Review – How Children Learn

How Children Learn

by John Holt, published 1995

John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?

We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.

In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?

Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.

The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?

A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?

Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.

This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!


Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part II

I read a bit more in the Bringing Reggio Emilia Home book last night. I don’t know if it’s because I started reading Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood which to me seems to hold an antithetical philosophical viewpoint, or I am just coming against the discomfort of a new idea, but some of the anecdotes that were shared seemed a bit bizarre. The author captured the thoughts of one of the local teachers, “Vea”, and I have selectively quoted them below:

I put a Plexiglass mirror out on the ground outside so that we could walk on the mirror… We walked on the sky and in some way, we were able to touch it… I think it’s important that the children enter into this “theater of the virtual reality” so that they can move in a different way according to the provocations that you give… The children walked on the clouds and “flew” with their arms as they pretended to be angels and airplanes… the games they played with the slides [images of the weather patterns observed] and this painting are filled with significance… we could say that these children have made a first collective work born of a common experience.

In this anecdote, Vea is talking about an exercise she created with various art media to tap into the children’s sense of “awe” and “wonder” about the world around them. Interpreting this charitably, children have strong creative faculties and their good-hearted teacher is creating circumstances where they can really let their imagination run.

But is it that simple?

In reality, nobody can walk on the sky. Angels don’t exist, and children aren’t airplanes, they fly in airplanes, which are specific physical objects with real physical properties that allow them to stay airborne despite gravity and being heavier than air. How does this work? This exercise doesn’t seem to touch upon any of this as it is related. One argument is that the children might be too young to appreciate physics. But does that mean they should be led to imagine that physics doesn’t exist, instead?

And what is a “collective work born of common experience”? The word “provocations” is probably a literal translation of the Italian cognate “provocazioni”, which has several meanings similar to the English, including “challenge, upset, anger”. I am thinking of the word “antagonize”, why are children being antagonized? Even the meaning “challenge” is confusing. Negotiating reality as a neophyte seems like challenge enough, does a teacher need to add to it by “challenging” children to walk on the sky or fly through it like angels? There seems to be plenty going on down here to contend with as it is.

Here is another anecdote:

“Let’s put in our yells!” [said one child, about what he wanted to try storing in a jar the children were given during one exercise] because they were excited and yelling. It was a lovely idea, so they yelled inside the jar closing it right away with its cover. Then, every once in a while they raised the cover ever so slightly, putting their ear to the opening to see if they could hear the yells that they had put inside.

As a wistful happenstance of young children playing, this scene is endearing, almost comical. Clearly, yells can not be contained in a jar and listened to later, that isn’t how sound works. It is “creative” in the abstract sense of a weird alternate reality book or movie where physics doesn’t exist as it does in our universe. But as something taking place in an educational environment, encouraged by teachers and with no “questioning” involved, or attempts to get behind the play to the real phenomena of voice and sound and recorded media, it takes on a more sinister appeal. What is practicing such behavior doing but confusing the mind? What are the children learning from one another here, but idle fantasies and make believe?

Earlier in the section, the book talked about the famed “Hundred Languages of Children”. It turns out this is a reference to different art materials that children can use to illustrate their experiences. Acetate, wire, clay, paint, crayon, etc., these are all media that children are instructed in the atelier (studio) to use to express their shared memories of various experiences. Again, it sounds innocent, what could be wrong with teaching children art and how to manipulate various materials for self-expression? But a “hundred languages” also has a polylogist ring to it, not a polyglot one, because in early childhood children are just acquiring languages skills in their mother tongue, and while it may be clear to them what they mean in their artistic acts of self-expression, it is much less likely that this meaning will be clear to others, such as other children, teachers, parents or adults. In fact, art is one of those things that is seemingly always up to interpretation, whereas verbal linguistics are relatively straight forward. Emphasizing self-expression through art seems to lead to a, “Think what you want to think, believe what you want to believe” kind of approach to reality and communicating with others.

But I am only two chapters into this, so I guess I don’t want to get TOO hysterical in my critical analysis!

