How Children Learn
by John Holt
How does traditional schooling discourage children from flourishing in what they learn?
Children learn best in their natural ways, they have a special way of learning before they even go to school. School makes them think badly, in a way that doesn’t suit them. They get humiliated, fearful, and discouraged. The way they’re taught to learn works in the short run, but in the long run, they don’t develop character and intelligence. This prevents true growth. We should be designing schools to suit children rather than making children adhere to school.
What does John Holt say about Trusting Children?
Simple yet difficult. In order to trust children, we must trust ourselves, something we didn’t learn as children so we must break the cycle.
(The Holistic Psychologist says we learned not to trust ourselves when parents denied our reality. Healing occurs when we choose to honor our own reality without parental validation.)
What are the best ways we remember?
We remember vivid, pleasurable experiences. Memory works best unforced, it’s not a mule to be made to walk by beating it.
How should young kids be allowed to handle objects?
They are fascinated and curious. Everyone else touches it and they want to too. Not allowing them kills the curiosity and teaches that the world is dangerous. Teach them that they can touch other people’s things, but treat with respect.
How do children learn via imitation?
They start with something. Doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. They compare and check, then correct. Young children don’t wait to get everything right before they start.
Children live and move naturally in uncertainty. When and why do they start to crave certainty?
How do children learn to be fearful? Kids are born unfearful. They learn through adults and older children what to fear. Curiosity and trust in the world turns off.
Children sense emotions in others and blow it up larger than life. They are extremely good at empathizing.
How do older children (4 years and up) differ from younger children when working on something without success?
Older children are less able to stand frustration of failure or deferred success. Angry or frustrated. They start to get more competitive, status-conscious, want approval. Younger children don’t care whether other people can do the task, what they think of her efforts. For older children, the task is a means to an end (approval), for younger children the task is an end to itself.
How do our feelings affect how we learn? When feeling powerful and competent, we leap at difficult tasks and do not get discouraged. Sooner or later we’ll get it. But other times we may feel we will never get it, it’s too hard, we’re not good at this kind of thing.
Describe the art of teaching and moods.
Being able to sense what mood (see above) one is in. When someone’s down, don’t push or urge. It frightens and discourages. Draw back, ease off pressure. Reassure, console, give time. Then they will feel the energy and courage to come back to the task.
Interesting to see how much of their later selves children reveal even when they are very little.
How does un-asked for teaching affect children?
They resist it. Unconsciously interpret it as “you’re not smart enough to see that this is important to learn and even if you were, you’re not smart enough to learn it.” They become hurt and angry. We should let them do whatever by themselves and only help if they ask for it. If too eager to teach, it sends the message of doubt and distrust. Destroys their confidence in ability to learn themselves.
What does Bill Hull mean by “if we taught children to speak they’d never learn”?
They would be baffled, discouraged, humiliated, fearful. Ignore our teaching and learn to speak on their own. Or they would take refuge in deliberate failure and silence.
The greatest difference between children and adults is that most children to whom I offer a turn on the cello accept it, while most adults (particularly if they’ve never played an instrument) refuse it.
How does John teach words to children? He’s careful not to tell them as if it were a lesson. He doesn’t quiz them. That puts the child on the spot and if they say wrong thing, they will feel they have done wrong. Too much quizzing makes them think learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grown-ups.
How does responding to babies crying affect them? Babies that are responded to are more curious, smiley, awake, cry less, more securely attached. Develops trust. They cry because they are not understood or body has tried to understand them, their words ignored or casually and contemptuously brushed aside.
How best to respond in a dispute with child?
I hear what you’re saying, I understand that you want this, I’m sorry you feel angry/unhappy, but I’m not going to get you [the candy bar].
How does Dr. Gareth Mathews respond to adults’ viewing children as small, clumsy, foolish, and our underestimating the seriousness of their questions, laughing at them or ignoring?
In his book Philosophy and the Young Child, he points out that many of children’s suprising and naive remarks and questions, which we may dismiss as silly are questions of some of what the greatest philophers have struggled with.
We cannot learn anything important about other people until they trust us.
What is the Bad Habit Theory of Learning and how does it compare to math’s “successive approximation” in the context of learning?
Adults think that when kids make a mistake, it must be corrected or it will freeze into a bad habit, when in fact children learn by trying, making mistakes, and then correcting mistakes. Like successive approximation: do something > compare with result of desired goal > see differences (mistakes) > reduce differences.
What misconception do we have around good/bad habits?
We believe it’ll take a long time to develop a “good” habit, but we believe we can develop a “bad” habit in just a few seconds. It will take just as long. In relation to children, we think we must correct them immediately, but we don’t. Give them time to notive and correct themselves.
What separates a good reader from a bad reader?
Good - enters in an active dialogue with writer, argues and questions. Bad - reads passively.
Where do teachers go wrong in having class discussions?
They do “answer pulling” where they ask pointed questions and have deemed ahead of time what is “right.”
What does John Holt advocate to encourage better communication in children?
Free time to talk with peers in class. Teacher shouldn’t do all the talking. Allows for more independent study and thinking.
How do children relate to the competence model?
Viewing adults that are good at everything can make them feel they cannot be as good, no sense in trying. They learn better from older children partially because they are a more helpful competence model that is more within reach. Of course adult is inspiring, but on the day to day, they are less useful.
In what way should we respect children’s learning?
Don’t teach them without being asked. Allow for them to learn by their choosing, at their own time, in their own way. Encourage spirit independence in learning and respect it.
