Skepticism and the nature of unschooling

This is not only about the idea of skepticism, or of unschooling, but of issues concerning sharing freely online.

Skepticism as the opposite of gullibility is a good, healthy thing.
When someone reads personal accounts of what has actually happened, and what is working so well that a mom will write about her children on the internet and writes "I'm skeptical," it gets personal!

This has been a problem for years, in and around unschooling discussions. It's related to other issues (probably to all other issues), and is probably a problem of the language itself.

"Skeptical" spoken of oneself isn't bad. "Skeptical" spoken in reference to a report isn't bad in the absence of the reporter

If two people are standing at a check-out stand looking at a headline about someone having Elvis's alien grandchild, one might say "I'm skeptical" and no one would be insulted. If I put up a website with a couple of hundred pages of reports of real-life successes of people, many of whom I know, more of whom I trust, none of whom I have reason to DIStrust, and I do it for free, and I do it out of a desire to give others an opportunity to try those things in their own families, and someone writes to me at my house and says "I'm skeptical," it just isn't the same neutral deal anymore.

While I would certainly hate for someone to write "love your site; I'm gullible" I don't much like "love your site but I'm skeptical" either. I assume that people will read things critically and thoughtfully.


This first exchange was e-mail, and I'll let it unfold as it did, but as I have to do html editing anyway, I'll put my own words in green for ease of following.
Responses to a similar situation have been added to the bottom of this page, from another incident a few years later. Part of the response is from Joyce Fetteroll.

In this first exchange, I'm defending my website. In the second, the Always Learning discussion list is being defended. That commonality is interesting. People are wanting to tell me how those things must be, yet the site and discussion have and have had had an existence prior to, above and beyond the feedback of these individuals.

I hope I've taken out identifying information on my correspondent. It's not about an individual, but it is an example of a kind of communication that has happened several times before (often with males; see second sidebox on sandradodd.com/research. Lest people decide now that I don't like male people, I like them lots. I could provide references. )

From:       [now anonymous]
Subject:        Unschooling
Date:       August 21, 2006 7:46:41 PM MDT
To:        Sandra@SandraDodd.com

Hello Sandra,

I stumbled across your website looking up some mathematical equations. I read the section about the 'unschooled' learning of algebra. And I'm quite intrigued by the concept. To be honest I have mixed feeling about what you're saying. Let me give you some background. I remember being utterly bored with math in grade school and high school. However, I worked hard and did well. I worked as a helicopter pilot right out of high school and after a few years as a bush pilot went to University and earned my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. I am now working towards my Masters in Business Administration with a concentration in Finance. I am also currently preparing for my CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) Level I exam. My fiancee and I plan on having children in the near future and I agree that it would be nice if my children did not have to suffer through math like I did. The problem is that, to a large extent, I am very successful due to the hard work I put into learning mathematics. From what I read about the natural learning of mathematics, I would never have been able to complete the post-secondary studies I chose. As a matter of fact, many helicopter pilots I've worked with struggled with flight planning and weigh-and-balance calculations required to safely to their job. Please don't misunderstand-understand, I am very intrigued by your approach to mathematics. I just wonder if substantial and lucrative career paths would have been closed to me, very early in my education, if I had not worked hard at math. As a fencing instructor you must advocate hard work and practice, which would include the execution of numerous 'boring' drills that only approximate 'real-life' fencing. I'm torn between wanting to protect my children from unpleasant experiences and simply accepting the fact that sometimes you have to work hard at 'unpleasant' tasks to be successful.

I guess in the end, I'm torn between wanting to keep my children happy and simply accepting that hard work builds character and is an inevitable fact of life. I apologize if you already have a great answer on your website, I've only read a small part.

Sincerely...


From:        [Now-Anonymous]
Subject:        Follow-up
Date:       August 21, 2006 7:53:09 PM MDT
To:        Sandra@SandraDodd.com

Hello again,

I just realized you are fairly active and prominent it the 'unschool' field. I would like to reiterate that I am very new (few hours) to this concept and hope I was not out of line with my e-mail. I am genuinely interested (if skeptical).-=-

You've even been Wikipedized: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandra_Dodd

[now anon]


From:        Sandra@SandraDodd.com
Subject:       Re: Unschooling
Date:       August 21, 2006 9:35:46 PM MDT
To:       [now anonymous]

-=- The problem is that, to a large extent, I am very successful due to the hard work I put into learning mathematics.-=-

They teach algebra in college. People go into those classes who aced high school math and who were baffled. People go into those classes who grew up in totally foreign cultures who are learning English at the same time.

