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Homefires' Teleconference Speaker: Sandra Dodd

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Radical Unschooling

The Difference Between Unschooling & Radical Unschooling

By Sandra Dodd

A few years ago, someone asked about the difference between unschooling and radical unschooling, and this was my response:

Outside of discussions of homeschoolers, they're all homeschoolers. To someone in South Africa, Americans are all Americans. To someone in Mexico or Canada, they probably know and care about the differences between Texans and Californians, or New Englanders, Midwesterners, and Pacific NW folk.

Within a state, people know which regions will expect what behavior, or level of clothing formality, or will have what kind of food, and so forth.

In which town in your own state is there most likely to be a mosque, or synagogue, or Buddhist center? Which is likely to have three kinds of Pentecostal church? Where can you buy Moon Pies and pork rinds? Keifer and sprouts?

And so within homeschooling, some people have lots of shades of meaning for the homeschoolers like themselves, and fewer shades for those further away.

I don't personally care much about the difference between ABeka and Sonlight curricula, and I'm sure there are differences! Within those, I bet there are people who choose their friends or avoid people based on how they use those curricula, and I bet they themselves have terminology for their slackers, and too-stricts, and just-rights.

In different discussions over the years I've seen different distinctions made about "radical." Sometimes it involves whether there is any instruction. Some people want to teach math facts and reading and other than that they're unschooling. They're not radical unschoolers.

Sometimes it involves whether there's any separation of learning and other life.

Some want to give their kids uninterrupted learning opportunities and time to pursue their interests during "school hours" so that on a school day they're free to do what they want as long as it seems somewhat justifiably schoolish. And they might accept that Lego or sandbox play is schoolish because there are math, engineering, physics and nature elements, and they want to document some of that. But they might not want the kids to just sit and look out the window, or to read magazines about movie stars, or to play a video game during that same time.

If you read that and thought, "Yeah, but looking out the window, playing a video game or reading ANY magazine is still learning," then you're probably a radical unschooler.

Then there is another division that considers whether unschooling has so transformed the parents or the family that they have blurred the lines between learning and any other part of life, and I think that's the line that causes conflict on discussion forums and lists sometimes. It has to do with lifestyle other than project/learning/input. What about bedtimes and food and chores and rules of interaction with the world?

Each family has a point that is too far for them. For me "too far" is when a parent says they don't think it's their job to suggest anything for their kids to do, ever. They don't think it's their job to comment on their children's interests. They don't think it's unschooling if a parent ever directs anything or imposes his or her own interests on the child in any way.

I think that's justifying some kind of detached neglect, and I think it's irresponsible. Yet there have been very, very few of those over the years (and I think they were bluffing anyway, or experimenting with a posture they didn't actually hold and would say something different in a week or two).

There's my personal edge-of-the-world. But I don't call them more radical than I am. I think they're goofy or they're just saying what they think will stir trouble.

So back to the real world as we know it and I would like to try to maintain it: I think if people divide their lives into academic and non-academic, they're not radical unschoolers.

I think unschooling in the context of a traditional set of rules and parental requirements and expectations will work better than structured school-at-home, but I don't think it will work as well for the developing souls and minds of the children involved. And those who are not radical unschoolers would look at that and say "What do their souls have to do with unschooling?"

It has to do with philosophy and priority. I believe that the way I discuss whether one of my teens can go to a movie or not, under the circumstances of the moment, is as true and deep a life-building experience as when he asks me what squares and square roots are about.

One day we had from seven to seventeen kids here, in various combinations and not all at once. It was a madhouse. At one point two were gone and were coming back, and one was half-expected (and did show up). My son, Marty, wanted to go to the dollar movies to see "School of Rock" with a subset of the day's count. My daughter, Holly, didn't want to go; her guest from England did. My son Kirby half wanted to go; the girls coming back wanted to see him particularly.

So the discussion with Marty involved me helping him review the schedule, how many cars were available for transportation, the amount of cash he had to purchase tickets, whether he could ask Kirby to stay, and whether or not we could offer another trip to that theater the next day for those who would miss it today, etc. I could have said "yes" or "no" without detail, but it was important to me for it to be important to Marty to learn how to make those decisions. Lots of factors.

That's part of my personal style of radical unschooling.

[Sandra Dodd, 2003, when her kids were 11, 14 and 17, or so.]

Sandra Dodd Bio

Sandra Dodd writes and speaks about unschooling. She lives in New Mexico with her husband Keith, son Marty (22) and daughter Holly (19). Her oldest, Kirby (24), lives in Austin, Texas. Those three were unschooled throughout, and are all past school age, but not past learning! Neither are their parents.

Sandra is a former English teacher whose other jobs have all involved words, ideas and learning too. Her hobby is helping other parents find ways to live more richly and peacefully with their children.

Sandra's unschooling website is the starting place for a great deal of her collection of writings, notes, examples, and great quotes collected from 15 years of online discussions. Her books "Moving a Puddle" and "The Big Book of Unschooling" can be ordered there.

In 2011, Sandra will be speaking in New York, Chicago, Edinburgh, London, and San Diego. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, she is hosting a summer symposium and another the last week of December, that is part of series called "Always Learning LIVE."