John Holt And Real Learning

John Holt was a school teacher and author who became an advocate for school reform in the 1960, and when he no longer felt schools could be reformed, an advocate for homeschooling. He wrote 10 books on education and established Growing Without Schooling magazine in 1977, which was published until 2001. His clear and analytical ideas inspired a few bold parents to reject schools in favor of a life full of learning for their children.

“Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. We know what these are. They include time, leisure, freedom, and lack of pressure.” ~ John Holt

Though he had no children of his own, he worked and spent time with children and found them inspiring and interesting. He believed children had a passionate need to understand the world around them, which he called a biological drive to acquire information and knowledge and to make sense of the world. He had strong ideas, supported by research and observation, about what helped and what harmed learning.

In all of his work, Holt meticulously demonstrated how school pressure, coercion, and assessment got in the way of learning. Children failed in school, he said, because stress and fear, fear of being wrong or of disappointing adults, stunted learning, No one can really learn well when being forced to learn things that aren’t personally important. The system and the teachers worked against what children really needed in order to learn, and harmed children in the process. He felt that teachers often disliked children and contributed to their insecurity and fear.

Holt also pointed out the benefits to learning if children have choices, peace, safety, when their self-esteem is intact and they have projects and interests of their own to pursue with the help of a loving adult. Relationship, Holt said, was crucial to learning.

As Holt came to believe keeping children out of school was a good option, he encouraged parents not to make the same mistakes schools made. Holt knew the same damage from school could happen at home if parents were more interested in being teacher-like and playing school than they were in understanding and facilitating learning.

In Learning All the Time, Holt wrote,

“Learning, is not the product of teaching. Teaching does not make learning. As I mentioned before, organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to one hundred percent false.”

Holt pointed out the benefits to learning if children have choices, peace, safety, when their self-esteem is intact and they have projects and interests of their own to pursue with the help of a loving adult.

“Relationship,” Holt said, “was crucial to learning.”

And he urged homeschooling parents not to replicate school at home and cautioned against the teacherly approach: “Not only is it the case that uninvited teaching does not make learning, but – and this was even harder for me to learn – for the most part such teaching prevents learning. Now that’s the real shocker. Ninety-nine percent of the time, teaching that has not been asked for will not result in learning, but will impede learning.” Holt’s writing is moving and provocative, but his work wasn’t just an appeal to emotion. He cared about good judgment and reason. He cared about clear thinking. He tried to help teachers and parents really understand learning, what would harm it, and what could make it grow and blossom.

Holt knew that learning requires trust. Anything that hurts a relationship between a parent and child hurts learning, too. Judgment, criticism, and correction can inhibit a child and stifle learning. Again, in Learning All the Time, Holt describes learning to read as it must feel to a child, as a “dangerous adventure.” The potential for a child to fail, make mistakes, to become embarrassed or feel bad about himself means there must be sufficient comfort, security, and support in order for him to be successful. No one wants to start out on a potentially dangerous adventure with an impatient grump or critic.

Though Holt started writing 50 years ago, his work is still relevant today. It has been the foundation of many happy and peaceful homeschools and the evolution of the modern unschooling philosophy. Parents who read and consider John Holt’s work may be able to side-step the problems of schooling and teaching and avoid school at home. And they may be better able to see their children as Holt saw children, eager explorers and thinkers, philosophers building a model of the universe.

“Children learn from anything and everything they see. They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places. They learn much more from things, natural or made, that are real and significant in the world in their own right and not just made in order to help children learn; in other words, they are more interested in the objects and tools that we use in our regular lives than in almost any special learning materials made for them. We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions – if they have any – and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

I have quoted here from Learning All the Time, Holt’s last book, published after his death. It was pieced together by his publisher from notes, letters, and articles Holt wrote and is a short 162 pages. It’s an easy introduction to the ideas of Holt for anyone looking for a place to start.

Deb Lewis is the mom of grown up, always unschooled Dylan, and wife to David. She lives, works, plays and learns in Montana.