Sunday, 5 August 2012

How Children Learn by John Holt

This book is a true classic and it played a big part in helping us along the road to home education. I have a great love for John Holt and find it hard to believe he passed away in 1985, his words are so fresh and so real, they truly speak to me. But before I get too emotional, here is a bit about him: Holt was an American educator, author and home education pioneer, he founded the magazine Growing Without Schooling that ran from 1977 to 2001 and coined the term Unschooling to indicate that children can learn in significant ways that don't resemble school learning and that don't have to just take place at home.
His first book, How Children Fail, was a collection of diary entries and observations written during his time as a teacher, his bafflement at the children failing to learn despite all the school and teacher efforts, and his attempts to find an alternative, are very touching.

John Holt (1923-1985)
Disillusioned with the school system and the difficulties in making alternatives acceptable to authorities and parents, Holt concentrated on the home schooling movement, editing the GWS magazine and writing extensively.

How children learn is the flip side of How children fail, through his wonderful observations, Holt enters the world of childhood learning and draws some very important conclusions, mainly that for small children "learning is as natural as breathing" and that all the interference, as well meaning as it might be, from adults is in fact putting the breaks on a very natural process. He sees children as small scientists who approach the world through experimentation and learn through making "mistakes", he argues that there is no need for adults to intervene and give the child the "right" answer as this would take away the joy and feeling of accomplishment when they do get it right. And sometimes there isn't a "right" to be found, children need to experiment with, to experience words, ideas, materials, in Holt's words to "mess about" with things before they can begin to see how they work. He was a great believer in just leaving things lying about for the children to mess about with (famously his typewriter) and familiarise themselves with them, under no pressure, just following the natural instinct to "see what makes them go".

I personally really love reading his observations of the children, I find my own boys fascinating to observer and I was also a teacher for some time (not as long as Holt though, I struggled too much with the system that I felt cared very little for the individual child and very much for test results) but where I felt hopeless, Holt looked for alternatives, and ultimately I came to the same logical conclusion: that children learn in a happy, safe environment with no pressure to perform, that learning really is natural and that all the planning and testing in the world will not result in true understanding and love of a subject for our children. For us that means at home.

For more information (and a chance to look through the GWS magazine archive):

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