I also watched “The Reggio Emilia Approach At Bennett Day School” on YouTube last night, seeking more information about this approach in practice. The video ended up being more about the history of the philosophy, which was helpful. A few anecdotal items of data stood out to me in the presentation:

  • The townsfolk of Reggio Emilia specifically designed their approach “so that they’d never have to deal with fascism again”
  • The local municipality once considered cutting funding for the preschool programs, and the parents became hysterical and lobbied the government to maintain the spending
  • The head marm narrating in the video described the “citizenship” focus of the Reggio Emilia approach by citing the way townsfolk became engaged in local political debates at the town councils, where she emphasized “everyone was free to argue and disagree, but eventually they reached agreement”; she cited this as a really positive example of the civic-spirited genesis of the approach

Here is the video:

And here is how the Bennett Day School describes its “Progessive education” ideals:

Based on the beliefs of John Dewey first published in the late 19th century, Progressive Education is a philosophy built around cooperative learning environments carefully constructed by teachers in order to build understanding through meaningful, relevant practices.

In a progressive education environment, students “learn by doing,” engaging in activities and lessons which help them develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to participation in a modern democratic society. Rather than focusing on rote memorization, Progressive Education focuses on social learning and collaboration to achieve relevant, authentic goals.

While influenced by student interest and engagement, Progressive Education asks teachers to guide students through the process of learning, modeling and encouraging the development of skills and knowledge that are necessary to effective citizenship. Students in a progressive school are not merely passive consumers of information, but active and engaged members of a learning community that seeks to develop within all its members (both adults and children) a spirit of participation and engagement that will seamlessly translate to the larger global society.


Review – The School Revolution

The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System

by Ron Paul, published 2013

I got a lot of ideas from this book, so it will be difficult to rate it poorly but ultimately I believe that is what it deserves. The book is repetitious, poorly organized and lacks flow, which is exacerbated by the suggestion to send emails to various “” email addresses for more information about the Ron Paul Curriculum– it’s almost like reading a poorly-done web marketing pitch page as a book.

Also, I am pretty confident this book was ghostwritten by Gary North. Gary North is one of the people behind the Ron Paul Curriculum, the RPC website looks identical in layout and voice to Gary North’s website (right down to the weird bursting red orb icon that displays in the title tab of each site on my browser) and the repetition and constant reference to “the principle of X is: italicized principle for effect“, which is a Gary North trade mark. That’s disappointing for two reasons: first, Ron Paul, if he’s actually written most of the other books of his I’ve read, is a decent author in his own right and certainly his way of making a point is unique, so it’s a shame to not really hear from him in a book with his byline; second, Gary North is actually a great writer himself (his Mises on Money is a great summary/intro of Mises’s voluminous writings on the subject, and his web essays on economic subjects are thoughtful and methodically argued) but it just doesn’t show up in this book, which makes him seem like a poor communicator because he is constantly repeating himself.

So that’s what’s primarily wrong with the book and that’s why it’s going to get a low score from me. But as I said, it gave me a lot of ideas, so I still felt the need to record my thoughts more extensively and what better place than this review?

Paul/North have not provided us with a well-researched book on the history of the “rise and decline” of the US public school system. Nor have they provided us with a careful logical demolition of the philosophy behind our current compulsory public education policy (or shown us its Prussian heritage, or how it is designed to serve special interests and not local communities), or investigated the collapse of urban school districts into chaos, violence and low test scores. They mostly take it as given that if you’re reading the book, you understand the public education system could be improved upon in one way or another and you’re sympathetic to cutting ties with it in the meantime.

This book is not a recipe or handbook for reforming or revolutionizing the educational system in this country as it stands. It offers no panacea for the system itself. Instead, it suggests something simple: go around it.

The author(s) believe that, much like UPS and FedEx carry the truly valuable mail while the USPS schleps around coupon books, catalogs and other junk mail marketing offers no one asked for or intended to receive, the advent of the Internet as an even-lower-cost mass communication medium will allow people who want to have a great education from a top-tier provider get one, and no local district admin or state bureaucrat or federal educational gestapo can say nay or get in the way, devil take the whole system.

