Early life[ edit ] Holt was born on April 14, in New York City ;  he had two younger sisters. In he taught fifth grade at the Lesley Ellis School , also in Cambridge. He believed that "children who were provided with a rich and stimulating learning environment would learn what they are ready to learn, when they are ready to learn it". This line of thought came to be called unschooling. This brought in additional revenue that helped sustain the newsletter, which carried very little advertising. It quickly became the "Bible" of the early homeschooling movement.
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Please provide proper credit for my work if you use or share the information presented here. We unschooled our girls, who are now ages 23, 27, and I was asked to talk about the foundation and research that supports unschooling, so I need to start with that unusual word, unschooling. After years of being a conventional schoolteacher, a hard grader, a professional who worked in exclusive private schools, John Holt developed a philosophy of education based on his personal observations, reading, experiences, and conversations with children, as well with adults who did not use grades, bribes, threats, punishment, or other forms of control to make children learn.
He eventually got his ideas into print, and there John Holt hit a nerve and became, without a teaching credential or graduate degree, a public intellectual and bestselling author. His books have been translated into over 41 languages and his first two books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn have sold over 1 and half million copies.
Eight of his ten books are still currently in print, 31 years after his death. I urge you to read How Children Fail and How Children Learn to get the full story, but here it is in short: John worked in high-powered private schools and he decided that it was fear of failure, fear of appearing stupid, fear of criticism from children and adults, the overall fear many feel in school that inhibits learning and leads children and adults to create what John called the charade of learning in school.
Namely, the students pass a test on Friday, but the material is forgotten by the students by Monday. Nonetheless, grades have been entered in the official records, seat time noted, and time clocks punched and therefore learning has happened as far as school is concerned. Holt wanted more than this for children and adults in the schools he worked in. Walking, talking, socializing, counting, reading, writing—all are learned by young children, often just with help when they ask or show signs for it.
John Holt observed the differences between the free and easy learning of preschool-age children and the controlled and difficult learning of children in school in How Children Learn in by the way, the book is still in print and celebrates its 50th anniversary in This statement is given more credence by research since Holt first noted this in the s.
In Prof. You might be wondering at this point, "This is fine for wealthy families, for professors who can raise their children comfortably, but what about working class people?
It is only since the mid-nineteenth century that universal compulsory school advocates succeeded in segregating children from the real world and made children learn in special classrooms from special people who control, predict, reward, and punish them for doing what the curriculum demands.
One excellent study in Great Britain, published as Young Children Learning , examined how young children learn by comparing the conversations of children in their preschool settings to the conversations they had with their parents at home.
In fact, they noted that in school it was often the teacher who needed to initiate the conversations but at home it was the children.
And at home the children would ask very large questions—"Who is God? This is because the school model for learning is just one way, and a very recent way in terms of how long humans have learned without such intensive, factory-like learning. One last comment about helping children learn: Dr. So after about ten years as a popular school reformer John Holt started to question if reforming school was really a worthwhile activity if the goal was to create agency for students, to create enough time and space for self-directed education to occur.
School is not designed to support self-directed education—it is not in its origins, its DNA. School was originally founded as a way to control the unruly poor in ancient Greece and continues to serve this function in our present-day institutions. Plato makes clear in The Republic and elsewhere that schools are for the elite of society to discuss and plan how to best utilize the resources of the empire.
The commoners, free slaves, women, and foreigners were not allowed to participate in the ancient Greek skole school ; they were just resources to be best utilized by their betters. Ivan Illich noted how this stain of slavery continues to be unacknowledged in schools throughout the world today. Holt, thousands of years after Plato, wrote in about Prof. These efforts were in time destroyed by the movement for tax-supported government schools. This had generally been true of American poor and working-class people.
They understood all too well that a chief purpose of government schools was to kill the independence and ambition of their children. They wanted their children to believe that they were as good as, and had the same rights as, anyone else, a very subversive and dangerous idea. But they could not long support their own schools and the government schools as well, and these independent ventures died out.
Nasaw gives us one quote that is almost too good or bad to be true. If the chief object of government be to promote civil order and social stability Ed. Is human nature so constituted that those who fail will readily acquiesce in the success of their rivals? Is it any wonder that we are beset with labor troubles? Once he decided school reform was not going to improve the lives of children John initially thought the solution was to give children the same rights of citizenship that adults have. The book he wrote about that idea, Escape From Childhood , caused many of his former colleagues in the school reform movement to question his thinking since it contains a lot about how children should control their own learning and have as much access to the world as they could handle, including the right to refuse to attend school and the right to travel.
But the push back Holt endured on this topic made him realize he was touching a sensitive nerve for most adults. The solution is to try to use our resources to directly lessen poverty and see if that change improves educational attainment, rather than imagine that processing children through school even more intensively will reduce poverty.
Based on all the studies at the time Holt was writing , and what we know today about how educational attainment is directly correlated to income and social standing zip code far more than it is to any particular school, method, or educational plan, why do we insist on giving poor children more academics, less play time, and tell their parents they must enforce these school rules in their homes? Holt continued to think about how to improve the lives of children and learners of all ages in his next book called Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better.
In it John describes a wide variety of places where adults and children choose to learn—foreign language schools, cooking classes, martial art dojos, music lessons, sports teams, hobby associations. He also describes how quiet, solitude, and self-reflection are vital components of living that children, actually all of us, need time to explore and develop on our own. This book, written in , ends with a call to create an underground railroad to help children leave schools and learn in and from the world and people around them.
