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How Teachers Fail

How Children Learn

by John Holt
Pitman, 189 pp., $4.95

John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail, described the strategies of avoidance and failure children adopt in school when they feel pressed to reproduce whatever their teachers consider is necessary for learning. It shows how nervous and unhappy children try to figure out what their teachers expect of them, rather than learn what they themselves care to know. Therefore, it is not surprising that when Holt turns his attention from failure to learning, he studies primarily children who have not yet been to school and have never been taught formally.

In his new book, How Children Learn, John Holt recounts in diary form several years’ observations of children between the ages of sixteen months and six years. When, in the later part of the book, he shifts his observations to the classroom and discusses, in a discursive and anecdotal style, studies in the academic curriculum, such as reading and science, the young child unspoiled by school experience still remains the paradigm of a true learner.

Holt does not merely study children but seems to look with them at the world. His observations are informal. He watches the children, plays games with them, and describes what he sees. No theory imposes itself on the accounts in the diary. Holt does not set the children specific tasks nor bother them with constant questioning. The games he plays with children are not developed to prove some psychological or developmental point, but grow spontaneously out of specific situations; often they are created by the children themselves. Holt throughout the book talks about the need for adults to “think like a child,” to perceive things freshly and without preconceptions, and his diaries illustrate this view:

March 22, 1963

The other day Danny did something so exactly like what little children are supposed to do that it sounds made up. He has three picture puzzles, like jigsaw puzzles, only much simpler. Two are the Playskool variety, seen in many nursery schools. The other is a very pretty, and much more intricate and interesting Dutch puzzle. Though Danny is only 29 months old, he can put these puzzles together with no outside help. It is surprising that he should have such skillful fingers, or be able to keep three such complicated patterns in his head. He does not do these puzzles by trial and error, not any more. He knows where each piece in each of the puzzles goes. He has a rough order in which he likes to put the puzzles together, but he is not a prisoner of that order. At any one point there is probably a piece that he would rather put in than any other, but if that piece doesn’t fall under his eye, he can use another, and place it correctly. It is quite something to watch.

The other day he was working on one of the Playskool puzzles, which is about boats. One of the pieces, which fits along an edge, is a cloud. He picked it up, took it to its proper place, and tried to fit it in. But he had turned it a little bit away from the proper angle, so that he couldn’t get it to go right up to the edge. Also, there were no other pieces in place around it to guide it in. He struggled and pushed with it, turning it this way and that, but couldn’t quite get it to fit. He grew more and more uneasy; he knew that it was supposed to go there, but it wouldn’t. His movements became more rapid and anxious. Suddenly he turned away from the puzzle, crawled to his blanket, a few feet behind him, grabbed it, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and sat down on the floor, looking at us as if to say, “I know what to do at a time like this.” We all laughed delightedly. In a moment or so he had recharged his battery enough so that he could go back to the puzzle, put in some other pieces, and soon finished it, including the piece that had caused the trouble.

Though Holt does not have a theory of learning guiding his observations, he does have an image of “the child” which informs them. For all the openness and naturalness of the diaries in How Children Learn one senses in Holt’s remarks a romanticism which places the highest trust and hope in the possibilities of the uncorrupted child. It is, however, a romanticism made bitter by Holt’s view of experience. He is not a Rousseauean, for he does not find the natural state of the child pure. Rather his romanticism lies in a belief that the growth of the child, if uncorrupted by civilization in the form of manipulating elders, will lead him to an honest and productive manhood. For Holt “infancy is not a blessed state…but something to be grown out of and escaped from as quickly as possible.” A natural impulse makes the child want to move from his initial state of dependency to greater and greater independence and autonomy. Holt’s central idea is quite simple: the child wants and needs to learn of the world and, moreover, enjoys doing so; he wants to emerge as an individual in precarious balance with the world rather than to remain in a stagnant state of equilibrium. To be alive is to grow, and to be a child for Holt is to be able still to enjoy that fact.

