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I've read about John Holt for years. It is impossible to take even the most passive interest in home education without hearing about this man, and I have read a couple of books in the past, but it was so many years ago, I hardly remember. So after reading so much about this man, who is often credited with starting the home school revolution *, I really wanted to take another look at his material directly.
John Holt was born in 1923 and died in 1985. He served in the navy during the second world war, on board a submarine in the South Pacific. The experience appears to have left with a strong distaste for warfare, and he worked for the World Federalist Movement for a few years, before taking up a position teaching school. Holt appears to have liked teaching, and is not overly critical of the school systems in place. But he also felt something was missing. He observed that very young children were inquisitive, happy and full of life, while the older children he worked with were often withdrawn and fearful. He seems to have a scientific mind and decided the way to deal with the problem was through careful observation of how children learn, right from the very beginning. This book is basically a record of his observations of children and his conclusions based on careful study.
This book was written in 1967. At the time of writing, I do not believe Holt had ever heard of Home education. It was only years later, as readers of his books approached him about the topic, and he began to read other works such as Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society, that he began to look into and then advocate the home schooling movement in the states. This book never mentions home schooling, and if you are looking for a practical book on home education I would advise you to choose one of his later books such as Teach Your Own, or Instead Of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better.
At the time of writing, Holt is advocating a change in schools, not to do away with them. He is advocating allowing children more freedom, and more choice in what learn, and to let learning come naturally. He mentioned a few activities, but does not seem to want them followed strictly. Instead he is just showing us the results when children are allowed to explore and educate themselves to some degree. He states specifically: "My Aim in writing is not primarily to persuade educators and psychologists to swap new doctrines for old, but to persuade them to look at children, patiently, repeatedly, respectfully, and to hold off making theories and judgements about them until they have in their minds what most of them do not now have - a reasonably accurate model of what children are like". This plea is simple, but heartfelt. He wants the industrial megaliths in charge of education to take the time to quietly observe and learn about children first hand, rather than following any written philosophy. Holt does not say "follow me". He says look and see for yourself.
As much as I like this man, and agree with everything he says, I have to admit, I was terribly bored reading this book. There is nothing revolutionary here. I can't say I really learned anything from this book, but perhaps it was simply a matter of preaching to the converted. All of the ideas expressed are ones that I am completely familiar with, and I expect most parents are as well. He points to the fact that toddlers and preschool age children have a great thirst for knowledge - but that too much teaching quenches the thirst. Instead he suggests setting up situations that will encourage learning, helping when asked and allowing the child to move at their own pace.
He has some excellent theories about the acquisition of reading and a parents role in this - but the people who read this book are almost certainly already reading to their children at home. Those who do not read to their children are highly unlikely to pick up this book, and I feel that teachers are well aware of the importance of reading in the home - there is just only so much they can do about it. He does bring up one point that I feel has real merit though. He points out that deprived children often just want to look through books, rather than attempt to read them. He feels is because they have had less exposure to books, and a child from a more affluent home will have been able to do this at home. I think he is on to something here. My children love stories, but they have often when young just looked through books. Maybe this a necessary step in reading? I would certainly advocate providing time and a wide variety of books in school and allowing children to just explore these books in their own way.
I really like his attitude on not forcing children into sports before they are ready as well. He carefully points out how much better results he achieved taking a child to swim and letting the boy just play in the water and progress at his own pace. I agree with everything he says, and in fact I get upset at times seeing parents trying to force a child to "be brave", but again, I don't think these parents will read this book.
John Holt has spent a vast amount of time observing children, and has recorded much of observations here, but as a stay at home Mom with two young boys - I spend even more time observing children. Perhaps I am really missing something. Maybe all this information was brand new to many people in the 1960's. I can see this book being of real value to some one who will be working with children who has no real experience with them, but I can not see the average Mother learning much from this book. He does encourage us to take what we already know about young children and apply it to education for older children as well, and he does encourage a very kind and gentle approach with children. Most of all he encourages the reader to listen to what the child wants as well - but this is something I already do. He expresses real wonder in a child's joy of discovery and exploration, but this is something most parents are already quite familiar with. I'm afraid I grew terribly bored with long descriptions of how a child would play with a type writer, or learn to play games like making faces at an early age.
I'm glad this book was written. I'm happy that it may have helped start the American home school revolution. But I am sorry I spent £2.54 of my money on it. It isn't a bad book. I just didn't get anything out of it myself. I feel awful giving this book only 3 stars. I am planning to buy another of his books, specifically on home education, and I do greatly respect the author. I can see this book being very useful - I just don't see the people who would benefit by reading this actually doing so, and for me, the book was of little real use. The one situation I would recommend it is for an adult planning educational policy, or even beginning teaching, who has never spent much time around children. It would be wonderful to see his ideas implemented in classrooms, but I would have said that without reading the book. Perhaps our ideas are just too similar.
* John Holt has been widely credited the home school movement and he was widely influential. he appears to have been truly kind and unselfish man and I do admire him. However, home education has always existed, it just fell out of vogue for a while. Maire Mullarney was home educating her children just after the 2nd world war in Ireland, and if I had to choose one person as founder of the modern home school movement, it would be this remarkable lady. But the fact that she was poor, Irish and female made her a bit less influential at the time, and her book is widely unknown, even among home educators.