How Children Learn (buy on Amazon.com)
by John Holt, published 1995
John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?
We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.
In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?
Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.
The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?
A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?
Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.
This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!