Learning All the Time by John Holt

I recently finished reading Learning All the Time, a collection of essays by John Holt. The book is subtitled, “How small children begin to read, write, count, and investigate the world, without being taught.” John Holt was a prominent writer on education in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. He sees children as naturally inclined, self-driven learners, if only we’d foster their exploration instead of trying to take control over it.

He feels children are “passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of the world around them, are extremely good at it, and do it as scientists do, by creating knowledge out of experience. Children observe, wonder, find, or make and then test the answers to questions they ask themselves. When they are not actually prevented from doing these things, they continue to do them and to get better and better at it” (152). According to Holt, we ought to constantly remember that instead of receiving knowledge, children create knowledge. Like scientists, they observe, hypothesize, test, and re-hypothesize as they build their mental model of the world.

Small children have the amazing ability to learn how to interpret and use language. How do they do this? It’s not by sitting in a classroom while someone ‘teaches’ them how to use language. Instead, they learn language by being immersed in its use. One learns language by absorbing it for a while, eventually trying to speak, adjusting oneself until one succeeds, then cycling through the process again and again. People around the baby use language, and the baby picks up on it. Holt asks why we approach reading, writing, or arithmetic any differently.

Children start speaking because they have something to say. They should write because they have something they want to get down on paper, just like they see adults doing. They should read because they want to know what those voices on the page are saying, what stories they tell. They should learn math by taking part in those everyday things that require addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The focus should shift from ‘future preparedness’ in the classroom to present needs or interests in the real world.

Holt puts it simply: “The trouble with any kind of external motivation, whether it be negative (threats of punishments or scoldings) or positive (gold stars, M&M’s, grades, Ph.D.’s, or Phi Beta Kappa keys), is that it displaces or submerges internal motivation” (140). According to Holt, and I agree, internal motivation is the key to meaningful learning and to a meaningful education. Is this not self-evident?

Holt believes, as radical as this sounds to many, that children should learn what they want to and in the ways they want to. This greater educational freedom is in the exact opposite direction that most educational institutions are heading toward today. In our obsession with the teaching and testing of prescribed “college and career ready standards,” and with our constant need to use external motivation toward that end, we are failing to foster the development of students’ intellectual and even emotional freedom. I am (and I hope you are too) coming to recognize the choice of what one wants to learn about as the right of every young person.

It’s frustrating that Holt’s insights, collected in this book in 1989 and as true-to-life as they are, are still largely ignored by mainstream education. Why does educational change happen at such a slow pace? Why does it continually fail to provide meaningful learning to so many young people? What can we do to make positive change in our education system?

Three Goals

As I set out on my journey into alternative education in the US, I’ve identified three important goals to focus on:

  • The overarching goal for this project is to gain a better understanding of alternative educational practices being used today. I want to know what people are doing to educate against the grain, how (and whether) their approaches work, and the aims behind those approaches.
  • The second goal is to understand how educators, parents, and communities foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I believe that intrinsic motivation is the key to a meaningful education, and that it is sorely lacking in many traditional school settings. It’s easy to observe intrinsic motivation in a young child at play. How can intrinsic motivation be continued into the later years?
  • The third goal is to find out peoples’ notions of the “ultimate purpose” of education, and to see how those notions affect students, parents, teachers, and schools. Is it even necessary to have a clear notion of an “ultimate purpose” in order to be effective?

Thank you for joining me at the beginning of what I hope will be an exciting and fruitful project.

Yours Truly,

Michael Goldberg