How Children Learn: classic of human, kid-centered learning

Earlier this year, a reader sent me copies of John Holt's classic books on children's education, How Children Learn and How Children Fail and tonight, I finished the first of them (and will be reading the other next). It was one of the most profoundly moving books I've ever read, the truest account of how I remember my best learning experiences as a child and an adult.

Holt was a dedicated teacher and a very, very keen observer of children from babyhood up. Most of How Children Learn takes the form of notes from his diaries, his later reflections on his failures and successes, and letters and feedback from other parents and educators.

Holt's basic thesis is that kids want to learn, are natural learners, and will learn more if we recognize that and let them explore their worlds, acting as respectful co-learners instead of bosses. Practically speaking, that means letting them play and playing with them, but resisting the temptation to quiz them on their knowledge or to patronize them. Most resonant for me was his description of kids' learning unfolding from the natural passionate obsessions that overtake them -- it made me remember my best learning moments, like the time when I was 7 and my teacher Bev Pannikar found me reading Alice in Wonderland to myself in a corner of her classroom, and she just let me be, as I branched out from there to book after book, hiding out and falling in lifelong love with reading. Or the time that Brian Kerr found me afire with a passion for math and just let me go at it, working through workbook after workbook to the detriment of my other studies -- I think I was ten. There were other incidents like this, reflecting that passionate, engaged process that unfolds when kids are allowed to work at their own pace (I was lucky to go to a publicly funded alternative elementary school where kids of all ages shared a class and were given a lot of freedom to learn in their own way, with an emphasis on mentoring).

As I worked my way through the book, I found myself scowling, nodding, smiling, even laughing aloud at the wonderful inventiveness of the kids in Holt's life, including supposedly incorrigible or dumb kids -- kids who learned so much on their own, taking the grownups along for the ride, but firmly steering the course of their learning from the earliest ages. I was struck by three passages in particular (reproduced below). I think I'll stick them on the fridge to remind me of how to be a great dad and a great partner in adventure.

The only good reason for playing games with babies is because we love them, and delight in playing these games with them and sharing in their delight with them -- not because we want someday to get them into college. It is our delight in the baby and the games that makes the game fun, and worthwhile and useful for the baby. Take away the delight, and put in its place some cold-hearted calculation about future IQ and SAT scores and we kill the game, for ourselves and the baby. If we go on for long in this spirit the babies will soon refuse to play -- or if they do, play only in the spirit of school, i.e., because they think we'll be disappointed or angry if they don't...

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 doesn 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 for meaning to come to him -- even if it comes very slowly, which it usually does...

This did not change, as I hoped it might, the way that schools deal with children. I said, trust them to learn. The schools would not trust them, and even if they had wanted to, the great majority of the public would not have let them. Their reasons boil down to these: 1) Children are no good; they won't learn unless we make them. 2) The world is no good; children must be broken to it. 3) I had to put up with it, why shouldn't they? To people who think this way, I don't know what to say. Telling them about the real learning of real children only makes them cling to their theories about the badness and stupidity of children more stubbornly and angrily than ever. Why do they do this? Because it gives them a license to act like tyrants and feel like saints. "Do what I tell you!" roars the tyrant. "It's for your own good, and someday you'll be grateful," says the saint. Few people, feeling themselves powerless in a world turned upside down, can or even wish to resist the temptation to play this benevolent despot.

How Children Learn


  1. This is called Unschooling. Unschooling allows, as much as possible, the child to learn what they want, when they want. They follow their interests, everything is a learning opportunity. As parents, our job is to drop everything, as much as possible, and give them the time, materials, transportation, and encouragement to feed their habit. Our home is filled with books, tools, toys, and trinkets that provide information and opportunities.

    Our young son recently discovered mushrooms in the grocery store. He had already seen them in our yard, but he didn’t pay to much attention at the time. At the store he found the mushrooms, we bought them, ate some, dissected some, and by chance caught a Modern Marvels about mold and fungus. Should have seen him when he saw his blue container in the packaging plant. We may also read some fiction that includes mushrooms. He started noticing there were mushrooms around him everywhere.

    He has done the same thing with everything he encounters. It really is a lot of fun to immerse yourself in a subject or object for a few days or even weeks. It all comes down to trust.

  2. We’ve been unschooling the kids for 11 years now. What this style of education boils down to is trust in all people’s ability to grow and learn, and that self-motivated experiences will lead to the knowledge you really need.
    So read your Holt and Kohn – also John Taylor Gatto’s books and James Loewen’s LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME for a view of the difficulty of teaching and creating teaching materials that actually benefit anyone. Also check out books on non-violent communication while you’re at it. Everyone needs an attitude of life long learning.

