made, and then people talk about things, and they talk about particular castles they are trying to make, or why this sort of arrangement would work because since they played it last, they've discovered something new, either in a game they played or a movie they watched or something they read. And after it’s not getting any attention, then it goes back away and something else might come out.

I have a bowl of rocks, and they look different wet than when they’re dry. Sometimes when people are sitting around talking, it’s worth just getting a little bowl of water and sticking different rocks in it while you're talking. It doesn’t interrupt the conversation, and they can play with it or not as they want to. We have jigsaw puzzles. When I was in England I got some at thrift stores for the equivalent of a dollar—50p, 49 p—jigsaw puzzles of things particular to England. Two of the history of the kings and queens of England. And we’ve worked them, not with the intent to learn anything, but just to work them. But everyone—adult or child—who was involved in that discovered something they hadn’t known before. And as we were working them, we talked—not about kings and queens, just about whatever was going on in our lives.

So I think there’s an advantage to not focusing, to not saying, “We are going to work this puzzle because it’s history”—we just worked the puzzle. Some history came, some current social stuff, some personal stories about what had been going on, some questions about things totally unrelated. And if there’s enough swirl of information and exchange, all kinds of things will come up. They don’t need to come up linearly. If one kid knows about Roman numerals at the age of six and the other one doesn’t know until twelve, so what? The first time anyone learns about Roman numerals in the real world is when they see them and they don’t know what they are. And they ask, and somebody tells them. It’s not brain surgery. But it’s more interesting when you are seeing something real than you're getting it because it’s September 13 and you’re in the fifth grade and that’s what the book says you should learn.

So we find it to be really fun to discover things, but it’s easier to discover things when they are there to discover. Maybe strewing is a bit like hiding Easter eggs, but not to that extent. There just might be a couple or three things out and about. It’s like a conversation piece. It’s like putting out a pretty book on a coffee table, or an arrangement of flowers; it’s no more than that, only it’s more likely to be a puzzle. And although it’s incidental, that’s the core of my method (if you want to call it a method)—to just keep our lives so busy and so varied that incidental learning happens all the time. If friends of mine, my own age or younger, come over to visit, they sort of get caught up in whatever's going on, too. If the adults here are being playful and curious and open, visitors are more likely to be that way, too. Whereas the same people visiting in someone else’s house who is being a little more somber and mature or, for want of a better word, more boring, will do that. They’ll go there and sit and drink beer or watch the game or whatever. But they come here and we’re working a puzzle or building something and they’ll get into that, too. It’s fun. We do things that are just fun. You can hardly walk by with out picking it up and messing with it, too.

Sometimes, someone—my husband and one of the kids— will be doing something in one room and in the next room, some other friends are over and they are playing a video game and in another room or outside, another kid and somebody else are doing something else.

That also is the idea of the open classroom. Their ideal was not to be sitting at desks reading but to sit in a soft place, in a dark place, in a private place or wherever you wanted to, to read. So they tried to have interesting places where kids could get away from the other kids. And then there would be, for history, timelines and costumes—sort of like what children’s museums try to do now where there are things that you can try on. And for math—what now are common but weren’t in the 60’s and 70’s —math manipulative toys.

If someone tried to do that (and there were lots of people doing it) the problem was when they did the experiments the kids were there voluntarily or it was a lab school connected to a university where the parents were grad students or professors so their kids got to go to school at the university—kind of like glorified day care, but it was a model school or a lab school where they did tests on the kids. So those kids were being taught by professors and grad students who were doing research in school reform. The parents were into it they thought it was great, and the kids didn’t have to be there. That’s what made it work. Turns out in the long run when they tried it in regular public school settings, it didn’t work. The people who did look at it said it would have worked if teachers had volunteered to be in that sort of program and if every child there had a choice whether to be in that program or to be in a traditional classroom. The failure was compulsory attendance, not the learning method.

Almost every piece of routine damage that schools can do to a child, parents can do at home. Parents can make their kids hate math. They can make them never want to read a book again. They can make them want nothing more than to grow up and get away. So with unschooling, when people ask me what I think makes it work, I tell them the kids have to have a choice. There’s a learning curve that I see with unschooled kids, and that is they seem to be ahead for the first few years and then there’s a period of time, just roughly from about nine or ten to about twelve, when they can seem behind. And then after they are twelve or thirteen—zoom! They look ahead! They seem to be ahead again. And so it's weird when people go, “What happened? Why are these twelve-year-old unschoolers and their parents panicky?” And they feel inadequate and their neighbors are going, “Woo-hoo! You don’t know anything,” then all of a sudden they’ve zoomed ahead again. I think part of it is puberty. Part of it is they're learning to read. I don’t know what to say about the rest.