-=-I just wonder if substantial and lucrative career paths would have been closed to me, very early in my education, if I had not worked hard at math.-=-

Did you "work hard" because people made you do it? Or did you want to?
And why was it hard? Didn't you understand it in little bursts of "aha!" moments?

-=- As a fencing instructor you must advocate hard work and practice, which would include the execution of numerous 'boring' drills that only approximate 'real-life' fencing.-=-

I'm not a fencing instructor. You didn't mean "you" I guess.

I don't advocate making people take fencing against their wills. If someone's voluntarily there, he's voluntarily choosing to cooperate with drills. I know lots of people who do SCA fencing and it's not "drill & kill" but invoves all kinds of options up to making their own weapons and outfits.

-=- I'm torn between wanting to protect my children-=-

Too soon to be torn.
Too soon to worry about children.
Meet them first. <g> See what they like, and what they want.
Decisions you make now are about hypothesis, not about your children. You might never have children. You might have children who know and care nothing about math and never will because they're amazing at some other kind of thing.

While you're waiting (if you haven't already), look into Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner, or at least look around for "Multiple Intelligence Theory" and Howard Gardner's stuff. The Unschooled Mind has nothing to do with unschooling, BTW...

-=- I'm torn between wanting to protect my children from unpleasant experiences and simply accepting the fact that sometimes you have to work hard at 'unpleasant' tasks to be successful. -=-

http://joyfullyrejoycing.com lower side of right column:
Commitments, obligations, responsibilities
There are just things we have to do in life
Commitments
With freedom comes responsibility.
Honoring obligations
Life can't be all just fun and games
What about if they want to quit something?
I don't get how it's not okay for him to act responsibly
(Oh! The links came with it! Cool)

Read some of that, maybe about the "have to" or here
http://sandradodd.com/choice

-=-I guess in the end, I'm torn between wanting to keep my children happy and simply accepting that hard work builds character and is an inevitable fact of life.-=-

Anything you "simply accept" without critical thinking is less than optimal.
"Hard work builds character" is recited and parroted, but is it true?
It also builds very angry, hostile, resentful, sneaky, murderous adults.
Is it inevitable?
Is it "fact"?

Maybe so, but if you "accept" those things, simply or otherwise, do it because you yourself have thought it from every angle and found it valid.

People say all kinds of things that just aren't true.

http://sandradodd.com/ifilet
http://sandradodd.com/phrases

Don't rush yourself to decide about things that are far in the future.

Sandra


From:       Sandra Dodd
Date:       August 21, 2006 9:42:40 PM MDT
To:       [now anonymous]
Subject:       Re: Follow-up

-=- I am genuinely interested (if skeptical).

Genuine interest is great. Expressing skepticism to me is a little irritating. Nothing else was irritating. <g>

My kids are 20, 17 and 14 and your skepticism doesn't change their lives.

I'm not selling unschooling. I'm giving it away.
I'm not going door to door with it.
I didn't even send you an e-mail and say "Come and read my website!"

So be skeptical or incensed or overjoyed or whatever, but to suggest you don't think it's real or workable comes kinda close to personal, as I made no promises or guarantees. I'm sharing freely and openly. Take it and have life changes or leave it and follow the same old assembly line patterns, or discover a whole new path, or buy school-in-a-box homeschool or, or, or....

If you just started reading a few hours ago, here are some good starting places:
http://sandradodd.com/help
http://sandradodd.com/beginning

Sandra


From:       [now anonymous]
Date:       August 21, 2006 10:44:58 PM MDT
To:       Sandra Dodd
Subject:       Re: Follow-up

Thank you for both your replies! You have got me thinking alot about this... I have always forced myself to complete everything I have started and as a result I often feel tired and wonder why I do it. But I can't wrap my mind around an ethos that allows me to stop doing something just because I find it unpleasent or difficult. On the other hand (as I was discussing with my fiancee) our time on this earth is finite, when do I stop and smell the roses. As a matter of fact, when does one allow their children to do that...

**Expressing skepticism to me is a little irritating. Nothing else was irritating. <g> **

I don't know if skeptical was the correct word for me to use. However, if we do not ask questions we do not get answers. If we simply accept the answers as fact, how do we get to the truth? I not only believe that you would encourage people to ask questions about the world around them, but that you would also encourage them to use their common sense and good judgement when considering those answers.