  3. I second John Taylor Gatto…

    and if you can get past the dogmatic writings, you may want to look at Waldorf education (in practice, that is). I suspect you’d find the “anthroposophical” readings as confusing as I did, but I LOVED how my children learned – and continue to learn – in their Waldorf-inspired community school. it’s a place where tree-climbing, baking, knitting, hiking and snow-fort-building are integral parts of the day, but it’s also a place where the kids read Gilgamesh in grade 3.

    I’m so glad you’ve discovered these fantastic options, Cory!

  4. I became unschooled after 3 semesters of public high school. It was the best decision my parents and I made regarding my education. Another good book that helped us make the unschooling transition is The Teenagers Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn.

    The feeling of leaving school, being free to learn and study what I was interested in, and feeling confident in my abilities to find the guidance I needed; this is a right that every child or young adult should have.

  5. To the Unschoolers, Waldorf-esque types: I’m with you, but how to work with children on the couple of things they are resisting? Is there any sort of “direction” that has worked for you?

  6. Cory, new parent? – you should read up on Montessori techniques. You would also no doubt get a charge out of the teaching materials, the math materials in particular are elegant.

  7. I’m writing a book about the DIY movement and have been interviewing unschooler parents and kids. It seems like unschooling is a good way to raise kids to become DIYers.

  8. Holt is right about school, and the typical teaching models, and it is the worst when kids are at their most vulnerable: middle school.

    I have unschooled my daughter for two years. She is, by her own choice, returning to public school in October.
    It broke my heart to see my kid, who had cried when there *wasn’t* school to turn into a kid who walked off campus and home because school had become so untenable.
    I still worry that I did the right thing, until I observe a funny, smart, ambitious kid who has made money from her artwork (at 15!), and who is a favorite of her peers and their younger siblings.

  9. It sounds like you were fortunate enough to have some fantastic teachers. It must be equally gratifying to a teacher to discover children gobbling up reading and ‘rithmatic like there’s no tomorrow.

  10. Gatto’s book “The Underground History of American Education” is available online for free at

    My kids are 12 and 14 and neither has ever spent a single day in school. We aren’t quite wholesale unschoolers, but have mixed unschooling and traditional curriculum into something that works for us. And that is the whole key, find something that works for your kids. It may be unschooling, it may be “school at home,” it may be public or private school. It may change, frequently. Our current educational model simply does not allow for that level of flexibility in the school system.

  11. That book seems to nail it on the head. I wish more people would read on that topic (esp. parents).

    I just don’t understand why so many parents/teachers don’t seem to remember a thing about their own childhood (or perhaps they conveniently forget?).

    I remember my early childhood vividly and I certainly wasn’t some empty, stupid, helpless vessel waiting for information and indoctrination from adults. I remember understanding concepts that I knew adults did not suspect I was aware of. It was an interesting (and amusing) realisation. For instance, I remember that when my parents would want to discuss matters they wanted to keep secret when I was in the room, they would speak English (I’m born French). Until one day, when I was about 8 years-old, they began such a conversation and I told them in English that I could understand now (I had picked it up, albeit clumsily, from TV, radio and movies). We still laugh about that day.

    Every time I interact with children, I can see that they are far smarter and much more self aware than the current world gives them credit for. The way we are smothering and stifling them dumbs them down rather than promote their skills and intelligence.

    I really hope we can reverse that trend, because I keep seeing kids reduce to function like tiny, stressed-out, scripted, overscheduled adults; and it is such a sad waste of wonderful potential.

  12. About two years ago, my 5 year old asked from the back seat of the car “Can I ask a question?”
    Sure. “Why do we have this planet and why are we here? What is this world for?”

    I knew then that I was in trouble. I can’t wait to get this book.

  13. I’m a former teacher and was very interested in child-centered learning for a while. Here are a couple of fantastic resources for parents who want to understand how kids learn,

    Any books by Vivian Gussin Paley – brilliant, eloquent, hilarious kindergarden teacher who almost takes an anthropological approach to kids’ play.

    Sudbury Valley School ( – makes a very convincing case that kids are naturally driven to become successful adults but that the school system screws up those drives by forcing specific topics and timelines on kids irrespective of their interests and readiness. Start by reading some of their essays (

  14. One thing I regret about my public school system was the treatment that vocational training got. It was always treated as the haven for flunkies, and anyone who tested well was not encouraged to spend time in the paltry one or two vocational electives offered.

    I happened to test very well and ace papers, and so it wasn’t until well after university that I realized I love working with my hands and that vocational pursuits simply utilize different parts of the brain.

    So cheers to John Holt’s method! Most kids really like crafting!