It just seems that in school, there is a period when children are eleven or twelve when they’ve just been crammed full of math facts, and geographical facts, and science terminology, and they just seem full-to-bursting with knowledge. The kids at home might still be playing Pokemon and coloring books, you know, and they look up and the school kids are naming places and things that they don’t know, they’re reading textbooks, they’re doing long division, they’re writing in cursive—things that you can see from across the room. They think “What are they doing? I don’t know what they are doing. I can’t do that!”

But then what seems to happen with the unschoolers that I have met and talked with, is sure enough, when the kids got to be thirteen or fourteen, a kind of maturity came upon them and they said, “Oh! Well, I guess if I want to learn cursive, I’ll just practice it. Is this it?” And they do it! They look at something and they say, “Is this all?” And they've figured out on their own how to do math. And they are multiplying double digits in their head. They might not know how to do write it down on paper but they know how to do it. They start to develop their own map of the world and history of the universe and stuff. All of their facts are starting to gel into a model of the universe. They’re understanding a lot of things and making a lot of connections.

And about that time, the kids at school get all burned out and realize that all these facts they are learning are only leading to another year of facts. It’s like Rumpelstiltskin, “Oh, you turned that straw into gold? Next room. Bigger. More straw. Oh yeah, you don’t get to keep the gold.” And so they are getting very irritated by the time they’re fourteen, whereas the unschoolers are saying, “Oh yeah! This is cool. I’m glad I didn’t go to school!”

Another thing that happened with my kids and with some others I've known is that when they get to be fourteen or fifteen, they’ve either gotten a job, gotten a really cool volunteer position, become involved in a hobby they have so that they're in a position of teaching. Like whether it’s karate or horseback riding or ice-skating, they’ve gotten to the point where they know enough that they are a senior student and they are given some position of responsibility.

Whatever it is, if they are given something real (and sometimes it’s specifically because they are not in school during the day), and they are given the kind of responsibility that is given to an adult, in a way it makes them an adult. They feel that shift of not being one of the kids anymore, being one of the adults. And you see a change in their posture and their bearing and the way adults treat them. And so, at a point when the kids at school are told…because they are just barely in high school, maybe, you know they are the young kids of a batch of kids who are bullying them, picking on them, they're tired of it, they see no end in sight, the best they can hope for is to get good grades so that they can go to college. They are at the point of greatest dismay in public schools while the kids their age who are unschooled are saying, “Huh! I wonder if I’m going to go to horse camp or if I should take a college class? I wonder if I should go to karate three times a week so that I can get a black belt or whether I should go work at the gaming store?” And the kids in school don’t have any of those options. So at the same time that they are made small, the unschoolers have been made large.

If families can make it through those few years—that rough hump of “Oh, my kid hardly reads, he doesn’t have cursive, he doesn’t know the times tables and he’s twelve and he's starting to get whiskers and he doesn't know anything…” while the kids in school seem all together. Because that’s just before a lot of the kids in school start to say, “To hell with this—this is crazy. Why am I doing this?”

A lot of the things I have learned I learned because someone took an interest in me as a person. And so I’ve done that for people my whole life. If someone mentions they are interested or curious about something I like or that I know, I’ll lend them a book, I’ll bring them over and show them my stuff. That’s my way of paying back those people who helped me.

The kind of learning I was doing is the kind of learning I've tried now to provide now for my children. Which is, “Oh you’re interested in this? I know someone who knows that, or I don’t know that answer but I know someone who does.” So I try to hook them up with real people who know real things—and not in any kind of formal apprentices way although right now, my middle son Marty (who’s almost sixteen) is making boots with a friend of ours who has been doing leather work for a few years, and he's making historical boots, partly for Medieval and Civil War re-enactments, but mostly Renaissance-style boots. The company has sold boots to Disneyland and some movies and so Marty is doing that, and is learning what is and isn’t historical for different time periods and purposes. And then they just make boots that look old, but are made of modern materials. Marty knows what he’s doing. He gets paid. Not much—minimum wage. He’s doing that four afternoons a week. We lucked into that because we made friends with and paid attention to and sought out people who were creative and curious and busy.

