Young Children as Research Scientists

In John Holt’s Learning All the Time (see Books on this site for more information about it) there is a chapter called Young Children as Research Scientists. Holt writes:

The process by which children turn experience into knowledge is exactly the same, point for point, as the process by which those whom we call scientists make scientific knowledge. Children observe, they wonder, they speculate, and they ask themselves questions. They think up possible answers, they make theories, they hypothesize, and then they test theories by asking questions or by further observations or experiments or reading. Then they modify the theories as needed, or reject them, and the process continues. This is what in “grown-up” life is called the—capital S, capital M, Scientific Method. It is precisely what these little guys start doing as soon as they are born.

If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, we disturb it. If we continue this long enough, the process stops. The independent scientist in the child disappears.


Holt’s observations led to his practice as a teacher of letting children be active learners, of providing access and time to let children’s learning unfold, rather than managing and instructing them on a fixed schedule based on adult’s needs and desires about children and learning. The metaphor of a child as a vessel to be filled with knowledge by a teacher is powerful and supported by even more powerful institutions and politicians, despite our personal experiences to the contrary. This is not a knock against teachers—we need all sorts of teachers at various times in our lives—it is to say we just don’t need compulsory, womb-to-tomb teaching.

We are led to believe that whatever we can learn on our own is never as good as what we must learn in school from teachers: form trumps content, the process is more important than the product. Of course, Holt, myself, and many others have cited much research that exists to counter this perception, but since this evidence leads to the conclusion that people can be trusted to learn on their own it disrupts too many elements of modern society that rely on compulsory attendance to maintain the status quo.

Nonetheless, here is some current research that clearly supports John Holt’s ideas about how children learn. It is maddening to see these concepts presented as “new theoretical ideas and empirical research”; perhaps it is true about the research, but these ideas have been presented and acted upon by homeschoolers, unschoolers, and some alternative schools for decades.

Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications, Science 28, September 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6102 pp. 1623-1627

By Alison Gopnik

ABSTRACT: New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science. Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways. These discoveries have implications for early childhood education and policy. In particular, they suggest both that early childhood experience is extremely important and that the trend toward more structured and academic early childhood programs is misguided.