  15. “play only in the spirit of school, i.e., because they think we’ll be disappointed or angry if they don’t”

    Those lines struck a particular chord with me. Now that I think about it, my entire life in school, the only reason I did homework or tried to do good on tests and get good grades, was to avoid upsetting my parents or keep from getting in trouble with teachers. Even college, to get good grades and choose a major with a good job market, for the purpose of making sure I wasn’t wasting my parents’ money. Yikes… the cold slap of reality.

    It may be too late for me, but I’m gonna get my hands on this book and give it to my sister for my 2 year old nephew, who’s already an awesome kid and I’d hate to see that spoiled by the same “schooling” mentality I endured.

  16. John Holt was my friend and mentor in the 1970s, who helped us (me, my husband and a group of friends) develop our “hippie” [un]school in New Hampshire. He was not only an awesome thinker about all things related to learning and education, but a very dear man indeed. Later in life, he wrote the absolutely fascinating “Never Too Late,” about learning to play the cello in middle age. I recommend that book without reservation, too.

    My daughter-in-law has just started homeschooling my 10-year-old granddaughter (her 4-year-old brother will learn by osmosis) in their log cabin the wilds of Utah. I plan to forward this article to her and also to get her copies of John’s books. I know she will be receptive — so far my grandchildren are growing up on a farm, free-range kids exploring their surroundings with gusto and creativity. John would have approved.

  17. …Holt’s concepts were very similar to those experimented with in various Texas school districts in 1972 with something called “IGE” – Individually Guided Education. Or, in other words, a fancy way of saying “let the student learn at their own pace and not according to an arbitrary schedule and standard.” The problem was twofold:

    1) The program was only aimed at grades 1-6. If your skills kept you in that range, fine. But if you exceeded that – an example is my case, reading and compositional skills in the *college* level at grade 5! – then the school district didn’t have the resources to further expand your education.

    2) Quite a number of kids used the “at your own pace” bit to mean “goof off and you won’t get spanked for it if you pretend to be a retard”. For some that allowed the dumb kids to stay dumb, while for others it allowed the ones for whom 1) above applied who were bored with “See Dick and Jane Neuter Spot” to *appear* to be retards because they were bored with it all.

    …So, believe it or not, there needs to be some semblance of structure in education. What’s in place now is more geared towards producing students in a “cookie cutter” fashion, where the cookies have been designed by lowest bidder and thereby are of the lowest quality. What is needed are two things: a higher standard by which those who don’t make it simply don’t and can look forward to working at Taco Bell to earn their Bling Bling and pay their child support, and mechanisms in place to support and promote those who can and *do* excel and exceed the standards.

    Not that it’ll happen anytime soon…

  18. I was just going to mention that Sudbury Valley School. That and these Holt books from my parents’ library (weren’t these written in the 60’s?) influenced me.

    I was a teacher for many years and tried to create an environment for my students where they could learn, discuss, create. In the end I found it all sort of crushingly defeating, but…

    Now I stay at home fulltime with my young son. I’m still focused on creating a learning-conducive environment for him where he can learn and create. One of his main projects is painting. He has open access to an easel with lots of paint and paper.

    Then we have the outdoor exploration. Bugs, seeds, dirt, leaves, poison berries. You get the idea. And dogs and squirells and birds and butterflies. (Is this sounding like utopian blather yet? yukyuk)

    And then there is the wonderful worlds of media…amazing access to gobs of kids books. Basic cable gives you access to very nice children’s shows…. many of them books that have been made into shows. He is really fluent in his letters…. and I’d say that is about 75% Sesame Street. We love Little Bill. The animation is lovely and the soundtrack is a really pretty lilting jazz.

    We’ve developed a schedule that works fairly well for us. It does include an 11pm bedtime for the child, which is pretty unorthodox, I know. But it allows us to spend the entire evening with us reading and snuggling and taking in all this good media. So, with the late schedule we have, I’m thinking homeschooling might be a better fit. I’m interested in these accounts of parents whose kids grew up not going to school.

  19. I agree with Lava about the Montessori method. It is quite intuitive and does not depend on rote memorization like most education today. It encourages the child to learn through their own exploration and is very well thought out.

  20. All the books you’d ever need to convince you that school is an obsolete prison were written in the 1950’s-70’s. Too bad no one’s really done anything about it…last I heard we’re still packin’ ’em in!

  21. We have a small group of unschoolers, what we have found is unschooling is more often an individual thing or groups of two or three. When our group gets together we have more group activities, social opportunities, and maybe even some learning. Education does not need structure or schedules, groups need cooperation and individual flexibility.

  22. I see that someone mentioned the Montessori method earlier, but to see the beauty of the method go to the source. Read Maria Montessori’s books. Her observations of the development of children and learning are beautiful in their simplicity.

