Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: Instead of Education

I recently read Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, by John Holt. Holt wrote a number of books on education, mainly in the 60's and 70's. In Instead of Education, he discusses the difference between what he calls S-chools (capital S schools) and s-chools (little s schools). The S-chools are your typical elementary schools, high schools, etc. that fulfill a child's compulsory education requirement. He refers to these as "educator" S-chools, in contrast with "do-er" s-chools. This second category contains places where one may go voluntarily to do something, such as dancing, cooking, and language schools.

The book seemed to me to largely focus on the benefits of s-chools over S-chools. I think Holt's descriptions of the detriments of S-chools are examined more closely in some of his other books, perhaps in How Children Fail, that I haven't read yet. While I was reading Instead of Education, I tried to concentrate on the ideas related to how children, especially young children, learn (I'm sure there are many more of them in Holt's How Children Learn, which I already have checked out from the library). For instance, about a child's natural curiosity: "Children do not need to be made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want to, and they know how." (p. 7) I see this in E all of the time! He watches his world so intently, you can almost see the little wheels turning.

Holt also distinguishes t-eachers (generally found in s-chools) from T-eachers (found in S-chools), although it seems to me that parents could fall into either category, depending on their philosophy. I jotted down a few notes on some of the qualities of the former. "The most valuable and indeed essential asset the student brings to any learning task is a willingness to adventure, to take risks. Without that, he can't learn anything. The teacher must not kill this spirit, but honor and strengthen it." (p. 71) S-chools, he believes, kill this spirit in many children. Also, "We must be careful not to use every do-er's question as an excuse to turn life into S-chool, to T-each a lesson, and then give a little quiz to make sure the lesson was learned." (p. 86) The part about not always giving a little quiz caught my attention, I can see how giving one would be tempting. Holt prefers to let the asker be responsible for comprehending the answer and asking additional questions if necessary, not the answerer.

Some ideas about letting kids be. As long as they're not dangerous, don't prevent the child from doing tasks that you consider too hard but that he wants to do. Only when he is getting frustrated should you suggest an easier, more doable task. I can also see how keeping him from doing "hard" things would be tempting too, it's something I'll have to be consciously aware of. In order to encourage the child to take such risks, Holt imagines the "watchful but not anxious parent saying to the small child, 'Don't worry, you are free to explore and try things out, because I won't let you get into serious trouble.'" (p. 78) (emphasis added)

Holt is also a big supporter of the importance of letting children watch what's going on around them without being interrupted - he quotes from The Self-Respecting Child: "Watching is an important activity; the child's need to watch should be respected and he should not be distracted from his absorption in watching the others, or 'stimulated.' ... Some children ... like to see others do things before they try to do them themselves; they like to ponder and consider what they will do before they do it." (p. 128, emphasis Holt's) One reason he gives that supports this idea is "... children move into the world by great leaps here and there, spasms of exploration and activity mixed with long periods of reflection." (p. 102) Those periods of reflection, i.e. the thinking and the watching, are what enables the occassional "great leaps." I also see this keen watching in E. He's sometimes really interested in watching what Hubbo and I or doing, like eating or folding laundry. It really looks like he's studying our movements so that he'll be able to replicate them some day.

Finally, Holt explains that S-chools can install in children a belief in the "Divine Right of Experts" which they carry with them for the rest of their lives. He explains that through the attitudes of S-chools, "... we naturally learn to believe that all through life, in any situation, there must be experts somewhere who know better than we do what is best for us and what we should do next." (p. 174) I suffer from this belief sometimes, being aware of it is the first step to getting over it though!

All in all, I'm glad I read this book, although some of it was a bit pie-in-the-sky hippy-ish to me. I'm looking forward to reading Holt's other books.

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