Revisiting the Brilliant Insights of John Holt

In crafting a literature review for my PhD dissertation on the subject of learning, certain researchers and authors jumped out at me. I was fascinated to know about Frederick Winslow Taylor and his theory of ‘scientific management’ that girded the automation of modern education. ‘Taylorism’, as it was known, forged the way for standardized curricula, multiple choice testing and novelties like Seymour Pressey’s ‘Teaching Machine’ which dispensed hard candies to students guessing correct answers. These developments underscored an ‘efficiency’ movement in education that had little or nothing to do with actual human learning. 

To clarify, I was interested to know about Taylor but I wasn’t inspired in the least. 

On the other hand, in crafting my review I met or was re-acquainted with many other individuals who have long inspired me, and perhaps no educator tickled my ‘happy spot’ quite like John Holt

If you don’t know of John Holt, he was a thoughtful elementary school educator who started questioning schooling methods in the 1950s through a series of books, starting with How Children Fail published in the early 1960s. His insights about children’s learning in that and subsequent books were poignant and picked up by many who, like Holt, began resisting schooling methods based in standardization. 

John Holt, patriarch of secular homeschooling movement

Eventually, Holt quit conventional teaching and began leading an ‘Unschooling‘ movement in which he saw children regaining a freedom to be and to learn that was vanquished in mainstream education. In 1977 Holt launched a newsletter  Growing Without Schooling which further helped inspire a secular homeschooling movement. John died in 1985 but the movement he began inspired many thousands and it lives on to this day. 

Below are some insights from ‘How Children Learn’ (1967, 1983) and I’ll leave it to you to absorb them and reflect on their wisdom: 

Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple – or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves- and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. and so we go on treating children as we ourselves were treated, calling this “reality”, or saying bitterly, “If I could put up with it, they can too.” … What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted. 

On the natural learning style of young children:  “the child is curious. He wants to make sense out of things, find out how things work, gain competence and control over himself and his environment, do what he can see other people doing. He is open, receptive, and perceptive. He does not shut himself off from the strange, confused, complicated world around him. He observes it closely and sharply, tries to take it all in. he is experimental. he does not merely observe the world around him, but tastes it, touches, hefts it, bends it, breaks. To find out how reality works he works on it. He is bold. He is not afraid of making mistakes. And he is patient. he can tolerate an extraordinary amount of uncertainty, confusion ignorance, and suspense. He does not have to have instant meaning in any new situation. He is willing and able to wait for meaning to come to him – even if it comes very slowly, which it usually does.

Children even as young as two want not just to learn about but to be a part of our adult world. They want to become more skillful, careful, able to do things and make things as we do. They want to talk as we do, that is, communicate ideas and feelings, and in that sense they do talk – even before they know any “real” words, which they learn not so that when they have enough of them they can begin to talk, but so that they can talk even better right now. … it is their desire and determination to do real things, not in the future but right now, that gives children the curiosity, energy, determination, and patience to learn all they learn.  – 288

What is essential is to realize that children learn independently, not in bunches; that they learn out of interest and curiosity, not to please or appease adults in power; and that they ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. 

– the human mind is a mystery. To a very large extent it will probably always be so. We will never get very far in education until we realize this and give up the delusion that we can know, measure, and control what goes on in children’s minds.

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 and 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. 

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