Some parents were doing it openly, but most were not open about homeschooling at that time. But there were enough families from around the United States, and eventually from around the world, who contacted John with their stories that he decided they should know about one another and that he wanted to help them grow in number.
Holt created the first issue of Growing Without Schooling magazine and published it in August , giving the modern homeschooling movement its first, consistent, public voice. Holt collected and shared fiction and nonfiction stories about childhood in the days before school was compulsory, in order to remind us how children and adults once mixed more freely and how well children learned without constant management by adults.
John was impressed not only with her descriptions of how the Yeqana Indians cared for their children, but also with how children were allowed to play undisturbed while the adults did their things throughout the day, but also, if they wished, the children could observe the adult activities, often on the periphery, and participate if possible.
Hunting and gathering expeditions, sharp knives and tools, tribal councils and rituals were all accessible to the young. In many rural land-based societies, learning is not coerced; children are expected to voluntarily observe, absorb, practice, and master the knowledge and skills they will need as adults —— and they do.
In these societies —— which exist on every inhabited continent —— even very young children are free to choose their own actions, to play, to explore, to participate, to take on meaningful responsibility. Researchers are finding that children in these settings spend most of their time in a completely different attentional state from children in modern schools, a state psychology researcher Suzanne Gaskins calls "open attention.
If something interesting happens, he can watch for hours. A child in this state seems to absorb her culture by osmosis, by imperceptible degrees picking up what the adults talk about, what they do, how they think, what they know. Children must learn to focus on what the school wants them to focus on, so open attention becomes a deficit in these school environments. How much trouble this will give us in carrying out our plans of teaching the young!
The pages of Growing Without Schooling magazine and the strong growth of the homeschooling movement around the world show an incredible array of living and learning situations created by families, including taking children to work, reclaiming the home as a center of productivity as well as leisure, and creating clubs and associations based on the interests and activities of the members regardless of their age.
Further, school is also part of the equation, but it is not the lead player. It is a resource to be used as wanted or needed, rather than a compulsory chore. Our own daughters moved in and out of public schools as they tried different classes and wanted to make new friends, but they were always free to leave school, which they did.
John knew that many children want to be out in the world, to be in the community and learn the lay of the neighborhood because, like most healthy humans, they are social beings—it is in our nature to be social, curious, and to learn. But John Holt never gave up on the concepts embedded in the term unschooling. Mitra is also working with western students in classrooms that expand upon the hole-in-the-wall concept in the US, the UK, South America, and other places to see, as Mitra puts it, how children can learn anything in a group with a computer and an Internet connection.
He proved this in one of his hole-in-the-wall experiments where he asked "How far can children go on their own if you give them a difficult subject to learn? But I had to follow the Victorian norm. Thirty percent is a fail. How do I get them to pass? I have to get them 20 more marks. What I did find was a friend that they had, a year-old girl who was an accountant and she played with them all the time.
So I asked this girl, "Can you help them? Use the method of the grandmother. Gosh, when I was your age, I could have never done that. The scores jumped to 50 percent. Kallikuppam had caught up with my control school in New Delhi, a rich private school with a trained biotechnology teacher.
When I saw that graph I knew there is a way to level the playing field. Why do we doubt that our children can learn on their own and together and ask us for help when needed? Finding a mentor, teacher, class, book, Internet site, or person who can explain or help our children do what they want to know is not that hard nor does it require a degree in education. Any parent can do this if they want to, and you will get better at it the more you ask.
Eventually, your children will be doing it on their own, getting their own books out of the library, asking to take lessons or do travel, because you have modeled this behavior for them. You help your children learn about how to navigate the world by doing your learning in front of them.
When Holt was writing and advocating for children to have more time to play and discover the world in their own ways and time frames in the s, our schools and social policies were moving in the opposite direction.
Their solution was to put more emphasis on tests, use technology to further control the learning time and focus of children, and to expand both the entrance and exit ages for school in order to keep them in school and out of their neighborhoods for longer periods.
Schooling became more intensive, as we saw in the s up until today: academics have trumped play time to the point that most American public schools no longer have play recess during the day. Even our preschools have been infected with the fever of to instill academics in very young children. As the researchers note, children learn from both spontaneous exploration and explicit instruction, but educators and policymakers have succeeded in making explicit instruction the norm.
The change is not without serious side effects on children—the loss of curiosity that spurs intrinsic motivation, personal discovery, and the sense of mastery one gets from that knowledge.
For instance, Dr. Ironically, parents expressed higher levels of satisfaction with their homeschooling experience when their programs were more intensive. The paper I show on the slide above is by researchers at the Univ. It is sour grapes if you say it is the school, because others graduated and they are doing fine, right?
And so we blame ourselves for our school failures, or school will blame our genetics and urge drugs to make students focus properly, or blame factors beyond their control such as poverty or parenting without considering how the structure of conventional schooling can cause aberrant behavior in children. Apparently not: school just gets more intensified, more children are labeled as learning disabled and are being kept in school settings for longer and longer periods of time, and even adults, in this age of Big Data and surveillance, are being subjected to ongoing mandatory continuing education and certifications.
The ancient dream of John Amos Comenius, the so-called father of education, is that everyone will learn everything perfectly from their instructors—and it is now engulfing us into womb-to-tomb compulsory education. Peter joins many educators who have written on this topic, but he brings his expertise as a research professor in psychology to the table. In his book Peter notes, too, how so-called primitive people allow children to live and learn informally while the adults do their own things and how effective this method is.
John Holt, learning and (un)schooling
John Holt (educator)