The child wants to discover his place in the world of things and people, and in order to do so gathers as much data as possible. This was vividly illustrated when Holt brought his cello to class:

It doesn’t take a child long…to grasp the basic idea of the cello, the relationship of the bow, the string, and the left hand. But while he has been figuring this out, he has been ceaselessly active. One could say that he is having too much fun—a weak word, really—playing the cello to want to take time to figure it out. A scientist might say that, along with his useful data, the child has collected an enormous quantity of random, useless data. A trained scientist wants to cut all irrelevant data out of his experiment. He is asking nature a question, and he wants to cut down the noise, the static, the random information, to a minimum, so that he can hear the answer. But a child doesn’t work that way. He is used to getting his answers out of the noise. He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where he can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of what he experiences. His way of attacking the cello problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, to use his hands and the bow in as many ways as possible. Then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns. He begins to ask questions—that is, to make deliberate experiments. But it is vital to note that until he has a great deal of data, he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.

Experience is enjoyable in and of itself, and at the same time is stored in the child’s mind. At a future time things may come together, often quite unconsciously. According to Holt much of what the child learns he is not aware of learning: “Children are good at gathering and storing…vague information—too vague to be useful to most adults—and waiting patiently until some day they find they know what it means.”

THERE IS no set order of learing nor any rigid series of steps the child must pass through to achieve mastery of one mode of thought or another. Many things occur simultaneously, and there is a great deal of sorting that occurs in the child’s mind without his being able to talk about it. Children learn to use with mastery the rules of language, for example, without knowing what those rules are. They also master them at different rates and in different ways. According to Holt, there is no one way to learn and it is therefore a foolish intellectual game to look for principles of learning instead of looking at how children learn.

In this he differs from Piaget, Bruner, and other developmental theorists who hold that the child learns in an orderly way and must pass through a set of preordained stages to reach any given point of mental development. Because the theorists look at children in different ways from those of Holt, they therefore see different things. Bruner leans heavily on the “experimental” situation, as do other developmental theorists such as Benjamin Bloom and the Ausubels. Piaget and his followers ask children what they know. Holt is unique in that he watches them during the natural course of their lives and plays with them in settings that are not artificial and in ways that are not contrived. There is no question in my mind that he is open to see what the more “scientific” observers of children exclude by the very nature of the circumstances they use for their observations. Holt’s conclusions are, of course, more subjective and less verifiable than those of the developmental theorists, but one cannot help feeling that he is right in looking at children rather than setting up laboratory circumstances in which to study them. How Children Learn provides sufficient insight to justify his procedure, all theoretical considerations aside.

The young children Holt observes are patient and not easily frustrated. They work at the problems confronting them with ingenuity and energy. They do not have to be compelled to learn, but welcome the challenge of what they do not know, and move voluntarily from the simple to the complex. Children do not avoid difficult practical and intellectual problems and are bored with what is easy or irrelevant. I found this to be true of my pupils, who constantly used the materials in the classroom in ingenious and unexpected ways. For example, there were bells, lights, and batteries available in the room, and the children quickly mastered ringing the bells or lighting the lights. Then they began to set up series of bells and lights and ended up developing elaborate burglar alarms.

Holt implies that if left alone and treated with the respect persons are due, rather than with the possessiveness adults reserve for children and objects, the child will want to know and will indeed learn. The section of How Children Learn entitled “Talk” illustrates this point. Holt shows that in the classroom children are expected to address their remarks to the teacher, and generally only to a question the teacher has raised. “Talking,” in the sense of children conversing with one another in the classroom, is too often considered defiance and prohibited. Yet this is unnatural and displays a lack of respect for children as human beings who need to, and will profit by, exchange with one another. Adults impose restrictions upon children which, if they were imposed upon them, would be considered insulting and disrespectful. Holt asserts, and I feel that this is of crucial importance, that in the relations between adult and child, whether in the classroom or at home, the child should be extended every social consideration that adults give one another. This is no less than insisting that at every moment the child be treated as a human being and not as an object.

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