Friday, 11 December 2009

John Holt

I have been re-reading John Holt's seminal work "How Children Fail" and have been struck as never before by what an insincere idiot the man is. Since almost the whole of the book is taken up with his own teaching methods and the anecdotes are all of how these techniques failed to help the children in his class, it might have been more honest had he called the book, "How I Failed Children"! Probably not as catchy a title though.

For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this book, it is a collection of folksy anecdotes from John Holts teaching days. He gives heart-warming examples of how his insight into the little darlings developed and the entire thing becomes one long and overblown case of arguing from the particular to the universal. One statement at the end of the book struck me as spectacularly foolish even by Holt's standards. he says, "We cannot possibly judge what knowledge will be needed forty, or twenty, or even ten years from now."

I truly cannot imagine anybody making such a statement and not realising as they did so that it was sheer nonsense. In ten, twenty or forty years time the knowledge of percentages and how to calculate them will still be needed, in order that people do not get exploited by unscrupulous shops and banks. Africa will still be pretty much where it is now and the people there will still be fighting over scarce resources, while those from more economically developed nations try and buy them cheaply for their own use. The Earth will still be revolving around the Sun and turning once on its axis every twenty four hours. A knowledge of history will still be vital if one hopes to understand the present. It will still be necessary to know of the Kinetic Theory of Matter if one wishes to make sense of the physical world.

I could go on indefinitely, but the point is made; we can easily set down a body of knowledge which would be of enormous use to a person in ten or twenty years time. It would not be complete and some details might alter, but the knowledge that was on offer in schools and colleges in 1999 or 1989 or even 1969 is still useful and relevant to us today. The fact that John Holt could make such a strange assertion makes me suspect that he is not particularly good guide to the world of childhood learning and that we should be a little cautious in taking what else he says at face value without delving a little deeper.

His challenges to orthodox thinking about childhood development are founded upon such flimsy evidence that it is simply breathtaking. Here he is, doubting what scientists have to say on the subject of small children's co-ordination; "My seventeen month old niece caught sight of my ball-point pen the other day, and reached out for it. It has a plastic cap that fits over the point. She took hold of it, and after some pushing and pulling, got the cap off. After looking it over, she put it back on. A good game! Now, if I want to be able to use my pen, I have to keep it out of sight, for when she sees it, she wants to play with it. She is so deft in putting it back on that it makes me wonder about all I've read about the lack of coordination in infants."

Isn't this great? He spends an afternoon with a toddler and this one incident makes him dream up a new theory of childhood development! I love it. This is no isolated example, the man seems to have spent his whole life watching trifling interactions like that between children and adults, children and their environment. No harm in that you might say, except that it caused him to create and market to the credulous and willing an entirely new and demonstrably false view of children. What is worse, there is a self aware worthiness about his writing which makes it plain that he knew, even as he was writing, that he was a wise and humane man struggling against the hidebound orthodoxy of the old and sterile theories which then held sway. Do not buy this book or give it as a Christmas present!


  1. I take it you don't like it then? lol I must say, I never managed to finish one of his books, although I started a few, as they do tend to blather on.

  2. "Blather on" is putting the case mildly! I have, in the interests of being fair to the man, read all his books. They are all much of a muchness, although he becomes even more self-important as the years go by. He clearly saw himself as some homespun philosopher in the tradition of Emerson or Walt Whitman. One can imagine him sitting out side a log cabin, whittling a hickory stick or something, while the young folks gather at his knees to hear his wise old saws. Not my taste at all!

  3. I really enjoyed 'How Children Learn' - it's what got me interested in home education.

    I know it's mainly based on individual observations but isn't that what HE's all about, observing the samll details of your own children and basing the learning on what they might enjoy.

  4. Certainly there's "a body of knowledge which would be of enormous use to a person in ten or twenty years time" and it's defining feature is that its usefulness is self-evident.

    History is not in that category.

    If you'd like history added, who would presume to decide what history is "useful" and what isn't? You? Politicians? The media?

