How children learn.
John Holt Was our favourite writer in the 70s.
If you can find any of his books (‘How Children Learn’ 1967 and ‘How Children Fail) they are well worth a read. They are even more relevant in our standardized ‘education’ environment.
Holt wrote his ideas after observing how children are born to learn and how this natural desire to make sense can either be encouraged or ‘turned off’ by interactions with the adults in their lives. Learning, he believes, depends on trusting and respectful relationships.
In ‘How Children Learn’ Holt talks about a natural way of learning based on each childs innate sense of curiosity and desire to make senses out of their experiences. The emphasis is on ‘their’ experiences.
Natural learners, writes Holt, want to gain personal competence and are open to new experience, observe carefully, learn through all their senses taking everything in, unconcerned about making mistakes. When involved they are patient, happy to tolerate uncertainty and confusion until sensible patterns (for them) emerge. They decide for themselves what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, how well it has been done and what to do next. Young children soon become experts in their fields of interests.
School he says does not give much time for this kind of exploratory learning but it could. Too often, quoting Jimmy Durante, Holt says at school 'everybody wants to get into the act' and in the process the child’s voice and point of view is overwhelmed. Children still continue to learn but, as Holt has written elsewhere, they learn to be stupid and many fail.
When children want to know they will learn and what they learn they will remember. And what they love doing they will do well with total concentration and in the process developing a sense of craftsmanship and pride in their work.
Trying to record what it is each learner knows, Holt believes, is futile particularly if the teacher is assessing material of little interest to the learner. The human mind, he says, is a mystery and we must give up this delusion that we can know, measure, and control what goes on in children’s minds. Knowing what is in your own mind, he says, is difficult enough!
In reply to the query about how can we tell what the children are learning Holt believes the answer is simple. We can’t tell. We can’t be sure.
Learning at heart rests on belief. Holt concludes his book:
'Call it faith. This faith is man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly, fish swim; man thinks and learns. Therefore we do not need to motivate children into learning…..What we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and the classroom; give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.’
Perhaps the current 20% failing ‘achievement tail’ (focused narrowly on literacy and numeracy rather than ‘learnacy’) is more a reflection of failing schools and policies than failing students?