Learning All the Time by John Holt

Feb 22, 2013

At my last education group meeting, we discussed which education text we should read next. Since we had just finished A Thomas Jefferson Education, some wanted to read Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning, which is also by Oliver DeMille and details the hands-on application of A Thomas Jefferson Education. Some wanted to leave DeMille for a time in favor of Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind. Still others thought we should read something by John Holt, the father of "unschooling."

I, personally, had no opinion. But I guess it's obvious from the title of this post (and the large picture to the left) that we went with John Holt.

Oh boy. Turns out that during the reading of this book, that "no opinion" I just mentioned turned into a mammoth-sized one.

But first, here is a very calm, unbiased, monotonous synopsis of the book: John Holt was an educator. He taught in the public school system for many years, all the time gathering research and evidence for how children learn while at the same time growing more and more dissatisfied with the way children were being forced to take in information in a cut-and-dry, conveyor-belt-type way. Holt left professional teaching and began speaking, mentoring, advising, and writing books on the natural way to educate children. Learning All the Time was published in 1989, four years after his death, and in many ways, it seems like he took thoughts and ideas from all of his other books and connected them together to create this one. In it, he discusses how children, from very young on up, are "natural learners." They are able to gather information and piece it together and explore and discover new ideas with little to no help from adults. Holt says that usually parents and teachers merely get in the way and hinder this natural process of learning.

I think it is only fair to be completely honest from the beginning: I did not like this book. I found much to agree with and implement, and I was enlightened by the parts I disagreed with, but I repeat: I did not like this book. John Holt's style was rude, mocking, bitter, and condescending, and I could not abide it.

When I read A Thomas Jefferson Education, I could appreciate Oliver DeMille's criticisms of the current model for public education. He wrote in a respectful, intelligent way and allowed that, while somewhat improbable, there was hope for change and improvement in the area of public education. John Holt, on the other hand, mercilessly bashed public schools (and teachers), and as I'm writing this, I'm racking my brain, trying to remember if he said one positive thing in that direction. I honestly don't recall any.

So when I say I did not like this book, I'm literally referring to the words on the printed page and the writing style and not to the overall ideas and principles.

For instance, John Holt often used a mocking tone when describing education methods in public schools. The first chapter was about reading and writing, which immediately had me on the defensive. Holt strongly discourages sitting down with your child and teaching them sounds and letter combinations, and you might remember that last year, I taught Aaron how to read by...um...sitting down with him and teaching him sounds and letter combinations. But personal offense aside, it was the way he said things that really put me on edge. At one point, he quoted the rule, "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" and then followed that with, "Typical of the cutesy-wootsy way in which schools talk to young children." Later in the same paragraph he said that many  thoughtful and intelligent children might be confused by "this dumb sentence on the wall." I felt like many times, instead of making a well-founded argument, he just fell to mocking statements such as these.

In a similar vein, when he wasn't mocking the school system, he was sensationalizing it. That is the only word I can think of to describe his broad, overarching, and sometimes terrifying and ludicrous statements. For example, at one point he talked about how children often feel threatened in school: they are worried that if they "fail to accomplish [something], [they] stand a good risk of being shamed or even physically beaten" (my emphasis).To me, the only reason to bring up physical beatings is to sensationalize the corruption and wickedness of public education. It seems he was trying to appeal to that mother bear instinct: to think of a child being beaten because he didn't accomplish something immediately sends up a wave of anger and indignation. (I, on the other hand, merely laughed, read the passage aloud to Mike, and read the rest of the book with a wary eye for other similar statements.)

I also felt like he spent a great deal of the book contradicting himself. He was very adamant that children shouldn't be forced to learn and should be allowed to discover the world and draw their own conclusions at their own pace. He suggested having reading material freely available to children so that they could peruse it as they chose. His list of approved reading material included "the large-print edition of the New York Times," "road maps, ticket stubs, copies of letters, political posters, bills, various kinds of official forms, copies of bank statements, copies of instruction manuals from various machines, copies of contracts, warranties," and "classified-ad telephone books." This list strikes me as odd, not only because I can think of far more interesting things to read than bank statements and warranties, but also because on one side, Holt seems to be saying, "Let kids be kids," and on the other side, "Treat them as adults." I think kids do have a natural fascination with grown-up things (which I think, in part, was what Holt was trying to say), but at the same time, I didn't agree with the notion that we should fill their lives with adult problems, material, and situations.

Holt made a lot of definitive statements, and yet, most of his "evidence" was confined to personal anecdotes. For example, in his chapter about music, Holt declared that the idea, "if you don't start early [learning to play an instrument], it's too late" was "a piece of musical folklore." As proof, he cited his own experience with learning to play the cello at the age of 40. I am not disagreeing with his statement that adults have the ability to continue to learn new things (and even develop some real skill and talent); I am just hesitant to base all of my opinion and belief on the experience of one 40-year-old man. In the same chapter, he spent a fair amount of pages discussing the merits of the Suzuki method while at the same time acknowledging that his knowledge of the course was very limited, leading me to wonder why he decided to discuss it in some depth at all. I love it when authors include stories to support their theories or to show how something applies in real life. What I don't like is when the story or the something they've merely heard about forms the basis of their argument and the bulk of their evidence.