**I'm not selling unschooling. I'm giving it away.
I'm not going door to door with it.
I didn't even send you an e-mail and say "Come and read my website!"
So be skeptical or incensed or overjoyed or whatever, but to suggest you don't think it's real or workable comes kinda close to personal, **

I can imagine you get a fair share of criticism for your opinions. But unless you password protect your website and make it request only access, you in fact have an open invitation to all. A website is like hanging a sign on your door saying 'this is what I think, please come in and I'll tell you all about it." I am a perfect example, I was in fact looking for math equations and now your views are (at least paritally) known to me. Any visitor to your site must be exposed to your ideas before they can know them (and possibly disagree). All I mean is that there are many arguments you can use with people who may critcize you, but that they read the content on you site of their own free will is not a very good one. :)

I sincerely thank you for replying and I will read more about this.

[now anon]


From:       Sandra Dodd
Date:       August 22, 2006 8:47:53 AM MDT
To:       [now anonymous]
Subject:       Re: Follow-up>

-=- But I can't wrap my mind around an ethos-=-

What makes it "an ethos"?

If you think of every word you use, you won't be able to berate yourself with the voices of others. It seems that some of your writing is recitation of things people have told you in the past. Everyone has those little loops of voice in their heads. You can "simply accept" that or you can decide on a case by case basis which ones to keep until you die and which ones to start talking back to.

If you use language without careful examination, you won't be speaking mindfully. School-style responses and reports involve parroting back, sounding confident, using the right buzzwords. But to be truly original and thoughtful, each word needs to be the one one really meant to use. It's a different kind of thinking.

-=- I not only believe that you would encourage people to ask questions about the world around them, but that you would also encourage them to use their common sense and good judgement when considering those answers. -=-

I think that's what I was saying to you. But by writing to me one-on-one and saying (probably without meaning to) "I have doubts about your veracity" and "I suspect your own experiences are bullshit" (not that you consciously thought that) isn't cool.

-=-I don't know if skeptical was the correct word for me to use. However, if we do not ask questions we do not get answers. If we simply accept the answers as fact, how do we get to the truth?-=-

It's not that skeptical wasn't a good word, but under the circumstances (private e-mail) it was a little too close and personal. If I answer everyone's personal questions, not only is the repetition incredible, but I would have no time to be with my own kids.

My volunteer time is put into collecting the good stuff where others can get to it, and participating on discussion lists. You're welcome to join some of those lists (I'm on two, but there are several linked from that help page I sent you), but it would probably be best to wait until you have a child to really spend that kind of energy (and other people's energy).

I do encourage people to ask questions, but you're not going to ask a question someone else hasn't asked in the past dozen years. YES the questions are new to you, and that's how people learn, by running ideas through their own minds and connecting them where they'll fit.

One thing that WILL keep people from assimilating or even considering new information is those voices in the head. If your super-ego (the home of those voices ) gives you a counter-argument for every new idea, it's that zen-teacher teacup situation. ( http://sandradodd.com/deschooling )

-=-I can imagine you get a fair share of criticism for your opinions. But unless you password protect your website and make it request only access, you in fact have an open invitation to all. A website is like hanging a sign on your door saying 'this is what I think, please come in and I'll tell you all about it."-=-

It's an open invitation to read it.
It's "Please come in, where the words here will tell you all about it."

-=-I am a perfect example, I was in fact looking for math equations and now your views are (at least partially) known to me. Any visitor to your site must be exposed to your ideas before they can know them (and possibly disagree).-=-

But I don't care if people disagree. Most probably do. It doesn't hurt me or what I'm doing that others disagree.
And they're not "my ideas." John Holt wrote most of this in the 60's and 70's. Thousands of families do this. I've just been collecting the purest of it the longest, maybe.

-=-All I mean is that there are many arguments you can use with people who may critcize you, but that they read the content on you site of their own free will is not a very good one. :) -=-

What do you really mean here?
Are you suggesting that I'm obligated to carry on long correspondences with anyone who says "Oh HUH!" about something on my site?

I don't make a cut of nothing when someone tries unschooling. When someone unschools instead of buying a $600 (for one child for one year) curriculum, I don't get 20% of what they saved. There's a lot of stuff on the internet. Some is way more useful than other stuff. Some is downright nutty. Same as books in libraries, magazines, documentaries.

-=- On the other hand (as I was discussing with my fiancee) our time on this earth is finite, when do I stop and smell the roses. As a matter of fact, when does one allow their children to do that... -=-

Some people never do.
Or they might schedule a hike and demand that their children smell the roses RIGHT NOW because the hike cost them money and there won't be another one until next year.

Even when parents do have an inkling of "it" they often screw it up.

There are conditions that make unschooling more difficult to consider. Living in Delaware and Maryland seem really inconvenient. Being of Jewish intellectual families can make it hard, but in such cases go with traditional rabbinical Q&A traditions arguments (works while kids are little, anyway, and later there's direct evidence of progress). Have parents who are science professionals makes it hard. They're too busy and ensconced to want to accept that maybe they had options. The worst things of all are ex-spouses or hostile in-laws. Sometimes the answer is just "No, you can't unschool. Sorry."