And surely there is something to this. As the author(s) points out, Harvard, MIT, etc. have already put their imprimatur on the movement by giving free access to their best lecturers on the web. Coursera is one of many other providers competing to provide similar access at similar prices to not-quite-top-tier but pretty close lecturers and content, and then there is the Khan Academy which is seeking to address K-12. While quality, format and specific content may differ, what is similar about all of these services is that they are voluntarily provided and are competing for their audiences, whereas government schooling is a monopoly.

The other key piece of the puzzle is who is financing these education systems. With the government, it is tax-financed. You’d think this means tax payers thereby control the system, but that’s the funny thing about government and anyone who isn’t totally naive understands it doesn’t work like that– the tax payers donate, the government does the honors. With these other systems, investors, entrepreneurs and nominally-private (ie, the major research universities) teaching institutions are the financiers and, to the extent that the consumer is paying for it in some way (ads, prestige, subscription fees), they get to call the tune. Without changing the funding method of education, it will be impossible to change the values reflected in it nor the structure by which it is conducted.

There is no need to critique the argument too tightly here because I think it’s very sloppily made, even though it could be done in an airtight, holistic fashion. The point is simply that there are ways to get around the public education system if one wants to, and I want to, and utilizing free or low-cost curricula offered on the web is likely going to be part of the tool kit for me and many others. The point is to be the change and not wait for permission or for someone else to make a horrible monopoly better.

There are a lot of forceful ethical claims in the book that I think are worth noting:

  • As individuals mature, they must accept greater responsibility for their actions
  • If we want people to believe we are serious (about reforming the world), they must see the consistency in our own lives
  • The statist educators are committed to this principle: parents are not trained nor competent enough to make decisions about their children’s education
  • If parents understood that they are responsible for their children’s education in the same way that they are responsible for their feeding, housing and clothing, we would see far more attention given to the content and structure of educational programs

These are claims I agree with. I think it’s impossible to resolve these things with public education. So we are going to opt out.

One thing I wondered about was starting an alternative (privately funded) school. One problem revealed to me by this book is that in so far as it’s an “institution”, it’s going to get tangled up in a lot of the same problems that plague the public education system controlled by bureaucrats and regulators. Another problem (besides making the economics of it affordable) is that schools and lecture-based education cater to the least common denominator in the class (that is, the slowest student). The other students who are picking up the material quickly are left frustrated by the process. I was one of those students growing up, and it was miserable.

It may be that creating an alternative school is not a practical solution to the problem. It could also be that the alternative school would need to greatly rethink the method of schooling in general to be successful. One thing the author(s) suggest which is a novel idea for me is that the purpose of education is to promote the capability of self-learning. I say this is novel in that I have hovered around this belief for some time and even see it as core to my philosophy of parenting, summarized as follows: parents bring children into the world, without their permission, in a state of total dependence; the process of maturation and growth is a process of increasing independence; the parents’ obligation is to aid the child in the process of learning and self-discovery that will allow them to incrementally gain their complete independence; ideally, the parents’ could provide such an appealing moral example that they could also instill in their child the primary socialization value of interdependence, as well. Therefore, this idea of the purpose of a formal educational program aiming at teaching children how to learn whatever it is they want to learn, makes total sense to me.

If the early part of one’s education is centered on meta-learning (how to read and take in new information, how to think about it analytically, how to synthesize new information and understanding from it, and how to communicate it to others), then there is a point in the curriculum of the student where they can take the initiative in their learning and become self-guided and autodidactic. This principle dovetails with the idea of education as an act of self-discovery. Self-discovery can not occur when the self is incapable of thinking and learning on their own.

The book has some specific suggestions about important elements of such a curriculum:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Digital media
  • Academic research
  • Time management
  • Goal-setting
  • Job vs. calling
  • Study habits
  • Mathematics
  • Self-pacing
  • Tutorials

You can see quite clearly that this curriculum is aimed much more at the tools of self-learning, rather than specific values or content within categories like “Art, History, Science” etc. (although the author(s) does suggest that part of the advanced curriculum he offers for older students includes specific content tracks that explore these categories in integrated ways based on the student’s interest). So one idea I got from the book in this regard is that I need to do some research and thinking about the curriculum I will follow with my children, at least early on in their education, to try to best prepare them to become self-learners.

