Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “Learning All the Time” and “Instead of Education” by John Holt

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John Holt is a from-the-heart writer with a beautiful writing voice. His love of and respect for children is sweet to read, and his perspective on education is revolutionary. I also love the striking examples he uses.

Learning All the Time, Instead of Education and other books by Holt make the same basic argument: the educational system we’re used to is irreversibly flawed. Learning should be a self-guided process that is assisted by caring facilitators.

Read it because you want to homeschool your children, or because you want to remember what we love about learning.

Key Takeaways from Learning All the Time

  • Kids are all their own kinds of genius. Just give them a good, positive environment in which to learn and grow, and see what happens.
  • The best way to teach a child to read: don’t. Read to him, let him be exposed to books, give him books as gifts, until one day they ask to do the reading. Then read the book together, one word at a time.
  • “Anytime that, without being invited, without being asked, we try to teach somebody else something … we convey to that person, whether we know it or not, a double message. The first part of the message is: I am teaching you something important, but you’re not smart enough to see how important it is. Unless I teach it to you, you’d probably never bother to find out. The second message is: What I’m teaching you is so difficult that, if I didn’t teach it to you, you couldn’t learn it.”
  • The author’s first elementary school believed in lots of praise. The result: “By the time I came to know them in the fifth grade, all but a few of the children were so totally dependent on continued adult approval that they were terrified of not getting it, terrified of making mistakes.”
  • “Babies do not learn in order to please us, but because it’s their instinct and nature to want to find out about the world. If we praise them in everything they do, after a while they are going to start learning, doing things, just to please us … The next step is that they are going to become worried about not pleasing us …”
  • For learning times tables, make a 12 x 12 grid and let the child fill it in at her own pace, without correcting it. Keep it on the fridge, and have her do it over and over.
  • “What children want and need from us is thoughtful attention. They want us to notice them and pay some kind of attention to what they do, to take them seriously, to trust and respect them as human beings. They want courtesy and politeness, but they don’t need much praise.”

Key Takeaways from Instead of Education

  • We learn by doing. Period.
  • Carrots and sticks—rewards and punishments—don’t work.
  • Learning is not separate from life.
  • There are little-s schools and big-s Schools. Big-s Schools are pedantic, threatening, forceful and don’t offer choice. In little-s schools, all students are free at all times to do or not do, participate or not participate, leave or go. There are no attendance records, no tests, no grades. Teachers are not lecturers, but guides.
  • Summerhill was a makeshift school furnished with little more than beer crates. Most of what happened there during the day was simply conversation and reading. In the morning there was dancing and drums and other physical activity directed by the kids. The school keep attendance records but there was no punishment when someone didn’t come. Watching was considered an important activity, and teachers admitted what they didn’t know.
  • Once at Summerhill, Holt saw a new boy hit a girl. Though the girl was slightly hurt, she didn’t cry to the teacher. The other kids sympathized with her but did not reprimand the boy; instead, they felt sorry for him and acted as if they assumed that he would soon learn to behave better.
  • In another example, another new boy “. . . did one thing over and over again. He heated his nail red hot and stuck it into a piece of wood, which charred and smoked . . . I have never sensed more violence and anger in a child . . .” The teachers said nothing, allowing him to work through what he needed to work through. “Two years later, when I next visited the school, he was a peaceful, kind, happy child . . .”
  • Pay attention to the stories you tell about your kids and the labels you give them. Use “focused” instead of “stubborn.” This provides an example to others as well.
  • Parents who are able to stay calm do so because they understand the child’s unique struggles and reasons for behaving the way they do. They adjust their expectations accordingly and have compassion. Don’t get caught up in an adversarial relationship with your child that will be hard to change later on.
  • Sensory activities like cooking, bathing, gardening and holding stuffed animals help children learn and also help their brains develop.
  • Kids need physical exercise in order to process thoughts and feelings.
  • Humor also works well to calm a child or change their behavior.
  • When a child mistreats another child, allow the child space to calm down first. Then talk to the child about the behavior, especially the trigger for it. Ask them what they might do differently in the future. Then ask them to make amends. This process is very different from outright punishment.
  • When a child is upset, be present, offer touch, and give the child space. You can tell him, “I will not touch you, but I will stay near you until your body is calm.”

About the Author

John Holt (1923-1985) was an American educator and author, known for his work on education reform and his advocacy for homeschooling. He was a teacher himself for many years, and his experiences in the classroom led him to question the traditional approach to education. He believed that children learn best when they are allowed to explore and discover on their own, rather than being forced to follow a rigid curriculum. Holt’s writings, including “How Children Fail” and “How Children Learn,” had a profound impact on the educational system and inspired many parents and educators to rethink their approach to teaching. He also founded the Holt Associates, an organization dedicated to promoting homeschooling as an alternative to traditional schooling. Today, Holt is remembered as a pioneer in the field of alternative education, and his ideas continue to influence the way we think about teaching and learning.


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