New Research Supports John Holt's Views About Learning

One of the core ideas of John Holt’s approach to education is that children are good at learning. John asserted in the early sixties, often and clearly, that children are natural learners and that adult interference in their attempts to learn, often through uninvited teaching, inhibits children’s learning. This idea continues to be met with skepticism as most adults believe not much is going on with babies and young children; they are considered to be silly giggle machines incapable of clear, deep thought. Indeed, I must admit my dismay as I read more and more from both homeschoolers and schoolteachers that they worry how children aren’t ready for kindergarten or that they must formally teach children how to talk and walk. Why is it that the more educated we become as a society, the less we trust our innate abilities to learn? Further, with so much emphasis being placed on getting children “ready for school” at ever-younger ages—preschool playgroup consultants could become a new market—I applaud every parent who decides to let their children play instead being plugged into an early enrichment program.

An article in The NY Times (Aug. 16, 2009) about current research done on how babies learn confirms what John wrote nearly fifty years ago and should give heart to parents and teachers who want to help children learn in their own ways.

Alison Gopnick, a professor of psychology at Berkeley and the author of The Philosophical Baby, writes, “The philosopher John Locke saw a baby’s mind as a blank slate, and the psychologist William James thought they lived in a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” Even today, a cursory look at babies and young children leads many to conclude that there is not much going on.

New studies, however, demonstrate that babies and very young children know, observe, explore, imagine and learn more than we would ever have thought possible. In some ways, they are smarter than adults.”

Gopnick cites her own and others’ research that demonstrate that babies and children up to five years old have “capacities for statistical reasoning, experimental discovery and probabilistic logic [that] allow babies to rapidly learn all about the particular objects and people surrounding them. Sadly, some parents are likely to take the wrong lessons from these experiments and conclude that they need programs and products that will make their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults, should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards to get them to recognize the alphabet.”

The important thing Gopnick points out, as Holt did, is that babies and young children learn best from the people, places, and things that surround them, not from formal lessons. She writes, “The learning that babies and young children do on their own, when they carefully watch an unexpected outcome and draw new conclusions from it, ceaselessly manipulate a new toy or imagine different ways that the world might be, is very different from schoolwork. Babies and young children can learn about the world around them through all sorts of real-world objects and safe replicas, from dolls to cardboard boxes to mixing bowls, and even toy cell phones and computers. Babies can learn a great deal just by exploring the ways bowls fit together or by imitating a parent talking on the phone. (Imagine how much money we can save on “enriching” toys and DVDs!)

But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.”

A very important aspect of this research is that preschool-age children have developing, flexible brains that can’t focus on just one thing to the exclusion of all else around them—the opposite of what school expects from kids—and that this openness and curiosity are what feed their brains. Gopnick writes, “Adults focus on objects that will be most useful to them. But… children play with the objects that will teach them the most. In our study, 4-year-olds imagined new possibilities based on just a little data. Adults rely more on what they already know. Babies aren’t trying to learn one particular skill or set of facts; instead, they are drawn to anything new, unexpected or informative. …Focus and planning get you to your goal more quickly but may also lock in what you already know, closing you off to alternative possibilities. We need both blue-sky speculation and hard-nosed planning. Babies and young children are designed to explore, and they should be encouraged to do so.”

It is refreshing to know that even more research backs up the idea of giving children free-range in thought and action, though it seems this information never gets a fair hearing in schools or politics since we keep making policies in those areas that lock and track children into specific learning at younger and younger ages. Research and theories that confirm the “babies are smart” idea existed before John wrote of course, but, like Holt’s ideas, they never get serious attention from educators. One of John’s favorites was a wonderful book by Millicent Shinn, The Biography of a Baby, written in 1900.

If you’re interested in reading Holt’s perspective on this issue, I suggest reading the chapter “Learning Without Teaching” in Teach Your Own, and John’s books How Children Learn and Learning All the Time. In fact, John wrote Learning All the Time, his last book, to be, in his own words, “a demonstration that children, without being coerced or manipulated, or being put in exotic, specially prepared environments, or having their thinking planned and ordered for them, can, will, and do pick up from the world around them important information about what we call the Basics.”