Book Review: Learning All the Time

Finally:  An educator who truly loves children.  John Holt was one of the original modern-day homeschooling standard-bearers.  At the beginning of his career in the 1950s, he taught in selective private schools, but as he learned more and more about how children actually learn, he began trying to refashion schools to better meet kids’ needs.  Eventually, he decided that schools were un-reformable, especially because the “compulsory” in “compulsory schooling” made any real change impossible.  So he became one of the first experts to recommend that children leave school completely, and in fact, the word he coined—unschooling—initially meant simply keeping your kids out of school.  Holt was in the process of writing Learning All the Time when he died in 1985. His editors finished the book with the help of his notes and some magazine articles he had written previously. I love the title! The phrase "learning all the time" epitomizes Holt's writing and theories.  Holt’s central point is determining how people actually acquire knowledge and the real meaning of “education,” NOT on how to get kids to do what we adults want them to do.

Learning All the Time isn’t my absolute favorite of Holt's books, but it’s a nice introduction for new homeschoolers, and it’s also full of inspiration for parents who admire his ideas but feel nervous about taking a leap into "unschooling."  How Children Fail, How Children Learn, Teach Your Own, and especially the powerful Escape From Childhood explain Holt's evolution of ideas more clearly if you want to learn more about his educational methods.

Learning All the Time focuses on young children. Chapter topics include reading and writing, numbers, children's natural research methods, music, parental example, and helping children explore. As in his other books, Holt includes lots of personal stories and examples from children he knows. These stories help to model his ideas so we can see what they look like in practice.

John Holt never had children of his own. Some parents use this fact as a reason (or an excuse?) to dismiss his ideas as impractical. I feel exactly the opposite way. Holt actually had a clearer perspective on children because he saw them from "the outside."  His outside perspective on his friends' children and his nieces and nephews was clearer and less tainted than if those children went home with him every night. Even though many of the children in his stories were his friends, he didn't have any stake in rationalizing or defending his own behavior towards them as a parent would.

He had a sharp eye for his own, and others', hypocrisy. And he was never afraid to learn from his mistakes. You've got to love his openness and vulnerability, even if it makes you question some of the habits you might have developed.  Personally, I appreciated the questions he raised.  They led me into firmer commitments to positive things:  to homeschooling itself, to meeting children’s true needs, and to learning for myself instead of just accepting what other educators said.

As an example of Holt's willingness to question established parenting and teaching habits, one of my favorite sections in this book is in the chapter called, "What Parents Can Do." Holt gives seven reasons why parents should NOT correct all their children's mistakes.  (I know this idea will probably be a shock to anyone who isn’t already familiar with Holt, but hold on a minute and see if any of his reasons ring true to you):

1. Correcting is rude.

2. Correcting does not recognize the child's intellectual accomplishments.

3. Correcting does not help a child learn better.

4. It is "better for a child to figure out something on his own than to be told." (He gives specific reasons why this is so.)

5. Correcting hurts people's feelings.

6. Children learn better when they aren't "worrying about learning."

7. Children do not want to be always told what to do.

See what I mean? Holt's ideas of how to treat children seem radical because they are so different from our culture's ideas of how to treat children. Yet when you read his writing, like this section on not correcting children, you have to admit that he's right. Correcting people is rude, we all learn faster when we are safe emotionally, and none of us like to be told what to do all the time.  But is there any other way to teach children?? This was, after all, the way most of us adults were taught, both at home and at school.

So just keep reading the book, because Holt showed better ways to facilitate kids’ learning that aren’t manipulative or rude.  He showed how to develop a learning environment, how to foster kids’ (and your own) curiosity, and how to smooth the way for creativity to flourish.

Not to be overly-dramatic, but for me, John Holt was one of those important people with beautiful feet “that bringeth good tidings” and “publisheth peace.”  He questioned the status quo of “making” kids perform certain tasks and looked for better teaching methods; by doing so, he transformed me, my kids, my family, my homeschool, and even helped me recognize ways the Lord teaches me.  He prompted me to freshly consider and open myself up to ways of teaching and learning that unlocked a new—and better--world.  For me, reading my first book by Holt was a partitioning time for my educational life:  before I met John Holt, and after I met John Holt.  He’s really that good!

As he said, “We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions—if they have any—and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

If you haven't yet read as many of his books as you can possibly get hold of, please do it. Put on your shoes and head to the library!  John Holt will change your life and your relationship with your kids in so many happy ways. Even if you don’t become a rabid unschooler, just exposing yourself to his unconventional attitude and incorporating a few of his ideas will change the way you view your kids and make your homeschooling more joyful and abundant.