Part 5: John Holt Dissents

This is part five in my Unschooling Homeschooling series. In it I will condense many of the answers John Holt gives to people who question the “non-traditional” methods of schooling.

How can we trust children to learn?
The obvious answer to this is that children learn all the time and we rarely question their ability to do so. Let’s look at learning to read. “What information, what relationships must be learned, in order to do it? What we have to learn are the various ways in which the letters of written English can represent the sounds of spoken English. How many such sounds are there? About 45. How many letters and combinations of letters, are needed to make these sounds? About 380…..How many words does a the average child know when he comes to first grade? Five thousand or more. And a great many of these words have many more than one definition. And this is not all. He knows a great many of the enormous number of English idioms that cause such trouble to foreigners. Moreover, he knows most of the grammar of the language as well….and this is true of children whose native language is more complicated than English.” We can think of reading like the beginning linguist or artist. At first their attempts are rudimentary and often nonsensical. It is no less serious that the kind of work adults do though. In children’s play fantasy, they are not trying to do what adults do, they pretend that they are doing what adults do. Their nonsense writing is legitimate writing as long as their skill is only at this level. Eventually, they will tire of nonsense and begin to realize that writing words contain letters that all people can read. Thus they will begin to seek to hone their writing skill by discovering the difference between their own writing and an adults. Any advanced skill a child does is accomplished this way, from walking to talking to basic math, reading, and writing skills. We should trust children because prior to entering school they provide us with ample evidence that they are competent.

Human knowledge is stored and transmitted in symbols. We have to teach children to use them!
“True enough. ut the only way children can learn to get meaning out of symbols, to turn other people’s symbols into a kind of reality or a mental model of reality, is by learning first to turn their own reality into symbols. They have to make the journey from reality to symbol many times, before they are ready to go the other way. We must begin with what children see, do, and know, and have them talk and write about such things, before trying to talk to them much about things they don’t know.

In order to learn children must first be able to delay gratification. They must be willing to learn things in case they need them later on. This is how you advance in education.
It is useless and meaningless to learn things on the off chance that you may need them sometime. Children’s desire is to do meaningful things right now, not in the future. This is the motivator that gives children curiosity, energy, and determination, and patience to learn all that they do.

Aren’t you asking children to discover and re-create the entire history of the world by themselves?
What confuses people here is the use of the word discover when what they really mean is invent. Children do not need to re-invent the wheel. It exists already, it is in their daily life where they can experience it. A child simply does not need to be told about a wheel, what it does or is used for. He can clearly discover this information by himself.

Aren’t there certain things that every one ought to know?
With the exception of reading, which is a skill anyway, it cannot be proved that any piece of information is essential for everyone to know. Useful and convenient maybe; essential, no. And no one thus far has been able to agree on what information is essential. Not only this, but knowledge is not a stagnant item. What once was relevant is no longer and we have little information about what may be relevant in the future. Aside from this technical fact, curiosity is rarely idle. Children learn what they need to learn, precisely because they need to learn it. Interest guides them to the information they need to form a complete picture of the world. The ability to seek the important information we need is more vital than filling our head with information that may or may not be useful.

How can you tell what the children are learning or even if they’re learning at all?
We can’t tell. We know that learning is an essential makeup of Man, just as birds learn to fly and fish learn to swim. We do not need to motivate children into learning. We don’t need to pick their brains to see if they’re learning. All we need to do is bring as much of the world as we can into the classroom; give children as much help as they ask for and need; listen respectfully when they talk; and get out of the way.

But children are no good. They won’t learn unless we make them. The world is no good and children need to be broken into it. After all, we put up with it. Why shouldn’t they?
To people that think like this I don’t know what to say. To show them the evidence about how children learn will only make them cling more to their theories. They do this because they can act like tyrants while feeling like saints. “Do what I tell you!” yells the tyrant. “It’s good for you. You’ll be grateful one day!” says the saint.

If we can make our children even smarter, why not do it?
Why not indeed? But almost all bad ideas start life as good ones and I fear it would not be long before this seemingly good idea will turn into one of the worst. (Me here, This is why I believe and understand that it would be almost impossible to broadly implement this kind of education. Not that all children aren’t capable of learning this way, but the cultural, political, and economic inhibitors would be enormous.)

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