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Book Review: The Unschooling Unmanual

Edited by Jan Hunt & Jason Hunt

Reviewed by Arun Pradhan at The Parenting Pit


For anyone even curious about homeschooling, let alone unschooling, a book that includes the likes of John Holt, Rue Kream and Jan Hunt demands attention.

The Unschooling Unmanual brings together contributions from eight authors in eleven very readable essays. The diverse contributions are woven together with recurring themes – these were many but the ones that kept emerging for me were freedom, learning and more than anything… trust.

The Power of Trust

This theme is addressed directly in all of Jan Hunt’s contributions. She opens her first essay with the sentence, “The main element in successful unschooling is trust” before discussing how to provide space and time for curiosity to flourish. Drawing heavily from John Holt but also using quotes from Albert Einstein and John Taylor Gatto, Hunt provides a simple picture of what kind of environment and support children really need to learn… incidentally, it looks nothing like school!

Hunt’s final contribution entitled “Learning to Trust” describes how much she has learned through connecting with and observing her son Jason over the years. Now 27, Jason co-edited and did the layout for the Unmanual (In true unschooling fashion, Jason said he “learned how to do the book layout by doing the book layout”).

Hunt’s four essays sprinkled throughout the book combine broader points on the nature of learning, stories from Jason’s childhood and practical approaches to a life learning journey. I particularly enjoyed her chapter on “Learning through Play” where among other things, Hunt briefly contrasts the way she learned math (through school and instruction) with Jason (through darts and play).

Hunt makes the point that, “Jason can not only do the math easily but really understands the whole process. If he happens to need a new mathematical tool, he can easily learn it”. Hunt captures his joy in learning when describing how Jason once came to her with a math book requesting, “Let’s play math”.

Getting Perspective

The Unmanual begins with Rue Kream on “Why Choose Unschooling?” This along with a later essay on College have been reprinted from Kream’s classic and invaluable unschooling book, Parenting A Free Child: An Unschooled Life.

In typical Kream style, this short essay has loads of clarity, hope and joy that comes from someone who is clear on what is important to her and living her life accordingly. So what is important to Kream? In her words, “children belong with their families. Nothing is more important than living in connection with the ones you love and sharing life‘s experiences.” Kream goes on to explain that her motivation for unschooling is not academic: “Ultimately I‘d say that the reason we choose to unschool is because we want our children to be truly free.”

A Glimpse into Unschooling Lives

Kream’s clarity sets a framework to enjoy Nanda Van Gestel’s and Kim Houssenloge’s essays as they share their respective unschooling journeys. The inclusion of such personal stories, alongside a number of short grabs from Mary Van Doren, help to give readers a sense of “what unschooling looks like”, although part of the point is that it never looks the same.

Van Gestel’s journey is described via sub-chapters covering math, reading, joy, play, health, attachment parenting and more. The main themes of the book continue with Van Gestel ending her story realizing that “it didn‘t matter if my children learned on the same schedule as those of my friend. All that mattered was that we trusted them to learn on their own schedule. By meeting their needs and learning to trust, we have discovered to our delight that unschooling is simply living life, naturally and joyfully.”

Houssenloge’s essay charts her at times angst-ridden investigation into which educational approach was best for her young son. Her investigation into Montessori, Steiner and the “best schools” eventually gave way to an understanding that homeschooling could continue the natural learning approach of her son’s first four years. A teacher herself, Hossenloge’s growing confidence in her son’s voracious curiosity led her to research unschooling. This process left a major impression as she notes, “I learned more about the nature of learning in a few short months than I ever did as a student in the school system and later on as a university student.”

Deepening Understanding

Mid-book, we are taken through a more intellectual critique of school by Daniel Quinn. In an approach that would make John Taylor Gatto proud, Quinn in his own words aims to provide a “philosophical, historical, anthropological, and biological foundation for your conviction that school ain‘t all it‘s cracked up to be.” In this compelling essay, Quinn presents his core belief that “From infancy onward, children are the most fantastic learners in the world.”

Quinn’s argument serves as back drop to Earl Stevens who asks “What is Unschooling?” In answering this question Stevens describes a life where children learn by “doing real things” and activities can be tailored to meet the needs and interests of each individual child.

I particularly enjoyed Stevens’ analogy around searching for evidence of what unschooled children are learning. “It is a little like watching a garden grow. No matter how closely we examine the garden, it is difficult to verify that anything is happening at that particular moment. But as the season progresses, we can see that much has happened, quietly and naturally. Children pursue life, and in doing so, pursue knowledge. They need adults to trust in the inevitability of this very natural process, and to offer what assistance they can.”

It is appropriate that the final chapter of the Unmanual has been handed over to the late John Holt. Holt is often cited as a key founder of the unschooling movement and Hunt generously acknowledges his influence in her articles and even more forthrightly by dedicating the Unmanual itself to Holt in its opening pages.

In an excerpt from his book Learning All the Time, Holt relates how his experience as a teacher and observations of children led him to understand that “learning is not the product of teaching”. Holt’s short contribution to the book is eminently quotable and rich in useful observations. One of many points of interest is that “we can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions - if they have any - and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

A Sound Investment in Learning and Trust

Theoretically you could access some of the writings in this book from Jan Hunt’s Natural Child Project website and the other books I have cited in the review. However, like so many compilations, having the essays in one volume seems to make the book greater than the sum of its parts.

The Unmanual is a great introduction to learning and unschooling for people coming from an educational perspective who are willing to have their comfort zone pushed. At the same time it can be an invaluable confidence booster for people already on an unschooling journey.

The Unmanual’s focus means that it does not stray too deeply into issues around non-coercive parenting and broader freedoms that are often a topic of discussion by unschoolers, but that is perhaps one of its strengths. In my opinion, there has been a gap in unschooling literature. On one hand, there are very basic introductions such as Mary Griffith’s The Unschooling Handbook, and on the other hand there are challenging investigations into more holistic parenting or radical unschooling approaches through Rue Kream’s excellent Parenting A Free Child: An Unschooled Life and Valerie Fitzenreiter’s The Unprocessed Child.

Previously, the main bridge between relatively basic unschooling concepts on one side and descriptions of radical unschooled lives on the other, were the writings of John Holt. The Unschooling Unmanual strengthens this bridge tremendously by becoming a concise, readable and accessible manifesto for natural learning and trust in children.

I know I have overused that word “trust” in writing about The Unschooling Unmanual, but frankly it’s hard to avoid. For my part, after reading this collection of essays, I was left with a sense of quiet calm that can only come from renewed trust. Trust in natural learning; trust in choosing an unschooled life; and ultimately trust in my children.
 

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