Another interesting idea for an improved school is as a gathering place for tutorial groups of exceptionally talented and motivated students to pursue a kind of “Socratic dialog” based study of a subject, or as a place to be introduced to new or important ideas. The author(s) suggest that the method of lecturing to students to teach them material is outmoded and ineffective (only 10% of the lecture is retained, on average, 3 weeks after it is received, and which 10% varies per pupil). But they suggest that lectures if short and interesting CAN be useful for informing people of a subject they didn’t know existed or for exciting an interest in the usefulness of studying a particular subject, which they could then engage in a course of self-directed learning on their own.

One way to think of how this might apply at an alternative school is that rather than fixed courses with fixed classes and the same teachers droning on, students might pay for individual intro lectures for subjects they’re considering studying, performer by visiting scholars or experts who are actively trying to promote the topic as worthy of study. The school might also have classes which apply a particular methodology for a particular purpose (ie, a Montessori seminar for young students). Finally, as suggested, the school might be a common forum for tutorial groups of excellent students to meet, discuss and coordinate study on a focused topic of inquiry.

There were specific things in the book I also really liked. The author(s) is a big proponent of essay writing as a way of practicing the understanding of specific content one is learning about. The suggestion was for the student to start a blog and write essays or blog posts about what they’re learning, not necessarily a journal but more as a kind of conversation or demonstration of what they think the meaning or import is of what they’ve learned. They also recommend the use of YouTube and other social media to practice these skills, practice conveying ideas, and to interact with others with similar interests. Their specific approach is based around creating “leadership”, which is another important value for me that gives me ideas about how I would want to approach this with my own kids.

I also like that the book emphasizes individuality and reminds the reader that every student is different and part of designing a good educational program means paying attention to their individual needs– again, not an idea that gets much attention in the public system, nor can it.

One thing I thought was bizarre about the book (and the values of most parents in general) is its suggestions on how to make the acquisition of a college degree by homeschooled children affordable and achievable in an accelerated fashion, ie, around age 18. Higher education is largely a scam that wastes time and money and leads to enormous confusion of values and purpose. If you could successfully help a child to gain mastery over their own learning at a young age and watch them develop their own interests and knowledge for an extended period of time, I don’t understand why college (either the acquisition of a degree, or the social experience itself) would be beneficial or interesting for them at that point. What can they get from college that they can’t get on their own pursuing a career, starting a business, etc.? That seemed like a sop suggestion to the parents reading who want to do something radical but aren’t ready to completely intellectually flip out.

With any luck, my children will be holding down part-time jobs and/or entrepreneurially making money WHILE they’re pursuing their youthful education. They’ll come to my business and see and learn what I do and be a part of it or do something else they fancy. There won’t be a sudden point at which they stop being a student and start being a self-paying adult; ideally, they’ll incrementally gain both capabilities at once and continuing their life immersed in self-directed learning, growth and productive gain.

This approach might not be right for everybody, but then, I don’t think public education is right for anybody, so you could certainly do worse.

Review – Totto-chan

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, published 1981

What a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it, although it reminded me quite a bit of various Hayao Miyazaki animated films I’ve seen in the past. “Totto-chan” is a memoir in the guise of a novel. The author’s childhood self is the main character and the events described actually took place while she attended a creative school called Tomoe Gakuen in pre-war Tokyo. This proves to be an interesting narrative device because the story is told from the emotional and experiential point of view of a child, but with the knowingness and articulateness of an adult. The obvious fondness or at least understanding of the author toward her younger self serves to enhance the overall sensation of empathy the story engenders, for that is the primary theme of the school and what the children were learning there.

Led by the visionary headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, the Tomoe school’s philosophy is built on trusting children to be themselves, “let nature lead” as Kobayashi put it. The story is filled with anecdotes of Totto-chan and her classmates being entrusted to figure things out for themselves, with adults and authority figures like the headmaster and parents simply listening and providing confidence that the children will succeed in coming up with workable solutions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Mistakes and slipups (such as Totto-chan falling into the school’s cesspool) are treated with dignity and patience. Instruction and structure come in the form of simple guidelines (for lunch, students were asked to bring “something from the hills and something from the sea”) with the belief that the children will be motivated to find their own solution with a limited amount of information.