    As a teacher, it is so difficult to see children who are not developmentally ready to read being pushed into it by teachers and tests that don’t take child development into account.

    Let’s all get together and take over the public school system. What an idea – open source schools!

  23. The elementary school age children across the street catch the bus at 6:30am. That was bad enough, but this morning our youngest woke up throwing up, when I took the dog outside at 5:30am I noticed a some kids milling around in the street. It took me a few moments to realize they were waiting for a bus. Why in hell are children waiting for a bus at that hour. Poor bastards, they’ve probably been up since 4:30 or 5:00.

  24. So what happens when both parents have to work — which is the case for MANY families in the US.

    “Un”-schooling (which to me sounds just like code for homeschooling), sounds great if at least one parent has the time.

    Also, how far does unschooling go and when does the transition to the meat grinder take place then (if ever)? And does being unschooled make it difficult to transition back into the meat grinder when (if) necessary?

    For example, does unschooling continue all the way through the academic career, or does an unschooled child eventually want to go to university? And if so, does being unschooled create a hurdle to get into university?

    Does unschooling really offer the rigorous math and science education necessary to compete in the modern world?

    Just curious as I hear a lot about unschooling these days but I feel like I don’t have the full picture.

  25. I’ve been radical unschooling for nearly 10 years, unfortunately for my sons I was schooling for about four before I worked it out for myself: it was having a VERY negative effect on both of them.

    On a book list of things for you, Cory, I would put:
    Frank Smith’s Book of Learning and Forgetting
    Anything written by John Taylor Gatto, particularly Dumbing Us Down, The Underground History of American Education and A Different Kind of Teacher
    Anything written by John Holt
    Anything written by Roland Meighan, especially the set of essays that he wrote for natural parent, which you can find here:

    These books changed my worldview, changed my life, changed the lives of my children.

    Coincidentally I started a Wikia page for Alternative Education only a couple of days ago.

  26. A counterpoint: I am 28 now. I spent most of my education in schools oriented around these principles. Basically, I unschooled myself: school was something not too odious that let me explore what I wanted, and then I explored and read all the more on my own. This was from basically K – 12. My parents let me do what I wanted on my own time, no expectations really. I am still keenly interested in all sorts of things. I am a huge generalist. I think I know a lot about a lot of things.

    However: I am totally unsatisfied. Far more so than many of my more normally reared peers, I suspect. Or, they at least can buckle down and do it. I’ve come to hate every job I’ve had, just because it’s a job, despite being wildly successful. I went to university and the hypocritical need for conformity and also for dedication to one specific task is terrible. I feel less able and autonomous than I did as a child, very much so. This is not a temporary condition but a permanent one: there is nothing I wish to dedicate myself to; I am insatiable.

    Sure, this is part of the human condition, blah blah. But I think all that unschooling really did instill a lot of great habits and orientations that are totally unadaptive later in life: I am able but unwilling to engage with all the crap that people expect. With specialization. With the need to get things done, rather than just explore. With the way the world often is, which is an even greater weight on those who have so often lived otherwise.

    Anyway, not so well explained, but my point is this: unschooling surely has some negative effects, too. Would it be better if everyone was unschooled? Sure. Nevertheless, in the context we have, I think some balance needs to be entertained. I doubt I would be any happier, or more successful, had I gone through regular schooling, but somehow it seems like existence would weigh on me less, or I might be more useful to society in general. The value of either of those is questionable (to me, at least) but I think it should be considered before valorizing unschooling uncritically.

  27. @27
    I grew up with both parents working and went to school dutifully and had a fairly good time of it. Schools can be wonderful, joy-filled, intellectually stimuating and ambitiousness making places. Schools are constantly innovating. In all likelihood we will be very much involved with the elementary school up the street. I don’t want to knock schools… I was just feeling a little dramatic about my faded career when I mentioned my disillusionment. Had a been a “happy” mutant teacher I might have done better at my job. Anyway, I think I have a new (part-time) volunteer career of helping to make inviting outdoor playareas at the neighborhood school.

  28. As a preschool teacher in a private school that uses these principles (student-interest guided learning, a focus on child independence, and so on), I agree with all that has been said about the benefits of “unschooling” (though, as a teacher, and one who uses these ideas in the classroom, I find the term somewhat offensive). However, I worry about the lengths to which this can go. Certainly preschool and elementary school classrooms have much to gain from these ideas, but middle and high schools would be doing their students a disservice to continue on with such a student centered program. While learning may increase if children are allowed to learn what they’d like, and focus in on answering their own queries, seldom does the job market offer the opportunity for individuals to only work on subjects that interest them. An integral part of schooling is not only learning subject matter but also social skills. The ability of students to focus on subjects that may not strike their fancy is incredibly important. Unschooling is a fantastic foundation for learning, but needs to be supplemented with a more concrete curriculum as the children ages, if for no other reason than to prepare them for a work force that will not primarily cater to their wants.

