Bringing the world into the classroom

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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;
  6. 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.

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7 Responses to Bringing the world into the classroom

  1. Your six ways for bringing the world into the classroom make so much sense. I worry so much about our students “playing the game of school” instead of discovering the joy of learning.

  2. steveshann says:

    Yes Karen, it’s a worry! And sometimes it’s not just what the students bring along with them to school, but the focus of the school itself. I’ve just been a guest at a teachers’ meeting at the start of the school year where there was no talk about learning (let alone joy), and lots of attention paid to managing (ie the staff side of playing the game of school). How do you manage all of this at your school?

  3. I hadn’t read your thoughts about Holt until now. He was a guiding force in my early teaching as well. I am more discouraged than you, wondering often if we can, indeed, create the right conditions for learning in schools. Sigh. Still trying.

  4. Lisa Grant says:


    I am a fairly a new teacher, and I teach in a very low SES environment where the students value street smart over academia. What they know of the world is very limited and limiting, and I feel the need to open them up to new experiences, new truths, and new realities. I want them to see the world beyond their walls; I call them walls because that is what government housing units are to me, walls. I discovered this year many of my students didn’t have a sense of their location in this world. How sad! They could not imagine anything beyond our little city and their neighborhood. Thus, this summer I’m researching on how to bring the world into my classroom and ran across this blog. I must say I’m loving it.

    • steveshann says:

      Dear Lisa,
      Because this is an old blog of mine (new one called Degrees of Fiction), I’ve just come across your comment.
      Would love to hear how your plans are turning out.

  5. Sheila says:

    The problem is that creating a classroom is taking the child out of the world. Then you’re trying to put the world back into the classroom. Why create the classroom in the first place? Why not work with parents to encourage them to make their childrens’ world as big and wonderful and interesting as they can? (Which is where John went in his subsequent books).

    Also, regarding trust…yes, it is extremely important. The problem is that the very nature of schools assumes that children can’t be trusted. Start with compulsory attendance laws. Schools don’t trust children will choose the best place for them to spend their days. They make children be there against their will. Then add tests. Whether standardized tests and grades. Sure, trust kids to learn what they want…as long as they keep performing on the tests.

    If we make schools like public libraries–optional attendance, materials, classes, clubs, and field trips offered on a regular basis but not required, parents welcome to come and join in or not, different ages free to mingle…then you’ll really be doing what Holt is talking about.

  6. steveshann says:

    Yes, he got disheartened, and there have been times when I have been as well. But then I come across teachers in schools doing exactly that: bringing the world into their classrooms, and I find them inspiring. There have been times when I’ve experienced it myself, and I wrote about one of these times in ‘School Portrait’. There are so many barriers to it happening … but so many teachers who manage to create a world within their classrooms, giving children experiences that they never forget. Now that I work with preservice teachers, I’m brought face to face, as you have described, with the challenges these wonderful young people face, but the stories that some of them then tell about the wonderful work they manage to do is so encouraging.

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