The effect on the children is a unique sensation of freedom and capability, of openness and consideration of themselves and the needs of others. Seemingly without encouragement, the school spontaneously forms a meaningful, interested sense of community and ownership by the students toward their school grounds, neighborhood and classmates. Left to pursue their studies and interests at their own pace, some students excel through deep study and careful focus of a particular subject while others enjoy sampling disparate bits of knowledge and experience without a plan. All students appear happy and enthusiastic about their lives, even those students who come to the school with severe developmental handicaps. As the author says, this liberty allowed a lot of children who were misfits in the standard schooling regime to find a sense of ease and belonging and to go on to live productive, independent and connected lives as adults.

The story gives the reader a glimpse of an educational philosophy and pedagogical approach that is at once intuitive and mysterious: why shouldn’t every school demonstrate such empathy and concern for its students; and how DOES Mr. Kobayashi manage to have such patience and a sunny disposition toward the antics of small children that are considered so “obnoxious” by nearly everybody else? The epilogue of the story summarizes some of the research travel Kobayashi performed in Europe for several years leading up to the founding of the Tomoe school and it becomes clear that there is a dedicated, principled purposefulness to every single event in the story, which the author as an adult reflects upon in the present with a “Oh, so THAT must have been what Mr. Koboyashi was trying to teach us there…” To a cynical mind it may seem almost exploitative to be so cunning in one’s schemes, but if the ultimate goal of the approach is to develop in the students the maxim “Trust yourself”, how nefarious could this stratagem actually be?

The school seems like a very “social” place and less like an academy– numerous field trips, “sports” days, music and exercise classes and camping overnights pepper the plot and while there is a library and scenes of students doing self-directed physics studies with alcohol burners and beakers, they always take place in Tomoe’s disused railroad cars-cum-classrooms. It’s a challenge only to those readers with a constricted view of what education and learning necessarily mean. For Kobayashi and his students, every experience brings teachable moments and the question begged and answered is why reading about flora and fauna in a textbook is a superior approach when one can go outside for a walk and study the variety of life up close.

From the view of paranoid American parenting, the children disrobing with their teachers and swimming naked together in the school’s small pool will seem like a perfect opportunity for secret child abusers amongst the faculty to get their jollies. But the lesson here seems to be that every choice in life brings with it risks and if bathing suit-less swim time is a useful means for helping the children (especially the physically handicapped) to appreciate and accept their differences and similarities such that they can have confidence about who they are and act with kindness towards everyone else, the risk of something monstrous or mean-spirited in such an environment might be a better risk to take than watching certain individuals grow up feeling alienated from themselves and others for lack of such experiences.

Indeed, those same paranoid parents would be wondering how a child could ever develop a moral sense without correction and punishment from adults. It is enjoyable, then, to witness the many moments when Totto-chan attempts to do something underhanded or less than honest (with herself, her parents or her friends) but recognizes the moral inconsistency of her actions on her own and eventually makes amends and moves on. It makes you think that children are capable of so much more than they are given credit for, typically, and that maybe the moral failings of children reflect not their immaturity, but the perverse incentives of the adults who guide them.

This is a humorous book, as well. There were many moments when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and recount a passage to someone nearby, they’re just too good not to share. And thankfully, there are moments of profound tragedy and despair. I say thankfully, because it is in these recollections that we are truly reminded of how precious life is and what a wonderful gift a school like Tomoe is.

One of those tragedies is that the Tomoe school burned to the ground near the finale of the Pacific War as Tokyo came under increased firebombing by the US Air Force. It’s a stark reminder of the injudiciousness and unfairness of war, even though it is recounted without particular frustration or anger on the part of the author (a testament to the empathetic spirit of the school itself!) But there is also a lesson in the resilience of the creative spirit, as Kobayashi’s only response is to ask, “What kind of school shall we build next?”

The good news is that we don’t have to suffer war or burn our schools down to ask that question ourselves.

I think this book can be enjoyed by children, parents, families, teachers and social theorists and anyone concerned with building a more empathetic society built upon respect for the individual and the instinct of trusting oneself.