I discovered John Holt when I was a young teacher in the 70s. His ability to closely observe and precisely describe children’s learning was an inspiration. So, when I decided to start writing this blog a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to use him as a kind of starting point for my current thinking.
In How Children Learn, Holt wrote:
Fish swim, birds fly; 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 the school and the classroom; 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.
In his later years, Holt decided he has been mistaken. Not about people’s natural desire and capacity to learn, but about school’s capacity to bring the world into the classroom. Schools bred failure. They were too insular, too artificial, too full of fear.
Now, after more than 30 years as a teacher, I’ve come to two conclusions about what Holt has written. Yes, people desire to know; it’s as natural an urge as a fish’s urge to swim. And yes, we can create the right conditions for learning in a school and a classroom.
So I’ve been asking myself the question: How do we bring the world into the classroom so that children’s natural desire to learn can flourish?
Here are a few ways:
- we teachers parade our own desire to know … to know more about our much loved subjects, to know more about our students and their passions, and to know more about teaching and learning. There’s nothing more deadening for students than to be subjected to a static, cobweb-entangled teacher who knows it all.
- we leave room for the students to talk, think, explore and take risks. Curiosity is killed in a classroom which privileges the quick right answer that ignores life’s complexities.
- we use the enormous potential of Web 2.0 to ‘bring the world into our classrooms’ Teacher blogs and conversations are rightly full of fury about the policies of many schools to block the internet.
- we use clear goals and constant feedback (from us, from peers and from others) to help students see how to learn. Michael Fullan has talked about formative assessment as being the most potent way to increase student learning.
- we give them time. If we rush through the curriculum too quickly, all children at the same pace, we create the fear which Holt wrote so eloquently about in Why Children Fail;
- we trust the children to do the rest.
Sylvia Martinez written beautifully about all of this in her post on Sustained Tinkering Time. There she wonders what we might learn from successful reading practices (like SSR – sustained reading time) when we’re trying to help students become more technologically-literate. She writes that
student choice, plus time for unstructured access to lots of different computing experiences is crucial to developing literacy and fluency with computers. My vision includes a teacher or mentor modeling passion, collaboration, interest in the subject, and offering experiences that challenge students without coercion, tricks, or rankings. If I had to come up with a catchy acronym, I’d call it Sustained Tinkering Time (SST).
And, like Holt, she sees the underlying issue as being one of trust:
Without technology literacy skill tests, lessons on tools, and assigned projects, will students take more risks and try more complex things? Or will they do the least amount possible? I think this boils down to what you believe about learning – is it natural or does it have to be coerced.