  29. I also find it disappointing that so many who have commented on this post seem to think so poorly of American educators. Many teachers are creative and thoughtful classroom leaders – especially in elementary schools – who do not lecture or boss their students around. They, like you, want the children to find the joy of learning and succeed. I find it odd that so many seem to think “unschooling” can only be achieved today in the home — especially when many commentors have also reflected on one or two teachers who did them wonders. I’d say that there are few people in America who do not have at least one teacher who inspired them, led a classroom that inspired creative thought, and led them to enjoy learning. Certainly not every teacher, or even close, but there are a fair many who do. Unschooling isn’t about letting children run wild — it’s about incorporating children’s questions and interests into the lesson plan at large. Many teachers do a fabulous job with this (and because they teach this way and not to tests, may seem to have underperforming students on state and federal standardized tests). Unschooling should be a combined effort: free range of all subjects at home and the freedom of inquiry and self-discovery in the classroom.

  30. Ah…@31…the movement is making headway, but now the mainstream view is that unschooling only works until when? 8? 9? It’s unschooling, because schooling indicates not just education, but training and discipline which seem to me to be designed to separate a child from the knowledge of what makes them unique, and what they want from the world and can offer to it.

    Schooling is the opposite of what I wanted for my children, I didn’t want them trained not to ask awkward questions, or to live with not understanding something because the teacher didn’t have the time or ability to explain it properly.

    I’d recommend that you read John Taylor Gatto’s essay on what must an educated person know
    and think on it… barely any of those things are well learned in a classroom.

    My children have been unschooled, and I realise that people with children who have been schooled, or who work in the education industry think that means that they are anti-social misfits who are fit for nothing… the truth is quite the other way about: the home educated children that I know, including my own, communicate well, and because they understand the internal logic and motivation for doing things, tend to cope much better than schooled children with doing things that they may not want to do. The difference is that they will not cope well with things they do not want to do if they do not understand he reasons for doing them. Should anyone?

    Read the Fraser report on Home Education in the US and Canada,
    or Paula Rothermel’s research on home education in the UK… learn how to see beyond the stereotypes that are promulgated by the media – and the education industrialists – and see that in an information-rich society, there have to be better ways of doing things than our current system, where in a recent TED talk it was claimed, that childre understand magnetism and gravity better before they start school than afterwards, and in the UK at least 25% of children emerging from their years of compulsory education functionally illiterate and innumerate.

  31. But home education and the current state of schools are not the only two options available. I would be the first to agree with you that American public education is severely lacking — but that doesn’t mean that home education is the only, or even the right the choice for every child. As someone said before me, home education is fantastic for those who can afford it. Unfortunately, many families lack the means to teach their children at home. Many lack the money, and even more lack the desire. While home-schooling works for some, it cannot be the final answer for educating our children because a majority of families either cannot or will not do it. So a rehaul of public education is the true answer – incorporating lessons of unschooling, etc etc, but also other theories as well. Ideally, every student could have his or her own teacher and learn about what he or she is interested in. Unfortunately, that scenario is extremely unlikely if not impossible. So, we’re stuck with twenty child classrooms where “unschooling” can occur, but naturally not to the degree that it would in a one-to-one student-teacher ratio setting.

    I would also argue that the success of home-schooling is not so simply explained as being the product of “unschooling”. Home-schooled children benefit from many different factors that have nothing to do with the lessons they learn or the way they are administered. HS kids do receive very close attention, and therefore are unlikely to fall behind or miss a subject (and class will wait for them if they are sick). In turn, their parent/teachers are likely more motivated than a regular classroom teacher, simply because they have fewer kids to deal with and, surprisingly, they are related by blood. Finally, a family that has the financial means to home-school a child more than likely the offspring of smart parents – by choosing to homeschool, they’ve shown they are dedicated to education; one can assume that a majority of people with enough money do do this have earned it by attaining degrees and qualifications that require one to be intelligent and creative. Basically, money often equals intelligence (though certainly not always), so these home-schooled kids often have a genetic leg up.

    So the answer, in my opinion, is revamping schools. How much revamping is possible – at least in regard to creating “unschooling” schools – is not clear. After all, one teacher cannot hope to have 20 kids following their own inquiries and successfully supplement all of these different interests. If you know of such a system, please tell me. But I’m still looking for the best plan.

