“The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom,” by Mary Griffith — A Review

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Prima Publishing, 1998. 230 pgs.

Introduction

Martial arts master and cinema icon Bruce Lee was once asked: “What’s your [martial arts] style?” The layman might expect him to say Karate, Judo, Tae Kwon Do or something like that. Martial artists might expect him to say the official name of his style, Jeet Kun Do. But Lee answered in typically enigmatic fashion: “My style? You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.”

Well, after reading this book you may get the same impression that I did: that “unschooling” is “schooling without schooling.” And as Bruce Lee further describes his art as water — formless, adaptive, and fluid--the same could be said of unschooling. It too is formless, adaptive, and fluid.

In The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom, Mary Griffith attempts a difficult task, conveying in a linear text an educational approach that largely defies the conventions of linear text. That said, this book is a solid and helpful contribution to the growing batch of resources for non-traditional homeschoolers.

Summary

I’ll be honest. When I first came across this book, I bypassed it. The cover image makes this text look like a craft book for elementary homeschoolers.[1] As worked through my review of curricula and educational theory texts, this book just seemed too narrow and childish for my interests. But when I came across this book at the local library, and opened it up, I found it to be a serious and intelligent introductory manual for the nontraditional homeschooling approach now known as “unschooling.”

The text is divided into thirteen chapters, with intermittent sections outlining example schedules of a “typical” unschooling week (pg. 77–75, 123-125, 163–172). These schedules lend a suggestive sense of how unschooling “schedules” might work. Also, within each chapter are numerous testimonials from unschooling parents and children alike. In effect, these testimonials allow the reader to see how any given instructional point in the book can apply differently depending on the unschooling setting.

The first four chapters are a broad orientation: (ch. 1) “What is Unschooling and How Can It Possibly Work?” (pg. 2–26); (2) “Resources: What You Need” (pg. 27-40), and one of the growing questions for unschooling and most every other homeschooling method; (3) “TV or Not TV and Other Questions of Technology” (pgs. 41-54). Chapter four “How Can You Tell They’re Learning,” (pg. 55–72) tackles the question of evaluation. It asks how one can effectively evaluate whether and how much students are learning?

The next five chapters address subject areas: (5) “Reading and Writing” (pgs. 79–94), (6) “Math and Problem-Solving” (pgs. 95-108), (7) “Science” (pgs. 109-122), (8) “History” (pgs. 126-138), and (9) “The Arts” (pgs. 139-150). The last four chapters address practical and clarifying issues including (10) “Changes as Kids Grow Older” (pgs. 151-162), (11) “Practical Considerations” — like legal requirements, time constraints, financial constraints, siblings and family relations, and moral support/networking. Chapters 12 addresses the matter of “Coping With Doubt and Challenges” (pgs. 183-196). Chapter 13 asks, “Is Unschooling Contagious?” (pgs. 197–220).

Unschooling, as Griffith explains it, appears to be a free-form lifestyle of learning where the key objective is to protect and nurture the child’s natural delight in learning. She says, “Our fundamental objective is to keep alive their love of learning” (pg. 33). Unschooling tends to see children in a humanistic light, with a natural bent towards learning. Children love to learn, that is, until classroom conventions beat it out of them. Children do not enjoy having to conform to boring, superimposed, classroom trappings artificially foisted on them by adults. Unschooling seeks to liberate the child’s natural appetite for learning, transforming the parent-teacher into a facilitator; and the student shifts from passive learner to active self-educator.

The parent-teacher’s job is simply to “help her find what she needs in order to learn what she’s interested in” (pg. 106). Unschooling cultivates curiosity, instills initiative and urges personal responsibility. It dignifies the educational value of play, permits free adaptation as needed. And it emphasizes parenting as an educational exercise. Unschooling can be thought of as a kind of consciously educational style of parenting..

That said, it’s still difficult to “explain” or “outline” unschooling by way of a straightforward summary. And Griffith admits as much in the course of her book. Unschooling is not, however, as alien as one might think at first glance. Unschooling is very different from conventional schooling yet still strangely familiar because it is already the primary learning style each of us uses when it comes to our own pet projects, hobbies, and personal learning endeavors.

Critique

Unschooling creates some challenges for the writer as well as the reader. Unschooling really is anti-programmatic, responding to each individual student uniquely according to their own needs and interests. Learning about unschooling from a book is a bit artificial since unschooling makes no pretensions of being tied to textbooks, manuals, and guides. As such, this text is riddled with testimonials from guest contributors. These testimonials are not “side-notes” but are a key element in communicating the adaptive integrity of unschooling strategy. Griffith treats these lay level contributors as coauthors, listing each of them in an annotated contributors sections on pages 221–223. Individual homeschooling parents are likely to want some structure and method as they learn how unschooling works, but the method itself admits an endless variety of adaptations. So the testimonials are invaluable for allowing readers to see how any given point in the book is illustrated with a variety of anecdotes from actual unschoolers.

