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reading learning all the time by john holt

Chris picked this book up the other day. As usual, I’ll post when I’ve gotten into it (or finished it) and when I have some time. For now though, this quote of Holt’s from the editor’s foreword caught my eye.

Learning, to me, means making more sense of the world around us, and being able to do more things in it. Success in school means remembering the answers to teachers’ questions they will ask, getting clever about guessing what questions they will ask, and about how to fool them when you don’t know the answers.

Update: 10/27/2008
Ok, I finished this little book and found it both useful and inspiring. Holt offers specific strategies for working with kids in areas of reading, writing, math, science, and music; however, what I found most compelling was his refrain throughout the book that children learn best when they are not being taught. Actually, no, he goes further than this with his assertion. He says that active teaching of children (even by the best intentioned) can impede learning. This may sound like an overstatement, but I witnessed it myself as I was reading the book and working with my son Aidan.

One morning, I took it upon myself to begin working with some beads at the kitchen table–moving them around in different stacks to see how 10 beads could be represented physically in a variety of different ways (a set of three and a set of seven, two sets of five, five sets of two, and so on). I was playing with the nature of numbers using these manipulatives–the beads–to see how many different ways I could mix and match the same set of ten. I was working independently while Aidan was doing something else–until he noticed me and asked what I was up to. I explained that I was just figuring some stuff out. He became intrigued and wanted to see and hear more of what I was doing. So, I showed him. It was going swimmingly for a good 15 minutes until I began to ask him questions about the arrangements of beads and different possibilities. This is when he stopped. He looked at me suspiciously across the kitchen table, paused, and then stormed out of the room in huff yelling, “Mom, Dad’s trying to teach me something!” He was angry, and, according to John Holt, for reasons that make perfect sense.

Learning is as natural as breathing. But if you think about breathing too much, you may find yourself short of breath.

Holt writes about the perils of uninvited teaching, saying that when we seize the moment to “teach” kids (or anyone really) something, we convey a double message. The first message, according to Holt, is “I am teaching you something important, but you’re not smart enough to see how important it is. Unless I teach it to you, you’d probably never bother to find out” (129). The second message is not much better. It goes something like this: “What I’m teaching you is so difficult that, if I didn’t teach it to you, you couldn’t learn it” (129). These are messages of both distrust and contempt and they are very clearly understood by children (129). I witnessed this first hand with Aidan, and since coming to think of it in these terms, I see it all the time. I know immediately when I cross the line with Aidan, and as I see myself doing it, I regret my misstep. I also see evidence of the long-term effects of this double message of teaching in the college students that I work with. By and large, there is a systemic resentment of teachers and an institutional process that sends messages of contempt and distrust for 12 plus years of their young lives. I really am starting to get this now.

Given the perils of heavy-handed teaching (which all “teaching” is in its traditional incarnation), what can we do not to teach but to help our kids learn? Holt offers suggestions that make good sense if you have faith in the idea that learning is as natural as breathing. He reminds us, “Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. We know what these are. They include time, leisure, freedom, and lack of pressure” (100). The best we can to help our children with their learning is to provide them with “access: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go–cities, countries, streets, buildings. We can also make available tools, books, records, toys, and other resources” (127). We can answer the questions our kids ask us, but must resist the temptation to seize every question as a teachable moment–in which to lecture at length. If children want to know more, they will ask. It’s the most natural thing for them to do, as long as it is invited and encouraged.

Self-directed learning is the deepest learning. The best learning is rooted in reality. The college students I teach (and many students I have known in my life) reference this thing called “the real world” all the time. “When are we going to need this in the real world,” we say. I am starting to see the wisdom of such a statement that has previously seemed like the complaint of a lazy mind. Children want nothing more than to make sense of the real world (and not the artificial and abstracted world of school). Holt states this well.

To make an abstraction out of some part of reality we must take some meaning out of it…. Children resist this continual abstracting because their chief business in life is finding and making meaning, putting meaning into a world that must at first seem wholly meaningless to them. It is not a weakness on their part but a strength. (104)

So, on our regular long drives to our real world adventures about town, I will find some comfort in Aidan’s incessant questioning about literally everything, his ongoing chatter, his moments of silence as he thinks to himself (and ignores us), his assumptions that we are right there with him as he connects stray details from literally months prior with something he just now observed. All of this, I understand, is his making sense of the world around him in a way that is very real, deep and lasting, and in a way that demonstrates he is, indeed, learning all the time.

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