How does testing or teaching without being asked affect children’s learning?
They feel anxiety, fear of failure, punishment, disgrace. It drives them away from the material being studies and into strategies to fool people into thinking they know. Destroys learning.
How does being quick to point out mistakes affect kids?
Point them out as soon as they make them or correcting them stunts their self-checking skill. Must encourage child’s sense of fitting things together, make sense, finding and correcting their mistakes. Help to understand how their mind works and get better at it.
One of the most important things teachers can do for a learner is to make them less dependent on teacher.
How should parents read to children?
They should enjoy what they are reading for the sake of sharing a story. Not because they want to teach kids to read. Kids can sense it and it spoils the experience.
In what ways do children make progress in learning that is different from our expectations (i.e. train)?
We assume children learn like trains on a schedule, late at one stop and you start to worry. If a child doesn’t arrive at the right level in learning (must know this by 3rd grade, 4th grade, etc) we assume they will be late at the finish. But children do not learn at an even rate, it’s in spurts. The more interested they are in the work, the faster the spurt.
Also, we assume children must learn the easy stuff first before the hard stuff. Their way isn’t always a logical sequence. Being seekers of meaning, children may first go to the hard things which are less “dissociated from the world” (more applicable?) and later learn the easy things from the hard ones.
Why does learning easy first and hard things later not matter?
Sure, physical skills might require us to learn easy movements first, but with the mind, it doesn’t work like that. What makes things easy or hard for our minds has little to do with amount of information they contain and everything to do with how interesting they are, how much sense it makes, and how connected to reality.
Children do not need to be made to leran, told what to learn, nore shown how. If we give them access to the world, they will see what things are truly important to us and others, and make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them.
Children trying new things are like plants putting out little green shoots. We must be careful not to cut them off.
What is the difference between challenge versus threat?
A challenge stretches your powers and you ahve the confidence to succeed. A threat is a task beyond your powers to accomplish or cope with. School challenges are seen as threats. Kids naturally challenge themselves, but with school it sets you up to fail, be humiliated, criticized, punished for it. It infects life outside of school and keep children from self-setting challenges.
How do learn skills?
We’re doing it backwards. We think have to get the skill first, then find useful/interesting things to do with it. But instead, we should start with what we want to do, then moved by a strong desire to do it, get whatever skills are needed.
For reading and writing, we can show children it’s a way to communicate with people and don’t have to bribe or bully them into acquiring the skills. They will want them for what they want to do with them.
How does forcing a child to learn, instead of respecting them, affect them?
Forcing them to do what they fear creates more timidity and they will use brain/energy to avoid the pressure put on them instead of exploring the unknown. If careful to not push child beyond their limits of courage, they are sure to grow braver. Respect their natural timidity and caution, they will learn to combat their fears and overcome them.
What does a common pattern in children’s learning look like?
They take a bold leap forward into exciting and new territory. They retreat back to comfort and security, the familiar. Rhythms of advance and retreat. Children’s learning can’t be scheduled.
Art was her way of expressing what she was learning about life. It sharpened her eye as well, and gave her an idea of what next to look for.
What is the mark of intelligence?
The of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave then we don’t know how. Arts, crafts, and skilled trades involve solving problems for ourselves, where there are no answers in a book. Artisans and craftsmen, sharpwitted with action and inventive minds.
When kids are not bribed or bullied, they want to do whatever they are doing better than they did before.
What’s a better way to teaching something like math?
If it were treated as territory to explore rather than facts to memorize, children would move into it faster.
What boosts children’s learning before handing them materials and problems to work on?
Teachers found that when trying to get a child to work immediately they got nowhere. But giving them time to play with mateirals first, alone, they mentally digest materials and grow ready to learn complex games.
David Hawkins wrote about this. In science and other subjects, give time to children to “play” (work). Time devoted to free and unguided exploratory work. Allow them to construct, test, probe, experiment without super-imposed questions/instructions. Call it “messing about.”
If he didn’t know what it was “supposed” to do, he wasn’t going to try to make it do anything. It might be the wrong thing and someone might think it was his fault.
All of us must cross the line between ignorance and insight many times before we truly understand.
Julia Weber’s My Country School Diary. Learn about wool > learn about the loom > learn how a suit is made and math > learn about dye > learn about animals and plants > learn about global economy
What is the connection between children and fantasy?
Children use fantasy, not to escape from, but to get into reality. They want to have control over their lives and do what bigger people do. They don’t think about adult fantasies (e.g., Superman) until later in life.
Seymour Papert – anything is easy to learn if we can assimilate it to our collection of models. Children do this by connecting new experiences and ideas with ones they already have. Esp via fantasy.
“There was feeling, love in my relationships with gears.”
Not all fantasies lead to a concrete pay off/adult passion. But they may simply keep alive a feeling that the world is fascinating and beautiful.
Many people don’t have a connection between fantasies and childhood passions and adult lives.
How are explanations not useful in teaching?
We think we can take a picture, structure, model, and turn it into an explanation of words, transmit it into the mind of someone else. Maybe only if explanation is extraordinarily good and listener is extraordinarily skillful at turning words into nonverbal reality. Mostly though, no.
The only way children can learn to get meaning out of symbols (taking others’ reality) is by learning first to turn their own reality into symbols. Begin with what children see, do, know, and have them talk and write about things before trying to talk to them about things they don’t know.
Picking up twigs, leaves, rocks. Little children love the world. This is why they are so good at learning. For it’s love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of learning. Can we bring ourselves to let children learn and grow through that love?