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Rereading How Children Learn

Author // Peter Gray, Ph.D.

The Joy and Sorrow of Revisiting the Work of John Holt

In a survey we conducted a few years ago, educational psychologist Gina Riley and I asked unschooling families to name the writers whose works had influenced them most in their decision to take that route. John Holt was by far the author most often cited, named by more than half of the 232 families in the survey. Holt died in 1985 at the too-young age of 62. Yet he continues to exert great influence.

My colleague Pat Farenga, who has managed Holt’s legacy ever since his death, recently oversaw the publication of the 50th anniversary edition of what to me is Holt’s most significant book, How Children Learn, published in 1967. I read the first edition decades ago, before I had begun my own research into children’s learning, without fully appreciating it. Rereading the book now led me repeatedly to think: How true, how brilliant, how sad. Sad because these true facts and brilliant insights are still understood by so little of the population, and our schools are now even worse than they were when Holt was alive. They are even more anxiety-provoking, more wasteful of young people’s time, more insulting of young people’s intelligence, and more disruptive of deep learning and understanding.


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Yet I’m optimistic, as I think Holt might be if he were alive today, because even though the percentage of people who understand that children learn best when allowed to control their own learning remains small, it is growing. It is reflected in the ever-increasing number of families who are choosing to take their children out of standard schools for self-directed education or something close to it. A growing number of parents and teachers are seeing the light of children’s brilliance and allowing it to shine. Eventually, I think, we will reach a tipping point, where the rate of school leaving accelerates sharply. Then what we now call standard schooling will die of irrelevance, replaced by centers designed to optimize children’s natural ways of learning.

Holt was an astute and brilliant observer of children. If he had studied some species of animal, instead of human children, we would call him a naturalist. He observed children in their natural, free, and I might even say wild, condition, where they were not being controlled by a teacher in a classroom or an experimenter in a laboratory. This is something that far too few developmental psychologists or educational researchers have done. He became close to and observed the children of his relatives and friends when they were playing and exploring, and he observed children in schools during breaks in their formal lessons. Through such observations, he came to certain profound conclusions about children’s learning. Here’s one which I extracted from the pages of How Children Learn.

Children don’t choose to learn in order to do things in the future. They choose to do right now what others in their world do, and through doing they learn.

Schools try to teach children skills and knowledge that may benefit them at some unknown time in the future. But children are interested in now, not the future. They want to do real things now. By doing what they want to do, they also prepare themselves wonderfully for the future, but that is a side effect. This, I think, is the main insight of the book; most of the other ideas are more or less corollaries.

Children are brilliant learners because they don’t think of themselves as learning; they think of themselves as doing. They want to engage in whole, meaningful activities, like the activities they see around them, and they aren’t afraid to try. They want to walk, like other people do, but at first they aren’t good at it. So they keep trying, day after day, and their walking keeps getting better. They want to talk, like other people do, but at first they don’t know about the relationship of sounds to meaning. Their sentences come across to us as babbled nonsense, but in the child’s mind he or she is talking. Improvement comes because the child attends to others’ talking, gradually picks up some of the repeated sounds and their meanings, and works them into his or her own utterances in increasingly appropriate ways.

As children grow older, they continue to attend to others’ activities around them and, in unpredictable ways at unpredictable times, choose those that they want to do and start doing them. Children start reading because they see that others read and, if they are read to, they discover that reading is a route to the enjoyment of stories. Children don’t become readers by first learning to read; they start right off by reading. They may read signs, which they recognize. They may recite, verbatim, the words in a memorized little book, as they turn the pages; or they may turn the pages of an unfamiliar book and say whatever comes to mind. We may not call that reading, but to the child it is reading. Over time, the child begins to recognize certain words, even in new contexts, and begins to infer the relationships between letters and sounds. In this way, the child’s reading improves.

Walking, talking, and reading are skills that pretty much everyone picks up in our culture because they are so prevalent. Other skills are picked up more selectively, by those who somehow become fascinated by them. Holt gives an example of a 6-year-old girl who became interested in typing, with an electric typewriter (this was the 1960s). She would type fast, like the adults in her family, but without attention to the fact that the letters on the page were random. She would produce whole documents this way. Over time she began to realize that her documents differed from those of adults in that they were not readable, and then she began to pay attention to which keys she would strike and to the effect this had on the sheet of paper. She began to type very carefully rather than fast. Before long she was typing out readable statements.

You and I might say that the child is learning to walk, talk, read, or type, but from the child’s view that would be wrong. The child is walking with the very first step, talking with the first cooed or babbled utterance, reading with the first recognition of STOP STOP on a sign, and typing with the first striking of keys. The child isn’t learning to do these; he or she is doing them, right from the beginning, and in the process is getting better at them.

My colleague Kerry McDonald made this point very well recently in an essay about her young unschooled daughter who loves to bake. In Kerry’s words, “When people ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she responds breezily, ‘A baker, but I already am one.’”

When Holt wrote the 1967 edition of How Children Learn, he was still trying to figure out how to become a better teacher. When he revised the book for the second edition, published in 1983, he inserted many corrections, which revealed his growing belief that teaching of any sort is usually a mistake, except in response to a student’s explicit request for help. Here, for example, is one of his 1983 insertions: “When we teach without being asked we are saying in effect, ‘You’re not smart enough to know that you should know this, and not smart enough to learn it.’” And a few pages later, he inserted, “The spirit of independence in learning is one of the most valuable assets a learner can have, and we who want to help children’s learning at home or in school, must learn to respect and encourage it.”

Children naturally resist being taught because it undermines their independence and their confidence in their own abilities to figure things out and to ask for help, themselves, when they need it. Moreover, no teacher—certainly not one in a classroom of more than a few children—can get into each child’s head and understand that child’s motives, mental models, and passions at the time. Only the child has access to all of this, which is why children learn best when they are allowed complete control of their own learning. Or, as the child would say, when they are allowed complete control of their own doing.


Pathways Issue 60 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #60.

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