Holt’s: How Children Learn
Reviewed by Jeremy Solomon
Rather than give an overarching theory
of how children learn,
John Holt, the father of the modern home school movement, uses
anecdotal observations that question assumptions about how children
acquire knowledge and learning skills.
Holt rejects the idea that children are
"monsters of evil" who must be beaten into submission or computers whom
"we can program into geniuses." Neither are they the passive
receptacles of knowledge that can only learn in a schoolroom.
Instead, he calls upon parents and educators to "trust children."
First and foremost, Holt believes that children
are born learners and that there is a curiosity in all
children that begins at birth, not when they are put in school.
His observations of young children reveal that their brains are trying
to make sense of the world.
Children want to solve problems; they like to
think. The problem is that parents and educators get in
the way of this natural process by placing children in large, impersonal
schools, and by teaching a meaningless curriculum in an industrial
Holt rejects knowledge that is entirely taught
in an abstract manner. He uses the example of teaching
fractions as an anesthetic experience with little real world
application. Similarly, he is disgusted by children’s primers and
picture books with their “dumb” and simple vocabularies. Rather,
Holt believes in exposing children to real world problems of increasing
complexity. For example, he encourages parents to expose their
children to newspapers, letters, warranties, the yellow pages - anything
tangible and visceral to promote their curiosity about the world.
Staying with the theme of promoting real
problems for children, Holt is nostalgic for a time when
children observed their parents at work, indeed, when parents and
children worked side by side. He believes childhood observation of
parental work would accelerate learning on the part of their children,
rather than just having information disseminated from the classroom.
This is one reason why Holt is so receptive to home-schooling or as he
calls it. "unschooling."
Holt is full of ire against teachers and
educational institutions, whom he believes actually serve as
a hindrance to acquiring knowledge and learning skills. If the aim
of education is to create independent thinkers, then educators must
learn to refrain from “unasked teaching,” which he argues only
frustrates children into believing that they are not smart enough to
learn. This destructive process to Holt shatters their self esteem
and extinguishes their confidence in their ability to learn for
themselves and, at worst, turn them away from learning forever.
should be more passive, be willing to take a step
back, and give direction only when students need - and ask for, help.
Teachers make the mistake of believing that they are essential to the
learning process and that students can not work without them.
Holt maintains that the best
results can be gained
|when a student is given time to figure things out and to
develop hunches that become more and more sophisticated with experience.
For Holt, there are no stupid mistakes as children develop their
The concept of self
esteem is the second fundamental belief that Holt espouses. Self confidence is the key to a
child’s learning. Overbearing teachers and parents, coercive
educational institutions, the rote drudgery of learning and endless
testing - all serve to create a sense of anxiety, of
crushing curiosity, of making learning a painful rather than a natural
and pleasurable act. Over time students come to believe that they
are failures. Indeed, Holt asserts that stammering and stuttering
are the consequences for some children of destroyed self esteem.
Fear of failure, punishment and disgrace,
along the with the anxiety of
constant testing, severely reduces students’ ability to perceive and
remember, and, thus, drive them away from learning. Holt, with
his trust children philosophy, believes, perhaps naively, that they
have a strong sense of what is right and have an innate self correcting
mechanism that will help them to (eventually) solve a problem.
Most instruction, especially reading, Holt argues, is self taught
anyway, so why the need for overbearing teachers and parents?
Holt believes that learning can be pleasurable and that learning in the
form of games can be the first step in having children embrace a
lifetime of learning.
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