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

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  1. Sobering thought: Those who were in elementary school when this post was originally published are now college-aged. Many of them may have children of their own now.

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