    I don't know what history they teach in British schools these days, but when I was at school in London in the 1950s and 60s, history was all about the evolution of the British Empire. How Britannia came to be ruling the waves was everything (ruling only tenuously by then, but that of course was why the history was so important). Perhaps many of Britain's great minds at that time thought it would still be crucial knowledge to have in the new millennium. And is it? Of course not. It's a hobby subject. It's the kind of thing you look up on Wikipedia if you're curious about something you've seen on TV.

    Knowing how to obtain knowledge is what's vital. Always has been, always will be.

    I don't know if that's what John Holt was on about. I read 'How Children Fail', and 'How Children Learn', in 1970. Too long ago for me to remember and personally I'm not interested in re-reading them.

    I'd probably prefer Goodbye Mr. Chips. Great ideas there about education in 2010.


  5. A problem with education in recent years is that it there has been too much emphasis on the ephemeral and not enough on fundamentals. So now we see nursery and infant classes where there are boxes to be ticked if the child can operate a remote control for a video recorder (already yesterday's technology) and for "mouse skills", i.e., drawing a picture with a mouse, something for which any sensible person would use a graphics tablet or, better still for small children, pencil, or crayon, and paper.

    I suspect that the root cause of this is inadequacy in many of those who set and teach current standards, driven by political masters always looking for a "highly skilled" workforce to help reduce the national debt. Unfortunately, given that the great majority of these people have no clue about the processes in the economy that generate wealth for the nation (and that knowledge declines even further among the politicians), we're left with an education system in a parlous state.

    I haven't read Holt but my own observation is that children learn a lot by experimentation - they are natural born scientists - but the state school system does a good deal to suppress this to the point where the system perpetuates inadequacy and we end-up with a useless bag of lard in the form of Ed Balls running the show and a technology-obsessed ignoramus - Graham Badman - trying to impose all their wonderful modern ideas on those who wish to do better.

    Incidentally, science moves on and Holt was probably right about coordination; it's been known for about twenty years that ocular-motor skills are developed much earlier than previously thought, with eye control appearing at a few weeks after birth and eye-hand coordination being well-developed by the age Holt mentions, although further fine control and precision continue to develop (or not for some of us when trying to use a bat or raquet) over many years.

    @Bob Collier:

    I agree with you to some extent about history, but I'd add that it's one place where we can look for a big sample of human behaviour to analyse, (particularly in the case of powerful humans) and there are lessons we can learn.

    By the '70s my O-level history was fairly narrow, with a big emphasis on the reform acts of the 19th century, although it helped to show where some of our current freedom comes from. I wonder if future history classes will cover the ways in which freedom is being undermined now.

    My personal experience is that children are interested in understanding their place in space and time, and so history - as well as geography - can fit in with that, although this is sometimes extended to the entirety of astronomy and cosmology. Most of my knowledge of British monarchs has come from educating and learning at home.

    The current Cambridge O-level syllabus (aimed at a much wider world audience) looks as though it has interesting coverage of 20th century events across the world. Probably much more useful for understanding the world from a broader perspective.

  6. @Anonymous

    A greater appreciation of world history seems to also be gradually creeping into Australian schools, as it should be really in these multicultural times.

    I agree that there are lessons to be learned from history and it is indeed a fascinating subject, but I would nonetheless not include any of it in my own time capsule of indispensible knowledge.

    For me, history is the epitome of a subject that is best learned according to the curiosity of the individual.

  7. Hi Si

    still sprouting your crap then!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. As Bob Collier says, knowing how to obtain knowledge is what's vital.

    Simon, who do you consider to be good guides to childhood learning and development? What books do you recommend?

  9. where are you Si, got fed up sprouting your rubbish,

  10. Erica, I don't believe any one person has all the answers on childhood development, but my personal choices would be as follows. For a broad view of the topic, "Children's Minds" by Margaret Donaldson. On the acquisition of literacy, it would have to be, "The Psychology and Teaching of Reading" by Fred Schonell. First published in 1945, but as fresh and relevant as ever!