Book Review: How Children Learn by John Holt

I didn’t expect I would like How Children Learn. But it had been recommended by so many homeschoolers I like and admire, I decided to go ahead and give it a read anyway. I got a copy from bookmooch and figured at least I wasn’t spending a bunch of money on it.

But I was pleasantly surprised. This was a book I couldn’t put down.

From the beginning Holt’s style is that of a story teller. He begins with a series of anecdotes about his interactions with various children. His observations and the conclusions he draws are a seamless whole. This never feels like a book of theory, he never pontificates, it never feels forced because the reader is shown, not told, the process of thinking, not the results of thought.

I especially loved this passage, which nicely sums up his methodology:

Such experiences suggest a reason why so much that seems to me trivial, misleading, or downright false, has been written about child psychology. The psychologists, on the whole, have not done enough of Professor Hawkins’ “Messing About.” They have not seen enough children in their native habitat—homes, schools, playgrounds, streets, stores, anywhere. They haven’t talked or played with enough of them, or helped them, or comforted them, or coerced them, or made them pleased, or rebellious, or angry. Unless he is very fortunate, a young psychologist is very likely to have his head stuffed full of theories of children before has had a chance to look at any. . . .

. . . My aim in writing this book is not primarily to persuade educators and psychologists to swap new doctrines for old, but to persuade them to look at children, patiently, repeatedly, respectfully, and to hold off making theories and judgments about them until they have in their minds what most of them do not now have—a reasonably accurate model of what children are like.

Holt’s theories about education are simple. Children are natural learners, naturally curious. The goal of education isn’t so much lighting a spark as it is preventing the natural spark from being extinguished. (Of course, if it has been, then it must be reignited.)

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 it, hefts it, bends it, breaks it. 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.

School is not a place that gives much time, or opportunity, or reward, for this kind of thinking and learning.

It is clear from the stories he tells, the details he includes, that Holt loves children and has a certain childlike quality of wonder and play. He’s the kind of guy who will invent a game out of an accidental head butt with a baby (reminds me of some of the games I’ve played with Bella). He’s not afraid of describing his failures and mistakes. He sounds like the kind of guy I’d love to have come over for tea not only for the great conversation but also because he’d be sure to get down on the floor, perhaps even during the meal, to play with the baby.

What he has to say about education makes sense to me, first of all on the most basic level: he seems to have the same understanding of human nature as I do. he understands the way children see the world. Above all, he sees children as persons first; he looks at them with love and respect and with a desire for understanding.

I’ve never been very attracted to the idea of unschooling, but this passage does make a lot of sense to me:

My real reason, however, for believing that the learner, young or old, is the best judge of what he should learn next, is very different. I would be against trying to cram knowledge into the heads of children, even if we could agree on what knowledge to cram, and could be sure that it would not go out of date, even if we could be sure that, once crammed in, it would stay in. Even then, I would trust the child to direct his own learning. For it seems to me a fact that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn. To put this another way, curiosity is hardly ever idle. What we want to know, we want to know for a reason. The reason is that there is a hole, a gap, an empty space in our understanding of things, our mental model of the world. We feel that gap like a hole in the tooth and want to fill it up. It makes us ask how? When? Why? While the gap is there we are in tension, in suspense. . . .

When we learn this way, for these reasons, we learn both rapidly and permanently. The person who really needs to know something, does not need to be told many times, drilled, tested. Once is enough. The new piece of knowledge fits into the gap ready for it, like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Once in place , it is held in, it can’t fall out. We don’t forget the things that make the world a more reasonable or interesting place for us, that make our mental model more complete and accurate.

I know I said there wasn’t much theory or pontificating in the book and yet the excerpts I include sound rather like exactly that. I should point out that all the quotes here are from the final section of the last chapter. They are the summary that the entire book builds toward, not a statement of the premises it starts from.

Now I’m off to read How Children Fail. . . I hope I like it as much.

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