Perhaps the biggest stylistic drawback is also the most superficial. The book cover is a cartoonish elementary-level image with bright colors and comical distortions. It’s in the same genre as Mary Englebreit’s art. Apparently Griffith’s target audience is preschool or elementary moms who are considering unschooling. The problem is that this text is more akin to a master’s level thesis on unschooling. Minus the testimonials, this book would be a fine research entry among scholarly education books. Griffith, is wise to adapt the language and style to suit her audience but make no mistake, this book and chapters 1–4 especially, are fairly mature pedagogy (education theory). It’s smartly arranged and clearly argued, though the cover suggests something childish and playful. While the cover is only one page in the book, it risks false advertising and, in my opinion, is a detriment to the text. A better cover might have a bit of whimsy but still suit a wider audience. For comparison, see her other book: The Homeschooling Handbook. The design of this other handbook is cleaner, simpler, and stylistically mature enough to appeal to the actual target audience — homeschool parents.

Setting aside the quibble over the cover, the text of the book is thoughtful as it reflects the author’s seasoned experience in educational theory and practice. She clearly has experience as an unschool teacher. Griffith reflects the influence of unschooling guru, John Holt, in different places such as the quote, “Learning is as natural as breathing” (pg. 22). Her proposals are still her own though, and her writing style is more demure and gracious than Holt’s tends to be.

Griffith also demonstrates refreshing candor, admitting that unschooling can feel “haphazard” and overly “casual” (pg. 30). She confesses on page three that “living this way requires a considerable amount of trust and patience” since unschooling is student-directed but students tend to follow their interests in meandering paths only loosely related to school subject areas. To this she adds, “trusting that the child will learn is one of the most difficult hurdles to understanding how unschooling works” (pg. 10). Griffith is aware of the challenges and objections weighing against unschooling. Even though she clearly favors unschooling over public and private schooling, and above any other homeschooling methodology, she is not deluded either. Unschooling is no magic pill. It is no utopia.

Griffith concludes each chapter with an annotated list of resources. These lists vary in length and value. The science resource list is quite helpful, at three pages in length and with practical annotations. Chapter 11, “Practical Considerations,” however has only two entries in the resource list and is not terribly helpful

Regarding the testimonials, they are a major feature of the book. Some parent-teachers may be tempted to skim or skip the testimonials, but that approach isn’t wise for this text. The nature of unschooling begs for readers to consider the variety of ways unschooling can operate, and that means observing how different unschoolers go about unschooling. That said, the book does run the risk of leaning too heavily on testimonials. This reader would have appreciated a bit more systematic discussion of the issues. Admittedly, it’s no real fault of this author to let a diverse sample of actual unschoolers voice their unique perspectives on this variegated educational theory.

One drawback of this book is that it’s almost 20 years old (1998 publishing date). It’s a good enough book to deserve an updated edition. Some of the online resources are outdated. And the author’s conception of online learning needs updating to keep pace with the state of educational technology today.

At the conclusion of the book, unschooling still poses some pressing questions which — by no fault of the author — may just be intrinsic to unschooling. The testimonials and the authors experience as an unschooling parent herself lend great credibility. So this approach to homeschooling apparently works. Still, the reader may be wondering, as I was, about whether unschooling inclines students to have authority issues, having never had to submit to assertive and proactive teachers, bosses, or other authority figures in explicitly educational settings.

This method also seems humanistic, affirming innate goodness in students and trusting their ability to know and foresee what they’ll need to learn. Some homeschool parents might not share a humanistic educational outlook. Also, the emphasis on enjoying education is great, and makes a lot of sense for early elementary and middle school years, and at least a secondary value for later years. But, in the working world, students won’t always have the opportunity to discover and learn at a leisurely and enjoyable pace. It seems unschooling might not match up well with the expectations held of new employees in much of the working world.

One also wonders if unschoolers are generally good at taking orders, or receiving external structure (such as a college syllabus or template), or working in groups. One may also wonder if the unschooling aversion towards formal testing can leave students unequipped for SAT, ACT, GRE, or other formal tests they are liable to encounter in later education. To be fair, Griffith addressed some of these issues in brief in chapters 11–13. But, a longer set of responses would help strengthen her case for any outsiders and skeptics who aren’t quite sure what to make of this “unschooling”

Conclusion

Overall, The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom is a solid entry into the corpus of unschooling and homeschooling literature. Using the counsel and guidance in these pages, brave parent-teachers can realistically begin their own unschooling adventure. Of course, this text alone won’t cover everything unschoolers need to know. But it’s a great launching pad, complete with educational theory, practical instruction, and in-depth clarifications on key challenges (such as how to evaluate student progress, and how to report student progress to the State). This text lines up well with John Holt’s educational philosophy, and makes a great supplement for other homeschools — outside of the “unschooling” tradition. Don’t be put off by the cover, this is a serious manual for practicing and aspiring unschoolers.

[1] The “cover” refers only to the Prima Publishing, 1998 1st edition.

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