I don’t know about Canada, but the U.S. has a mythology just as sure as Rome or Greece ever did. And part of that mythology is the phrase that just comes up as though it’s a truth: “All men are created equal.” But what does that mean? It almost gets like Animal Farm where they want to create the equality after the fact. It’s like, “Oh no! You want to do something special? That’s no good. We want you to be equal.” If you know more than the other kids, “that’s not fair.” And there’s the big whine, the underlying whine: “that’s not fair.” And there are families who say, “That’s not fair. Your kids are homeschooled.” And then the homeschoolers, the school-at-home families, go “Well, that’s not fair. Your kids aren’t having to 'do work'.”

But I don’t believe that people are created equal and I don’t believe life can be fair unless fair means lowest common denominator; everybody suffers, nobody has any good times.

Learning for fun? There's two sides to that. Maybe you want to talk about that.
At the risk of offending some people, it comes down to sin! It’s a sin to have fun. It’s the Christian work ethic. “If it feels good, don’t do it. If it feels good, it must be bad for you. Life is pain. Start to suffer.” And I don’t think that really does those people any good.

One of the studies on how people learn done that was done in experimental schools in the 60's and 70's was “What is the optimal state of mind for learning?” Schools try to get everyone very still and very quiet. And that’s not optimal. People don’t learn very well when they're sitting still, not moving their hands, not moving their feet, someone's talking at them. That’s the optimal condition for taking a nap. But the optimal condition is also not when you think a tiger is going to bite you and you’re running away screaming and you get so full of adrenaline you want to puke. Somewhere between those two, is the right place. And one way to get that mental state of arousal, of alertness or curiosity is humor, music and fun. And school can’t afford to do that. Because if 25 kids at the same time think something is really neat and cool, they start to make noise. So school is set up to keep everyone at such a low mental wavelength that they can’t really learn. But at least they’re quiet.

So at home, if things can be fun and interesting and cool, then it’s easier to learn!

I know for sure that you can’t pour information into people. I know for sure you can’t command that someone learn something right now and have that work—fear doesn’t work. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is something that all teachers learn and then they promptly forget. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says that you can’t learn unless you feel safe, loved, fed; you’re not cold, you’re not hot, you’re not hungry and you don’t feel afraid. Yet there are still schools and families where kids are told, “Do this or you can’t eat lunch. Do this or I’ll hit you.” Whatever. Some threat and some deprivation—learn first, then reward. They’re going to learn. They are learning a lot. They are learning to get the heck away from there as soon as they can. They’re learning to sneak food under the desk, they’re learning to tune out adults, they're learning to cheat and lie. I don’t want my kids to learn these things. So I keep them happy. I keep them fed. I let them sleep when they want to sleep, I let them say, “I don’t want to do that right now,” when they don’t want to do that right now, and it makes a big difference because then the level of arousal when they are excited about something is real. They don’t have to fake being excited; they really can get excited. Because they know they really can say no. That level of freedom and choice is unusual in our culture, for anyone.

What is spiritual unschooling?
I have a page called spiritual unschooling. There are articles that seemed more about how parents felt or how parents viewed their children than about what they did. People don’t become really good at unschooling without changing the way they see themselves and the world. At the core of it, I think there’s a philosophical shift that has to happen. Because if people want to overlay unschooling on the same-old, business-as-usual life, it doesn’t really fit very well. You have to remodel the house a bit. And what the new building parts have to do with spirituality is just the idea of being aware of what your child actually is doing, not what the book says he ought to be doing—to look directly at the person you’re dealing with instead of looking at him through the developmental colored lens of whatever.

But then some people would say, “Okay fine. I don’t need to know anything about child development or cognition or learning theory. I don't need to know anything, then—I’ll just look at my kid.” You’ll look at him with what? There needs to be a balance of both. I think people who are going to take responsibility for their children’s learning-lives, as it were, need to know what stages people go through. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development are very helpful for people who know that, but that doesn’t mean they should live by that in a moment-to-moment way. There are no hours in which we are teaching and there are no hours in which the children are not learning. So it changes the fabric of your life.

Sometimes when I’ve described unschooling, people have said well it sounds like you have study units and I said no, no. Because although we might go on a binge—we might have a week where everyone really cares about Monty Python or whatever and we drag out all our samples and connections and toys and then we get tired of it and we are done—it wasn’t a unit study because no one said, “Starting next Monday we are going to do China. And on Friday we are going to be through with China.”

