Book Review: The Unschooling Unmanual
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".
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."
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
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
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
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.