And finally, as long as we're counting anecdotal experiences as solid evidence, in my experience, I found many of his statements to be false. For example, going back to the chapter on reading, he said that the problem with teaching children specific sounds associated with letters is that only six or seven of the consonants can be said all by themselves. He claimed that you cannot say the sounds that "b" or "d" or "p" make. But if that is the case, I would like to know what it sounded like when he said the word "club" or "lid" or "mop." I loved the reading method I used to teach Aaron, and one of the things the authors really stressed was making the correct sound for each letter, but they did believe that an actual sound could be made for each one. As far as those tricky b's and d's are concerned, you were supposed to be careful not to attach a vowel to the end of it, like "buh" or "dih," but simply say it as you would at the end of the word. And any time it came at the beginning or in the middle of the word, you said it with the vowel that followed it, as in "baaaaa-d" because if you isolated it, even if you didn't attach an extra sound to it, it still disrupted the flow of the word. It was difficult for me to trust what Holt said when I found that some of his information was false.

All of this said, I did agree with the basic premise of the book, which was that children are amazing, natural learners and come equipped to figure things out by themselves. I agree that children will learn an idea more quickly and thoroughly when they are in control of it. I actually loved some of his suggestions (such as using a child's own misspelled words for a spelling list instead of a list of randomly selected words or teaching a child to count by moving the items from one pile to a new one, saying, "Now we have one, now we have two" instead of just pointing and counting). I think the fact that I agreed with so much of the book made the negative tone of the book that much harder to endure. The book had so much potential but was executed poorly.

Near the end of the book, Holt said something that made me realize why, even when I don't like a book, I love reading anything that makes me think or defend my ideas or make the difficult decision to make some changes. He said, "Many people, in order to protect the integrity of their rather simple mental model, in order to save themselves the pain of having to rethink things they thought they understood, react to any experiences that do not conform with what they think they already know, do not fit neatly into the already existing mental model, rejecting these experiences." I realize that some of my response to this book was probably because, as Holt said, I'm trying to save myself the pain of having to rethink things I though I already understood. But at the same time, I feel like I am trying to keep an open mind by reading books like this, writing about them, and discussing them. As I do this, my ideas evolve and change, and I discover what will be best for my family.


  1. Hmm. I had a different reaction when I read the book. I don't think he was sensationalizing things to the degree you do. You see, I live in the south, and schools here DO go for intimidation, yelling, and threatening (and sometimes carry out) corporal punishment. (In fact, when you register for school, there is a separate form that you fill out if you refuse corporate punishment. The problem is the teachers forget whether you refused it or not, and so threaten the child with it, anyway.) So I've never seen any good from public schools because as long as I've had children, I've lived in this kind of system.
    Like any book, though, some things you use, some you dismiss. For example, I think it's good that he gives a list of reading material that parents don't generally think of providing, but I dismiss HIS dismissal of picture books for children.
    What I love about the book, though, is that he makes the case for rejecting a learning time table and learning "fundamentals". There is no one proper path to successful learning, and children don't need to be shunted down the same path toward it.

    I find it interesting that you reject his "anecdotal" experience (which comes from years of experience in the classroom in both public and private schools and working with children.) Would you be as dismissive if your child's teacher, who had less experience overall, gave you suggestions for helping your child with his reading? I don't say that to be combative, by the way, just as an observation and wondering about your passionate reactionary use of "anecdotal" that I'm not quite understanding. What level of expertise is enough for you? (Again, I'm not being combative: I wish we could discuss it face-to-face so you could see that.)

    1. Megan - I was actually really hoping you'd comment on this post since I remember you mentioning that you unschool your children. I really appreciate your thoughts. I realize that many of my viewpoints are, at this time, very naive since my oldest is only 4. It's so interesting to hear that corporal punishment is an accepted form of discipline in the south. I had no idea.

      I agree with you that with this book, as with any book, you have to accept and dismiss what feels right to you and what works best for your children. Education is very personal.

      I think maybe you misunderstood my point about his anecdotal evidence (which probably means I just didn't express it very well). I think his many years in public education make his opinion very credible, and I learn best when I hear about real life. So I definitely appreciated and respected all of his stories. On the other hand, and this was the point I was trying to make, in a book such as this, where you have to make many generalizations, it helps if you're drawing from the experiences and research of other people as well. Just like I didn't realize about physical punishment in the south, John Holt maybe didn't have a completely well-rounded view of education over the entire country either (although I know he did travel quite a bit later on...). Anyway, I wasn't trying to discount HIS experience. I was just trying to say that I always appreciate it when authors pull from other sources.

      Don't worry--I didn't take any of your comment as combative. I thought the things you mentioned were very enlightening. I'm sure I will be further enlightened at my meeting next week. I would welcome any other thoughts you care to share. Thanks!

  2. I have heard of unschooling and find it pretty fascinating. I'll have to check this book out!


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