Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Review: How Children Learn (Part I)

A couple of weeks ago (I'm a little behind in my book reviews) I read How Children Learn, another book by John Holt. I really liked this one, more so than Instead of Education. There's a lot to say about this book, today I'll focus on Holt's ideas about what adults do that helps, or hinders, children's learning.

Firstly, attitude: "It is only in the presence of loving, respectful, trusting adults ... that children will learn all they are capable of learning. ... It is not so much a matter of technique as of spirit." (p. 21) The emphasis on respect for the child is also at the center of the Montessori approach, but I found Holt's observation that it's more a matter or spirit than technique rather a relief. I have more on Montessori coming up in another book review, but it seems to have a lot of rules.

Holt also had much to say about not pushing too hard, for instance
"How much people can learn at any moment depends on how they feel at that moment about the task and their ability to do the task [i.e. powerful and confident or discouraged and down]. Part of the art of teaching is being able to sense which of these moods the learner is in. People can go from one mood to the other very quickly. ... When people are down, it's useless to push them or urge them on, that just frightens and discourages them more. What we have to do is draw back, take off the pressure, reassure them, console them, give them time to regain - as in time they will - enough energy and courage to go back to the task." (p. 50-51)

He then related a story of a parent who tried to make his children learn to swim, but he only succeeded in frightening all three of them terribly.

On the topic of mistakes and corrections, Holt doesn't buy the "Bad Habit Theory of Learning" which says that "every time a child makes a mistake [...] we must instantly correct it, lest it freeze into a 'bad habit,' impossible to correct. The theory is simply untrue. Many of the things children learn [...] - to walk, talk, read, write, etc. - they learn by trying to do them, making mistakes, and then correcting the mistakes." (p. 107) And so it follows that "children do not need their speech corrected. They will come to correct it themselves as they are naturally exposed to correct speech." (p. 106) He also means here that if a child says something incorrectly (like "teached"), not to artificially work the correct form of the word (taught) into the next thing you say to them.

Also, it is a mistake to see "all children's mistakes as stupid and careless, instead of the logical results of a misunderstood question or an imperfectly designed theory." (p. 282) For instance, "teached" does make a lot more sense than taught, the child's theory of forming the past tense of verbs just doesn't include all of the exceptions yet. Holt recalled a story where a child who was learning to talk would purposely call things by the wrong names sometimes, just for fun. About it, he said, "This feeling, that when you know how to do something right it is often fun to do it wrong, is strong in children. Adults who meet it tend to discourage it. I think this is a mistake [...] It is not always necessary to be right." (p. 55) Lastly, and this doesn't just apply to speech corrections, "little children strongly dislike being given more help than they ask for." (p. 28)

Holt stresses the importance of listening to children: "When a baby shows us, by his expression, by the insistent tone of his voice, and by repeating his words over and over, that he is trying hard to tell us something, we must try just as hard to understand what he is saying." (p. 97) We do try already to do this with baby E, when it's clear that he wants to go up and touch something, if he looks like he wants help to sit up, because as Holt says, and as we intuitively felt ourselves, "There is no time in all of a child's growing up, when he will not be seriously hurt if he feels that we adults are not interested in what he is trying to say." (p. 114)

One of Holt's central tenants (that I think he discusses in more detail in How Children Fail which I haven't read yet) is that frequently quizzing kids after you tell them something to see if they have learned it does them no good. I'm not sure what his opinion would be about asking a child who is learning his colors "What color is this?", but say you explained to a little one how some complicated machine worked, he definitely wouldn't want you asking questions to make sure they understood it, especially because your explanation might have been more than they were looking for in the first place. With respect to the color question, perhaps it depends on the spirit in which it is asked.

In any case, he says, "every unasked for test is above all else a statement of no confidence in the learner." (p. 143) Finally, children "live in a perpetual uncertainty and wonder, and - unless adults are always asking them fool questions to test their knowledge - mostly thrive on it." (p. 286)

Click here for part II.

Here's a picture of little E with his laser-like focus working on picking up a potholder (that I made for Hubbo a long time ago!) from the kitchen table. We were trying to keep him busy while I finished eating that day.

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