This is an article I wrote for HomeWorks, a Pakistani homeschooling newsletter. I had not written an article in ages and never done one on homeschooling so I was chuffed to bits that the editor accepted it.
How Children Learn by John Holt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I was first given copies of John Holt’s “How Children Fail” and “How Children Learn”, I was loath to give them more than a scant perusal. I had read a few articles by and about the man who was probably the first to coin the term “unschooling” and generally considered one of the early instigators and champions of the homeschool movement, but I had, for the most part, distanced myself from reading his works in depth.
Born, raised and schooled in Singapore, I had had a rigid and rigorous education. As an adult, I had enough of the adventurer (rebel?) in me to wish for an alternative for my children, but still product enough of my youth to feel unsettled and unnerved with the ideas of the father of unschooling. Let my child have carte blanche over what, when, where, how and how much they want to learn? Come on!
It didn’t sit well with me though, this prejudice. The very reason why I had always wanted to homeschool was because I wanted my children to have a more generous and fulfilling education than the one I had had – one that I had become disillusioned with. Why then was I so afraid of reading Holt’s works? Was it because I had been so conditioned that I could not entertain anything less than complete structure in learning and teaching? I finally decided to give “How Children Learn” a good read and I have no qualms in admitting that it was a long time coming – the book is nothing short of remarkable and enlightening, not to mention totally in line with my aspirations for my children.
Holt’s book is a profound collection of his observations about how children learn. He watched with fascination as they tinkered with various equipments; he played with them patiently as they created their own games and rules and he celebrated their every achievement with delight.
He was absorbed by 16-month-old Lisa’s experiments with a portable electric typewriter – she was curious as to the machine’s inner workings and learnt how to make it work and what to do when the keys became stuck. Most parents would do one of two things – we might put the typewriter out of reach so as to stop a baby from destroying it or we would give the child explicit instructions as to how to use it. Holt, on the other hand, recommended neither.
He maintained that it is better to teach children how to treat things carefully and respectfully rather than to rob them of an exercise in curiosity. As Holt rightly pointed out, “One of Maria Montessori’s many valuable contributions to education was that she showed that very little children could easily be taught to move, not just exuberantly, but also deftly, precisely, gently.”
He strongly advocated allowing children to experiment, struggle and improvise with little interference. Lisa’s younger brother Tommy, when about 3 or 4, for example, “hated to be taught” the alphabets. Danny, aged 2-and-a-half, tore down the models that his father and Holt had built out of Cuisenaire rods. Holt concluded that when instruction and help is unasked for, the underlying message given to children is that they are not smart enough to learn something on their own. Competence models can sometimes undermine their self-esteem for it emphasises the divide between their abilities and that of adults’. How many times have we heard children say frustratedly, “You know so much and I don’t!”?
Holt believed that children learn best when the lessons and work are meaningful. Reading can be facilitated by good literature rather than simplistic (and thus, insulting) books. Art can be pleasurable with quality materials. Numerous practical skills can be better acquired by working alongside adults.
Holt’s book should not entail a leap of faith – we as parents and educators should already have faith in our children. They will learn, God willing, if we give them the opportunity to do so without fear. They will try, God willing, and succeed if we learn to recognise their strengths and do not despair. Holt gave the example of a supposed “hopeless” student who became a successful commercial photographer when grown up – when she first took up serious photography at about age 14, she “learned in a few months, because she needed it, all the arithmetic she had never been able to learn in ten years of school”. Holt advised patience and loving guidance alongside this trust – when children are frustrated, we need to know when to “draw back, take off the pressure, reassure them, console them, give them time to regain – as in time they will – enough energy and courage to go back to the task”.
Holt presented many examples of children working in various settings – some readers have told me that they found this a little dry, but I think it speaks a great deal of the deep interest he had in making learning truly fulfilling for children. What shines through in his detailed and painstaking recordings is the genuine appreciation and respect that he had for children, despite not having had any of his own.
This enchantment he had, I believe, is something many of us harried and anxious parents seem to have lost in our pursuit to give our children the best in terms of learning. We hustle them along, exhort them to work harder, convinced they can do better and in the end, lose track of our initial good intentions. We don’t see them for the passionate and imaginative people they are and instead, worry about their future economic worth. Holt reminded us that children learn best when we understand our roles as gentle facilitators and when they are free to make mistakes without having their self-worth squashed.
I came away from Holt’s “How Children Learn” with a deeper love for and trust in my children. Trust indeed is what John Holt reiterated in his book. I leave you with a powerful quote from his book. I think it totally sums up how children really learn:
In my mind’s ear, I can hear the anxious voices of a hundred teachers asking me, “How can you tell, how can you be sure what the children are learning, or even that they are learning anything?” The answer is simple. We can’t tell. We can’t be sure. What I am trying to say about education rests on a belief that, though there is much evidence to support it, I cannot prove, and that may never be proved. Call it a faith. This faith is that man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns. Therefore, we do not need to “motivate” children into learning, by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and the classroom; give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.