  32. My Own School Teacher Apocrypha:

    Mr. Franklin was my 5th grade teacher. One day he brought in a big, empty olive oil can, heated it on a burner to drive out the air, and sealed the can. As the can cooled, he explained how we all lived at the bottom of a big ocean of air and the pressure of that air could crush the steel can. We sat in amazement as the can crumpled to a fraction of its original size. It made me look at things in a whole new way. It rocked my world then and still does, just from remembering that.

    I really feel sorry for teachers these days. A while back I helped a friend who had just been hired move into her classroom at the local public elementary school (middle class neighborhood, nothing special).
    What she was given:
    All the desks were crammed into one corner. Several of which were missing parts or were broken that I helped her fix. A bare bookshelf. Her desk (no chair). Two large cork boards on the walls. A blackboard. No chalk or eraser. A very small cash stipend per student to last the year for pens, pencils, etc.
    What she supplied out of her own pocket:
    Colored paper, pictures and maps for the walls, a globe, dozens of folders of projects and assignments on a range of subjects, a couple of boxes of books for the bookshelf (fiction and non-fiction), art supplies, rulers, her stapler and other desk stuff, etc, etc.

    I was amazed at how little is actually given to teachers in this state. Sometime later I visited that classroom and realized that everything that made it bright, fun and engaging came out of the teacher’s own money and the time she spent outside of work getting supplies and teaching aids.

    For addition to the reading list: A fictional treatment on the subject of education by Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”. Probably already familiar to many of Boingish loyalties.

  33. Fortunately there are still public schools in the city of Toronto that honour how children learn in true John Holt style. They are few and far between and mainly in middle class neighbourhoods where parents know about, believe in, and advocate for these schools. But inner city neighbourhoods are sadly lacking in schools where children can learn this way. Their parents don’t have the time or knowledge of how the system works to advocate for these schools for their kids.
    I do long for the good old days of the 70s when I started teaching and schools in Ontario were governed by the Hall/Dennis Report (Living and Learning), schools were open-concept and kids called us by our first names!

  34. I’m with #22 and 32.

    A good conventional schooling is probably a lot better than poor “unschooling”. My kids love school. That’s where they meet all their friends. It’s where they learn how to socialize, how to concentrate, how to find things out. OK – the curriculum may be somewhat restrictive. But there’s all the time in the world for them to fall in love with reading, at school, at home, wherever, and to realize that there’s a world of books out there. Actually – that’s started already. School is great. I’m somewhat suspicious of unschooling, home schooling, theories like that. I suspect they might, on average, cause more harm than good.

  35. John Holt’s book “The Underachieving School” should also be mentioned. It is out of print but often available on Amazon (I bought a copy for $5 a few years ago)

    The book provides some very meaningful perspective on education. I was very upset at my experience with public education, and reading the book actually allowed me to not be so worried. I realized that the problems I was upset about were a subset of bigger issues, and that the whole thing had been documented more eloquently than I could have, by someone more reputable, well before I was even conceived!

  36. I grew up basically following the unschooling method. It has been an extremely positive experience. Children are naturally inquisitive.

    People ask what you do if the child doesn’t wish to learn something. Understand that in the modern race towards specialization, an important fact is lost. Knowledge does not exist in isolation. It forms a contiguous fabric. They will make there way to those subjects, eventually. Be patient and cultivate interest.

  37. Have to give a shout out to my man John Dewey, early 20th century American philosopher and progressive educator. He seems to have been nearly forgotten, obscured by his now famous European progressive contemporaries, the Rousseau-inspired Maria Montessori and Goethe’s esoteric heir, Rudolf Steiner. For the first half of the century Dewey set the progressive agenda for the American public educational system, founding the influential University of Chicago Laboratory School in 1896 (which Obama’s kids are attending), developing the early curriculum at Columbia’s esteemed Teacher’s College, and winning the argument in favor of a strong progressive public education system for all Americans as being necessary to forge an effective democracy (see Dewey vs. Lippman).

    Unfortunately much of his legacy has been dismantled since WWII, reshaped by authoritarian and capitalist urges to fit the needs of the military industrial complex and an economy driven by passive consumerism. In many ways our current public system quite resembles the rigid 19th century, post-industrial school system which Dewey, Montessori, and Steiner all rebelled against. But at least Dewey’s ideas live on, even if memory of the man have faded. Experience and Education, Democracy and Education, and The School and Society are all must reads for anyone interested in the history and philosophy of progressive education.

  38. There’s a whole spectrum of structure in our approach – you go with what you are comfortable with. The real joy comes from trusting that the kids will be alright.

    Something to remember is that there is no special time or place to learn, and facilitators and mentors are everywhere. Libraries are our schools. Farms are our schools. Museums are our schools. Looking out the window is our school. Our communities are our schools. The Internet and computer tools are our school. And even schools can be schools if they are allowed to be.

