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On John Holt-Trusting How Children Learn

On John Holt-Trusting How Children Learn

On John Holt-Trusting How Children Learn



Have you heard about John Holt before? I mentioned him in last week’s blog about the Woodstock era and the value of free play, because it was his philosophy about how children learn and interact with the world around them that gave way to so many of the vibrant and celebrated parenting/education movements that many of you practice today, such as homeschooling, unschooling, and other unconventional, off-the-grid institutions like the one I went to as a young child. 

I feel very fortunate to live here in Northern California where there’s such a vast offering of schooling options available to young families, each with beautiful and diverse communities surrounding them, from Waldorf schools, to small charter schools, to public schools that offer great independent study programs, and--up until last year--the ‘Nonesuch School’--a private, not for profit high school that focused on student-led curriculums and youth empowerment. That last phrase, “youth empowerment”, or “youth advocacy”, is very much one of the gifts of John Holt’s legacy. While it might not seem like a deeply radical or groundbreaking sentiment in 2019, for an elementary school teacher in the 1950’s--a decade when “children should be seen and not heard” was still touted unironically--to talk about young children as if they ought to have their own set of rights, opinions, and autonomy was very controversial! And no, John Holt (nor I) was/am suggesting that five-year-olds ought to have full control over their daily schedule and eating habits...It’s about looking into their eyes and seeing that there is a person in there, growing and learning and figuring themselves out, and seeking your validation and respect as they do!                                                     

Failing to successfully create spaces and moments for that individual to flourish, explore, and try was the fundamental flaw that Holt saw with the traditional school system, and what he and others sought to fix by championing the unpopular notion that children are learning all the time and that “school should be viewed as a convivial learning resource, like a library, rather than a compulsory treatment program.” The publication of Holt’s first book, How Children Fail, happened right around the same time as the “free school” movement was gaining traction. Citing the civil rights movement as a major motivating force, young people across the country began to demand discussions around education reform, on their university campuses, community colleges, and even in K-12 classrooms. Whether or not one agrees with their specific ideology or beliefs, I think it's important to remember that without the "radical" activists in the 1960's and 70's, we wouldn't have the more well-rounded education system and plethora of schooling alternatives that we have today! 

Before I delve into talking more about John Holt's work, I wanted to make sure to acknowledge that the reason I and others know his name is because he was able to publish several books, make TV and radio appearances, and garner people's respect and attention, probably due in large part to the fact that he was an upper middle class, formally educated white man. That doesn't mean his work and writing isn't valuable or worthy of discussion, it just means that his ideas certainly didn't originate in a vacuum--they were influenced, inspired by, and developed in tandem with a larger social movement that included women, people of color, young people, and a whole other host of diverse and unique voices! At its core, the "free school" movement, was about “reclaiming lost power, lost cultural knowledge that has been buried underneath a disabling consumer culture where agency has been deactivated for the majority of the American public" --very radical ideas that were not necessarily well-received in their time!

One of John Holt's fundamental arguments was that "schooling" and "education" are not one in the same, which means that a child does not need to go to "school" in order to learn and have a wonderful education. After calling for school reform in the 1960's, by the 70's Holt had moved on to the idea that the traditional school apparatus was not the most conducive environment for children to learn in at all, and he started publishing the newsletter, "Growing Without Schooling", targeted specifically at families who were educating their children at home or in their communities. By the 80's, Holt published Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education, officially confirming his belief that the school system was just too broken too fix, and had to be abandoned completely in order to redefine society's attitude towards learning, education, and childhood. It's important to note that Holt's critique of school was a critique of the system, not the well-intentioned people operating within it! As a former elementary school teacher himself, Holt argued that trying to foster organic learning within the rigid confines of conventional schooling was challenging and damaging for the instructors as well as the students.

Whether or not you are considering or are already practicing homeschooling or unschooling your children, I think there's so much of Holt's philosophy that can be applied to raising children, period, especially very little ones who are not yet school-aged. As the preschool admissions game gets more and more competitive, and as social media makes it harder and harder to escape parental guilt, there seems to be an ever-increasing pressure to jump start or structure your toddler's "learning" before they hit kindergarten-age. Somewhere along the way we became obsessed with the idea that children need to be
taught how to learn, but Holt claims that it's the other way around--that children are, without being instructed, told, or bribed, naturally inclined to learn and that they are, in fact, learning all the time! In order to actually recognize this, we need to really re-define and re-shape our previously held beliefs about what learning does and doesn't look like.
If this is starting to feel like a new and uncomfortable concept for you, I would challenge you to first ask yourself whether or not play is learning. Why or why not? I encourage you to take some time to really watch and consider how your child plays, whether it be independently, one on one with you or your spouse, or with other children. Notice where their curiosity lingers, where there eyes widen or even where frustration starts to grow. These are all important side effects of learning--even the parts that we might have an inclination to suppress: the "giving up", the disappointment, the stomping off angrily only to return to the same activity five minutes later.
A side effect of learning that is perhaps most relevant during the long Summer months is that thing we're quick to label "boredom" or "laziness"--those moments when your child is lying on the kitchen floor seemingly doing nothing at all and you're flooded with your own worries about productivity and failure and all of the amazing activities and field trips that Instagram Moms probably have planned for their kids. In these moments, I hope you find solace in John Holt's words:  " Children are not only extremely good at learning; they are much better at it than we are", take a deep breath, and trust that your little one is rarely ever doing nothing--learning is happening all the time, whether or not we can see it, or track it, or measure it. Learning happens in free, open-ended play, it happens in mistakes, in trips to the grocery store, on long car rides, beach trips and, yes, even whilst lying on the kitchen floor, doing "nothing"! On the days where there is nothing on the schedule, when no lessons have been planned or activity tables set up, instead of letting guilt creep in I encourage you to bask in the opportunity for your child to lead you, showing you how they themselves learn, and are learning, all of the time.

I hope that this topic resonated with you! As always, I'd love to hear from YOU about your experiences with child-led learning and free play. Let's build trust in learning together!






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