When people plan a unit that way, not only is it artificial, you don’t get that excited joy and curiosity that makes it work. But what if, (speaking as someone in Albuquerque, where hot air balloons are in the air a lot), you are studying Japan and a hot air balloon lands in the vacant lot behind your house—are you going to shut the window because it’s not about Japan? And that’s the danger of unit studies—you doggedly move along a path that you’ve set regardless of what’s actually happening in the world. And if someone wants to learn about Japan, what’s the hurry? If they are going to move there, there are some things they really need to know now. If they are not going to move there, if it’s just something they kind of have an interest in on the side, or even if it becomes their burning full interest and they decorate their house Japanese and they collect Japanese art—still, what’s the hurry? They’ll be learning about it for the rest of their lives. The more they like something, the more they will never stop learning about that 'til the day they die or Alzheimer takes them. I don’t think there’s a hurry and I don’t think telling children, “Come on. Come on. There’s more about Japan that we haven’t learned yet, hurry,” helps them like Japan, or like the mother, or learn more—it’s counter to all that.

So where the spirituality comes in that, I think partly is the trust that your child is an organism that wants to learn—that that’s how people grow. There is physical growth that takes water food and rest, there’s mental growth which takes input—ideas, things to think about, things to try, things to touch. And then there’s spiritual growth, which takes more and more understanding—an awareness that it’s better to be sweet to other people than not, it’s better to generous with your neighbours than hateful, better to pet your cat nicely than to throw it around.

At first it’s a practical consideration but later on, as the children are looking at the world through older eyes, they start to see that no matter whether the neighbour noticed or not, it made you a better person. No matter whether your cat would have done your stuff damage or not, it made you a better person. So I think there’s a spirituality there of respect given to the children being passed on.

Some people try to force their children to share—teach them to share by making them share—but I’ve seen that if they have enough things and they don’t feel needy and they don't feel desperate, then they're willing to share. And as they get older, they are generous with their space in the house and their money and their computers and their time and their attention. And it's partly because my husband and I have been really careful to be generous with them. That has built up in them. They have plenty and they don’t mind, then, when we can’t give. If we are having a bad day, really flustered or something—frustrated or cranky— they are okay because they know that when we are not that way, then they can have more attention or time or whatever they need.

I’m speaking in St. Louis in October and I plan to talk about the unexpected benefits of unschooling. Because most of the best things that have happened, I didn’t foresee. I just can’t bring myself to think that a day spent laughing and smiling and doing things that are enjoyable is bad. When I've worked jobs, the days when we went in and someone had brought in something funny or interesting or a cute snack—those were the best days, and those things are so small.

As for spirituality and unschooling, the relationship a parent builds with the child, if it’s going to be a really good one, a really close one, has to go by a different model. Because our culture says basically that the parents own the children, the children will be obedient, that parents can do what they want to and when the children are eighteen they can leave, but until then, it’s the parents’ house and it's the parents’ money and the parents can say what happens. That’s an extremely adversarial relationship. And it really can lead to no good except the future justification of other adversarial relationships.

And it's not good for people's grandchildren. That’s not much investment in two or three generations down—to teach your kids that the powerless lose, that older people get their way, richer people get their way. So it helps if the parents can say, “Well okay, this is your house too. What do you want to do?” Or give yourself a range of choices to offer the child. If the child is bored, you could offer three or four really cool things to do, whereas my mom, and thousands or millions of other moms would say, “If you are bored, mop the floor. If you’re bored, you can go pull weeds,” which is punishing a child for communicating with you.

I see my children as whole people whose lives are unfolding now. They may have memories as vivid as mine. And what I do and say now will be part of their lives after I’m dead. And do I want to be the wicked witch? Do I want to be a stupid character that they grow up and live in reaction to and avoidance of? And so if I see them as whole, then I see that as they grow bigger, I grow smaller in their universe.

There’s another traditional put-down which is, “You’re not the center of the universe.” And I think Well then, what is? Are you talking astrological universe or are you talking personal universe? Because I am the center of my universe. I see it out of my eyes. I remember it from my memory. And when I die, my universe ends.” And so each of my children is the center of his or her universe. I see that as a spiritual difference in how you define your child in relationship to yourself. I think when some people think spirituality, they think, “active once-a-week sessions, designated religious centre” or something, but I see it as more of a philosophical stance.

Some people, when they've asked me for advice, I've advised them to pretend they only have three hundred "no's" —they have a little ticket they have to spend every time they say no. And they better save some because some people use them up before the kid’s three. What if your child grows up and you still have 150 tickets left that you can chuck in the trash? That’s pretty cool.

Something I need to credit to La Leche League and to Carol Rice, and another woman named Lori Odhner, who lives in Pennsylvania now. She's a very wise woman. When I had a four-month-old baby called Kirby, they said “You should be his partner, not his adversary.”

(Thanks to Robin Bentley for help with editing the transcript.)


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