    Have you stopped learning?

  39. I must say, as someone with poorly-educated, disorganised, and busy parents, I embraced school BECAUSE it gave me structure. I never felt suffocated because 1) apparently I gave off this air of haughty superiority, such that teachers usually just let me be, and 2) I had internet access.

    I’m one of those people, however, who can stare at a wall for four hours and not feel bored, because I enjoy thinking (I’ve been writing fiction since the age of 6). So I guess in a sense I was already “unschooled”, convinced that I could use the public system where it was convenient and seek my own knowledge otherwise. And meeting the odd teacher here or there who knew how to channel a student’s energy was easily worth my frustration with the slow pace, stupid classmates, and the disconnect I felt with my parents.

    So I must contend that a person can flourish in a regimented school system for the very reason that they thrive on a bit of structure in their lives. Not everyone has smart and available parents on hand to educate.

    And I like telling people I was raised by the internet. Because it’s true.

  40. I taught high school for 13 years, until I couldn’t take it anymore.

    Watch little kids at school or a museum. They are full of questions and can’t seem to get enough. They love to learn! They even love school. By the time they get to high school, they hate school. What happens? What makes them come to hate school? School does. It’s not about the wonder of learning and exploration. It’s about falling in line and learning to fill in the right bubble on the test form.

    Kids who are bright but don’t go in for the BS are labeled troublemakers and written off. I couldn’t be part of it anymore. So I left.

    My own kids are starting to reach school age, and the will attend public school, for a while anyway. But I intend to provide lots of extra education for them at home. And I intend to put my childrens’ wellfare and continued love of real learning ahead of jumping through schools’ hoops (and as a former teacher I know what those are). Could make for some interesting times.

  41. With very few exceptions I pretty much learned everything I know in spite of school rather than because of it.

    Once I had the basics of any field of knowledge (like basic grammar and spelling in English/writing, for example, or basic art techniques), I extrapolated my own higher education by pursuing my own interests, because the schools were stagnated. I mean, they were still teaching me (and everyone else) basic grade-school grammar, vocab and writing skills through our final year of high school, because you had to have X number of core English credits and classes like literature appreciation were “electives” that didn’t count.

    The only real school-taught stuff I learned were my vocational classes, like typing, drafting, shop, graphic arts and automotive repair. And many of these, I probably would have pursued on my own (or already was, and took the course to learn more).

    It was no doubt better than what my mom would have been able to come up with, being a single parent having little of the discipline and energy that you would need to homeschool three kids. But since we lived a sort of Laura Ingalls/hippy rural life, we probably learned a great deal just by surviving that the schools never taught us – cooking (chemistry, meal planning, physics and math), gardening and raising animals (innumerable skills ranging from agriculture and meteorology to biology and botany and back through resource allocations and long-term project planning), chopping wood and cooking/heating with fire (physics, fire safety, fuel requirements and allocation) and so on.

    Might have been better off, educationally, to unschool. Certainly would have been better off mentally and emotionally.

  42. This also makes me think of Montessori – of course, since I’m a Montessori teacher, of course I’m a little biased. But us Montessorians have known for 100 years that providing children tools to teach themselves, and encouraging them to develop inner motivation to learn instead of externally imposing requirements upon them, produces spectacular results.

    I wish the whole world could see just how fantastic real Montessori education is and that everyone could have the gift of such an education. :D

  43. Chuckheston @ #44:

    You’ll be pleased to hear that Dewey’s educational philosophy is alive and well at Lab still. It’s amazing the number of parents who freak out at the fact that their kindergarteners and first graders are not being formally taught reading and writing yet. (Didn’t the adults read the school materials when they were applying?) If a child is interested, they are supported in that interest, but there are no required workbooks or homework sheets in the early grades. As far as the kids are concerned, they think they’re playing all day at school. Lots of art, music, oral storytelling and physical activity too.

  44. @ #32, Anonymous, who feels that he’s more dissatisfied with life than his peers who did continue to go through school soul-crushing…

    You were showed as a child that there are many alternatives to the “the system.” That’s true as an adult, too. Opt out of the system now like you (and/or your parents) opted out of the system when you were a kid.

    I was a kid who sat in 5th grade one day and did the math and thought, “Oh shit, another 7 years of this?”

    I quit school in the middle of 9th grade after some judiciously applied emotional blackmail. (Parents never did believe in me.) The book “The Teenage Liberation Handbook,” poorly written as it is, goes up there on my list of books that totally changed my life.

