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  Home  > Child/Family Wellness  > Myth: Schools Are the Best Places for Children to Learn

Myth: Schools Are the Best Places for Children to Learn

Children learn from anything and everything they see. They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places. They learn much more from things, natural or made, that are real and significant in the world in their own right and not just made in order to help children learn; in other words, they are more interested in the objects and tools we use in our regular lives than in almost any special learning materials made for them.

We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions--if they have any--and helping them explore the things they are most interested in. The ways we can do this are simple and easily understood by (those) who like children and will take the trouble to pay some attention to what they so and think about what it may mean. —John Holt

John Holt (1923-1985), the recognized father of the home schooling movement, spent many years at the forefront of the school reform movement, talking, writing, and working for more freedom, choice, and innovation in education.

In his first book, How Children Fail, he shared his experience teaching a fifth-grade class of supposedly bright and privileged children at a prestigious school, while at the same time spending a lot of time with the babies and very young children of relatives and friends. He was struck by the contrast between the very young children and the children in his school class. The very young children were filled with energy, enthusiasm, and learning strategies. The ten-year-olds in his class were frightened, timid, and evasive. He began to suspect this had something to do with school itself.

Holt saw that the very young children he was around were observing, thinking, speculating, theorizing, testing, and experimenting all the time--and that they were much better at it than we are. He reasoned that, given children are by nature and from birth very curious about the world around them, and very energetic, resourceful and competent in exploring it and mastering it, why not make schools places in which children are allowed, encouraged and (if and when requested) helped to explore and make sense of the world about them in ways that most interest them.

Many educators, parents, and members of the public seemed interested, even enthusiastic about making schools into places where children would be independent and self-directing learners. It seemed to Holt and his allies that significant changes were imminent, but by the early seventies it was apparent that the movement for school reform was a fad and illusion. Few people were willing to give more freedom and self-direction to children, and of those who did, most saw it as a "motivational device" rather than a serious way of living and working with children.

The schools were continuing to do what they had always done and what he realized most people wanted: Teach Children about Reality; Teach Them that Life Is No Picnic; Teach Them to Shut Up and Do What They're Told. This was not, he reasoned, borne of pure meanness but the result of a strong work ethic that concludes anyone without a full-time job is a bum. Parents don't want their kids to be bums: They want their kids to be able to work.

Holt began to consider the possibility that schools were not a requirement, or even the best place for learning. Experiences with groups of people starting their own alternative schools in the late sixties and seventies, led to his deciding that the work required--meetings, raising money, red tape, buildings, inspectors--wasn't worth it. It was easier to teach the kids at home. Finding that what these families needed was support and ideas from other parents, and in order to develop his own ideas, he began the magazine Growing Without Schooling, in which parents share experiences teaching their children at home. It continued to be published another 16 years after his death in 1985.

It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. —Albert Einstein

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