How Children Learn by John Holt

This is a book that I wish all parents could read before they start getting stressed about their children’s education. The premise is that if you let kids be curious, they will be motivated to learn and they will know what they need and want to learn. What a novel concept for me, but wow, it really makes sense now. I want to share a few paragraphs from the book that left such a deep imprint in my mind:

For it seems to me a fact that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn. To put this another way, curiosity is hardly ever idle. What we want to know, we want to know for a reason. The reason is that there is a hole, a gap, an empty space in our understanding of things, our mental model of the world. We feel that gap like a hole in a tooth and want to fill it up. It makes us ask How? When? Why? While the gap is there, we are in tension, in suspense. Listen to the anxiety in a person’s voice when he says, “This doesn’t make sense!” When the gap in our understanding is filled, we feel pleasure, satisfaction, relief. Things make sense again — or at any rate, they make more sense than they did.

When we learn this way, for these reasons, we learn both rapidly and permanently. The person who really needs to know something does not need to be told many times, drilled, tested. Once is enough. The new piece of knowledge fits into the gap ready for it, like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Once in place, it is held in, it can’t fall out. We don’t forget the things that make the world a more reasonable or interesting place for us, that make our mental model more complete and accurate.

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.

Really, this book should be called: How PEOPLE learn.

I always had problems with school; I got decent grades but never truly interacted with the content. Enough stayed in the brain to do okay on tests, but content disappeared pretty much immediately afterwards.

As an adult, it’s been difficult to finish a book from cover to cover. But this one got read in a few days, with the above paragraphs POPPING OUT. Now that I think about it, the voice in the head would often mumble, “Say, I really SHOULD read this. It’s on the best seller’s list and it is supposed to help me be more successful.” But maybe I don’t care much about being “successful” or good at [blah blah blah], so I often ended up reading the first chapter and then leaving the book lying around to gather dust. But this book was different. A “thirsty for water” kind interest in the topic developed.

Is this what it feels like to LOVE WHAT YOU DO? Is this what it feels like to learn what you are curious about?

Hm. Food for thought. Water to drink.

Published by Sherry Yuan Hunter

Sherry Yuan Hunter is a certified trauma recovery coach and certified parenting coach. Taiwan-born American-Canadian Chinese, married, working mother of two, Sherry identifies as a Sandwich Parent, Third Culture Kid, an untigering Mom, and Recovering Shouldaholic. Based in Toronto, Canada, Sherry has been working in student success programs at University of Toronto for 20 years, supporting students, young professionals, new managers, working moms, and new immigrants to success.

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