How Children Learn and the Leap of Faith

By the time John Holt was revising his two most popular books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, I’d been working with him for three years and I knew one of his most important writing outlets was letters. Many of his books grew out of thoughts he shared in letters and I decided to refresh my memory by reading some that were written during the time he was revising How Children Learn. (The letters are from A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt, Ohio State Univ. Press, 1990.)

John received letters from young people seeking his thoughts and advice and he often replied to them. One young correspondent, Susannah Sheffer, wrote to John when she was in fifth grade and they stayed in touch until John died; Susannah later became the longest-serving editor of John’s magazine, Growing Without Schooling, and edited the book of his letters. In 1983 John wrote to another student, “Still struggling to finish the revised How Children Learn, which keeps growing on me. I keep finding new stuff that I want to put in it faster than I can get it in. Have to get busy and button it up.”

That stirred up lots of memories of John’s excitement around the office when he was revising How Children Learn. He enjoyed reading letters from homeschoolers and commenting on them to us, as well as meeting with homeschooling families in and out of the office. In his revision he writes that his time with homeschoolers convinced him more than ever that “children love learning and are extremely good at it.”

How Children Learn celebrates its 50th year in print in 2017, and I’m excited that it has a new foreword by the award-winning teacher and founder of the small schoos movement, Deborah Meier. She writes:

Putting John’s ideas into practice absorbed the next half century of my life. I always returned to his work to remind me of what we all shared: the fears that make learning harder and limit the intelligence of almost all of us.

. . . While following Holt’s deep exploration of how children learn I therefore wasn’t surprised to discover Holt had joined “the enemy”—homeschoolers. His little magazine, Growing Without Schooling, was the most useful guide a teacher could ever read. As time passed I began to change my views of homeschooling. I’m still first and foremost working to preserve public education but homeschoolers can be our allies in devising what truly powerful schooling could be like. If we saw the child as an insatiable nonstop learner, we would create schools that made it as easy and natural to do so as it was for most of us before we entered the schoolroom. Our task is to make schools ready for kids to learn in, not kids ready for school.

That John hoped this book would help improve schools is evident:

When we better understand the ways, conditions, and spirit in which children do their best learning, and are able to make school into a place where they can use and improve the style of thinking and learning natural to them, we may be able to prevent much of this failure. School may then become a place in which all children grow, not just in size, not even in knowledge, but in curiosity, courage, confidence, independence, resourcefulness, resilience, patience, competence, and understanding.

But once John understood how children learn without attending school he saw a new way to reintegrate children into society: parents and other concerned adults can invite children to join them as they grow and learn together through self-directed education at home and in their communities. Self-directed education includes school, but it doesn’t make school the primary focus and arbiter of what you can learn. When student-directed learning is implemented in schools it is simply a “choice” among school-sanctioned options. I put choice in quotes because, to paraphrase Ivan Illich, a mandatory selection from a list of prepackaged goods is hardly a real choice.

John urged real choices and notes that in a democratic society educational pluralism is vital to preserve individual and communal freedom. But John did not arrive at this idea overnight; he developed it over the course of his life and in his books based on his experiences as a teacher and observer of children and schooling.

John wrote how he didn’t have an education degree or any training as a teacher and that he learned to teach by doing it, just as a child learns to walk and talk. He felt his lack of training was a benefit to him as a teacher because he wasn’t viewing his work through a head full of theories and assumptions about how children learn. When a standard teaching effort failed he was free to consider methods not in the conventional school toolbox to help children grow into secure, happy adults.

He did this as most parents do: by using his experiences with children and processing them, sometimes with fellow teachers or other adults, sometimes on his own, for future use in similar situations. I know it took me years to trust my own judgment—when my wife went into labor with our first child I found myself immediately consulting all the books we had on hand about pregnancy to be sure "I got it right." Such schooled behavior by me was in check by the time our next two girls arrived, and I was much better at being present and supporting my wife through those deliveries as a result.

Years of schooling can cow adults and children into doubting their own abilities, thoughts, and emotions. John understood this deeply when he first wrote How Children Learn. In A Life Worth Living there is this letter, written in 1969.

Dear Dr. Stephens,

I’ve been meaning to write to you since I read your most kind and generous review of How Children Learn in the Harvard Education Review. I only write to make one point. The things that I say I learned from watching children, I really did learn that way and in no other. Most of the books to which you refer, I have not read to this day. [NOTE: Stephens had not actually referred to specific books, but to John Dewey and B. F. Skinner, with whom, he claimed, some of the positions in How Children Learn were consistent.]

One other short point. You say that teachers "may get the idea that truth in these areas is a matter of free and easy observation.” There was nothing either free or easy about my observation. I learned whatever I have learned about children by prolonged and careful observation, and even more importantly, as a result of continued failures to teach them, in more or less orthodox school fashions, things people said they should learn. There seems to me a suggestion—forgive me if I’m wrong about this—that in learning about the world, other people’s books are more important than observation. With this view I most emphatically and strongly disagree. This is indeed part of what I am trying to tell teachers—that the things they learn or feel they are learning from their direct contact with and observation of children are more important and what is even more important more to be trusted than what theoreticians may tell them. This is a heretical view, I know, but it is my own.

John notes in his revision that everything he writes in the book can be summed up this way: Trust children. But there is a corollary he also notes:

Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. And so we go on treating children as we ourselves were treated, calling this "reality," or saying bitterly, "If I could put up with it, they can too." What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted. To do this will take a long leap of faith—but great rewards await any of us who will take that leap.