But the fact that some can't or won't or think it's wrong/stupid/wasteful doesn't change the fact that in those families in which it HAS worked out well, it has worked. The fact that it CAN work doesn't mean that it can always work. The fact that some people are Olympic or professional athletes or competent local athletes doesn't mean everyone who buys a pair of gym shorts and some sneakers can "do what they do." It doesn't mean people who come by who've never seen the sport should say "I'm skeptical." Fact is, people are doing it.

-=-I sincerely thank you for replying and I will read more about this.-=-

But you didn't read what I sent before writing again. :-)

Sandra

A continuation of the very top paragraph from this page, with expansion...

It's not about an individual, but it is an example of a kind of communication that has happened several times before with males (see second sidebox on sandradodd.com/research). Lest people decide now that I don't like male people, I like them lots. I could provide references. <g> That doesn't change the fact that the communications unschooling parents (almost always moms) are accustomed to online seems to change when a male person comes in on it, and rarely for the better.

Maybe male skepticism must include disregard for the experiences of women and children. Maybe.


In 2011, someone wrote on Always Learning that what was being said wasn't true. The conversation ended up in side mail, and eventually involved the original poster, Joyce Fetteroll and me/Sandra Dodd. If I had remembered this "skepticism" page existed, I might have sent that, but Joyce found the page while looking for the cup-too-full story, and so here it all is.

Part of what I had first written (on the side, to the original poster) was:

There were other ways you could have worded what you said. You just haven't earned enough credit in these discussion to tell Joyce she doesn't know what she's talking about. The next time you think maybe she is flat-out wrong, reconsider. And if you still think she might possibly be wrong, write something nice, if you can, please. She's probably not wrong.
She took it badly and accused me of saying people should not question what we say about unschooling. My point is that it should be questioned politely, not rudely:
The Always Learning list will be ten years old in a month and some, November 24. I don't know what you were doing ten years ago, but I had kids who were 15, 12 and newly 10, who hadn't been to school. You are as welcome as can be on Always Learning, but be nice to those people who are helping me help people. That's been the deal for ten years. It's not about you. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AlwaysLearning/

Joyce wrote:

I can see how what Sandra wrote could sound like shut up and just memorize what we tell you.

Clearer is "Examine your own understanding rather than attack the understanding of an experienced person."

Attacking new ideas won't help you understand them. It sets up defensive barriers between you and the new idea.

Better for learning would be questioning *your* understanding. Ask why it seems like kids in school are reading between 7 & 8.

Instead you said "Your idea isn't true. Here's what's really true," putting you in the position of defending your understanding rather than allowing a new understanding in.

If your purpose is to learn something new, that strategy will get in the way.

List members explained why your observation *seemed* true but wasn't. From how you worded your replies it was clear those explanations slid off your defenses. Your focus was on getting people to understand your idea. (I'm still not confident you understood what we explained. And those would be good to reread, perhaps several times.)

*No one*'s telling you to absorb without question. (Even if it sounds to you like Sandra's saying that.) But part of the process of learning something new is some of the ideas are going to sound counter to what you understand.

Did you read the page on deschooling with the story about the Zen master? And about how you need to empty your cup of old ideas before you can fill it with new ideas. http://www.sandradodd.com/deschooling

It's okay to let old ideas go (temporarily) when learning something new. If you decide you don't like the new ideas, the old ideas will still be there waiting to be picked back up again.

It's okay if some of the old ideas set off alarm bells. But you'll learn faster if you begin by questioning the old idea rather than the new one.

Some of what I had written (quoting our correspondent in bold):
But then I did think school is THE place where belittling inexperienced people for daring to challenge "truths" is considered a helpful way to encourage learning. Maybe I need to revise that!
My purpose is to keep peace on the list, not to encourage your personal, individualized learning. If the list is solid and on topic and the information is good and my best volunteers are content, THEN the list will be helpful to you and a thousand or more others.

You're still on it as a personal thing.

"Daring to challenge 'truths'" sounds all dangerous, brave and noble. But what it seemed you were doing was defending school while attacking Joyce. It wasn't about "truths." it was about Joyce's far greater experience with natural learning than yours. That's crucial. It's huge. You want to ignore it. Don't.

Sandra


A reader on the Always Learning list had taken her skepticism to a professional to a fraud posing as a professional, who wrote this, among other things:.... (read the rest there)

Negativity (in case "skepticism" is veiled cynicism or pessimism)

More on how the Always Learning list works and why Deschooling Respect