    I dicked around and learned a lot. I went to college for a little bit of time but then quit bothering because it was barely better than high school. I, like you, had jobs that dissatisfied me after just a short period – my longest stay a year and 3 mos, my shortest stay only 3 mos! I, like you, nevertheless had much more than average level of success. I made a ridiculous amount of money at my last job which had theoretically no real responsibility and from which I could not have been fired, even if I never showed up, because of corporate power issues. But I quit after just a year and 3 months because I wasn’t happy (I was quite happy for the first 9 or 10 mos, when I thought I’d be allowed to ship my project. I was wrong.).

    Here’s what I did then: I went back to consulting, charging a huge premium to help weed out dickhead clients (which doesn’t work, btw – but the pay is much better!). I traveled around a lot – spent lots of time in NYC for that ex-job and then a client, visited friends, went to conferences, traveled (from DC) to Vancouver, Berlin, London and Vienna – my first real trips by myself and first time out of the USA. 6 months after I quit, I spent a month in New Zealand with my boyfriend, and that genuine “away from it all” gave me the perspective to realize that I hated consulting, too, the way it was going, and had to do something about it.

    Now I live with my now-husband in Austria and do a bit of consulting work while building things I believe in (writing and software) with people I admire. I seriously downgraded my consuming-lifestyle to improve my living-lifestyle. I’m satisfied because nobody else but me would ever get the best work out of me, and mess it up when I tried – but now I’m the one leading the charge.

    Why not take a similar approach to your own life? You can do it, if you’re as smart and successful as you say you are.

  45. 21-year-old Unschooler here; just wanted to say I’m so glad you’ve discovered the books that liberated my childhood!

    Yay for John Holt!

  46. @48 That’s what my thinking came to be near the end of my teaching career: Our students who go on to be happy (really happy) and successful do so in spite of of us, not because of us.

  47. The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.

    Kahlil Gibran

  48. #22, wow, lot of hatred of humanity (and perhaps especially certain ethnic groups?) going on there. Just because you have no faith in other human beings doesn’t mean none of us should have it. I’ve seen more than my share of human stupidity and I still have faith, because I know human beings will surprise me in lots of positive ways.

    More generally, people need to learn the difference between education and schooling and, more broadly, between education and job training. Kids need to learn about the culture of the people who produced them. They need to learn how to find information they need on any subject. They need to learn how to think in an organized way (i.e., logic). And they need the basic mechanics of reading, writing, and mathematics. Beyond that it should be left up to them.

    You do not have to attend school to get job training. You don’t even have to have a job; you can just make money. I am shocked, I tell you–just SHOCKED to see this many people swallow the bait hook, line and sinker that everyone MUST have a job. What about self-employed people? What about mom ‘n’ pop store owners, freelancers, and certain types of professionals? “Oh, those are jobs.” No, when you say “job” you mean “employed by someone else.” Let’s not play semantics here.

    And it’s this unwillingness to think outside the box… I tell you what, this is what schooling has done to us. “You can’t learn unless I show you how” morphs into “You can’t make a living unless I pay you to work for me.” This has crippled several generations of Americans by now and destroyed our economy.

    I don’t care if the teachers are offended. I just got done reading this incredible interview with my local school superintendent and it was all “More money! More testing! More schooling! You can’t learn without us!” I wanted to reach through the printed page and throttle her. She surely knows better. But what’s she going to say, she works in the education field and knows where her bread is buttered.

    I’m unschooling my daughter. I refuse to give her over to people who just want to control her and brainwash her. That is not how adult society works and I won’t participate.

    Even the colleges are bad. When I can go to college over ten years after high school graduation and feel exactly like I am back in high school again and it’s not because of the ages of my classmates, there is something wrong. And when I find I can think circles around the average university student–even some of the graduates!–there is something SERIOUSLY wrong. I think I should point out that the original colleges and universities expected their students to actually, y’know, *think.* Apparently that is no longer an educational requirement. Who knew?

  49. By the way, I’m low-income. I also know about other low-income people who homeschool or unschool. I even know about African-American parents who do it. It’s not limited to rich people or white people. You just have to decide you want to do it and follow through. If you live somewhere with a library you don’t even need to buy books.

    I know how easy it is to descend into the quagmire of I-can’t but that’s a deadly trap. If you want to do something you will do it. If you don’t want to do it then you must not have thought it was a good idea in the first place; go find something you *want* to do instead.

  50. In the words of one of the best story tellers in the world, Juan Rulfo:”My education was great until I started school”.

  51. The learning concepts you talked about are very true. There are times when students must be left alone and just let them learn. The must experience their environment. I have had those readers in my classroom,but because of standards, I had to ensure they were taught. I can remember feeling a knot in my stomach when I disciplined a student for reading when I was teaching a concept that they probably already knew.

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