Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants - Part I: John Holt

Homeschooling, home learning and alternative education are so common and so legal(!) now that those of us who enjoy these freedoms sometimes forget that the road has not always been easy. In fact, there are countries in which homeschooling is illegal (Germany and Sweden, to name two). There are also places, in Canada and the USA, where homeschoolers are required to jump through a number of difficult hoops in order to be at home with their kids. And once upon a time, not so long ago, homeschooling parents in North America were jailed or had their children removed from their home as many school authorities did not understand that it is truly the parents' right to set the course of their children's education.

The surge in societal acceptance has come about for a number of reasons: books published about the successes of homeschooling (such as the Colfax's book, Homeschooling for Excellence, which is still in print), the increasing number of the Christian Right choosing to exercise their religious freedoms by teaching their children at home, conferences and events that educate and inform people about homeschooling, positive portrayals of homeschooling families by the media, and many years of challenging widely held assumptions about education and clarifying legal ambiguity about homeschooling.

It is the people who have laboured in pursuit of the latter items who hold my greatest admiration. These are the people whose books and work we turn to when we are formulating, explaining or sometimes defending our rationales to homeschool. These are the people whose fresh ideas and hard work have paved our way. They are the giants upon whose shoulders we stand as we learn at home with our children with confidence and without fear of reprisal.

I originally intended this article to provide a quick introduction to all of these different individuals, but my fingers got away on me. Perhaps it's the subject matter as I so admire and appreciate John Holt and the road he helped carve out for those of us who choose to homeschool our children.

John Caldwell Holt

John Holt never had children of his own and he never was a formally trained teacher, even though he taught in a school setting. He was curious about learning, highly observant, and was keen to reach children. His first two books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, were really commentary about schools and how they are missing the mark. As Pat Farenga says, Holt's whole philosophy can be condensed down to two words: Trust Children. Even though that seems simple enough, it is very difficult for many adults to actually do it. It's worth reading as many of Holt's books as possible in order to understand why we must trust our children to learn.

In addition to his writing, John Holt provided an amazing service to homeschooling families. After trying to initiate some sort of school reform without success, Holt realized that true educational reform would not happen at a school level, so he encouraged parents to "teach their own".

In his book, Teach Your Own (1981), Holt's only book about homeschooling, there is a good amount of information about the legalities of homeschooling, as well as many stories of homeschoolers who experienced and overcame school authority persecution. Many of these stories came to him as submissions to his Growing Without Schooling (GSW) magazine, which he used to inform and connect homeschoolers across the United States and Canada.

GWS was the amazing service previously referred to. No longer was homeschooling something done by isolated pockets of families; it was now a movement, with an organized method of communication and mutual support, including access to information about legal rights and freedoms as decided by the courts. Holt began GWS in 1977, a year after the publication of his book Instead of Education: Ways to help people do things better. In response to his book, he received letters telling him that there was another way, that it was possible to have your children learn at home outside of the artificial confines of the school environment. Holt saw this as the solution he'd been looking for and decided to support it. Thus, GWS was born.

John Holt died much too early, in 1985, at the age of 62. Before his death, he wrote two books that I, personally, have found to be life changing: Never Too Late (1979), a story about Holt's personal quest to learn the cello as an adult, and the unfinished Learning All the Time, the book that confirmed my conviction that our family would be homeschooling.

Some Favourite John Holt Quotes

Since we can't know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.

From How Children Learn
All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.
Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns.
Therefore, we do not need to “motivate” children into learning, by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning.
What we need to do, and all we need to do is bring as much of the world as we can into [their lives]; give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way.
We can trust them to do the rest.

From Growing Without Schooling No. 40 (1984)
The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.

From How Children Fail
Children do not need to be made to learn to be better, told what to do or shown how. If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world then anyone else could make for them.

From Instead of Education
Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons' experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.

Learn More about John Holt

Growing Without Schooling

History of Homeschooling by Helen Hegener of Home Education Magazine

"Landmark" Plowboy Interview with John Holt: Homeschooling Advocate, by Pat Stone, Mother Earth News, 1980