How Children Learn

How Children Learn by John Holt

Children have a style of learning that fits their condition, which they use naturally and well until we train them out of them.  We like to say that we send children to school to teach them to think.  What we do, all too often, is to teach them to think badly, to give up a natural and powerful way of thinking in favor of a method that does not work well for them and that we rarely use ourselves.

When we constantly ask children questions to find out whether they know something (or prove to ourselves that they don’t), we almost always cut short the slow process by which, testing their hunches against experience, they turn them into secure knowledge.  Asking children questions about things they are only just beginning to learn is like sitting in a chair which only just been glued.  The structure collapses.  Under pressure, children stop trying to confirm and strengthen their hunches.  Instead, they just give them up.  More times than I can remember, I have heard children being tested say of their hunches, “This must be wrong,” or “I know it’s wrong.”  Asking probing questions, they usually say, “I don’t know.”  But in the privacy of their minds they give up that newborn hunch.  In its place they have only the adult expert’s answer to his own question, a very bad substitute.

Left alone, not hurried, not pressured, not made anxious, she was able to find and correct most of them herself.  It was most interesting to note how she did this.  When she made a mistake, she rarely noticed it, at first.  But as she read on, I could feel growing in her an uneasy sense that something had gone wrong, that something she had said didn’t make sense, didn’t fit with other things she was saying.

One of the most important things teachers can do for any learner is to make the learner less and less dependent on them.  We need to give students ways to find out for themselves whether what they have done is correct and makes sense.