Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How Children Learn - Talk

John Holt

What makes two-year-olds so touchy?
p. 83  "I suspect that early infant talkers. . . mean to send messages with their voices, as the big people around them obviously do, and they think that these messages are being received.  Suddenly, perhaps around the age of one and a half or two, it dawns on them that most of their messages are not being received at all, and that they really can't talk like other people, but must go to a lot of trouble to learn how.  This may be one of the things that makes two-year-olds so touchy--they have just discovered that among all the other things they don't know how to do, they don't know how to talk.  They are bursting with things to say, needs, and feelings, and awarenesses, but have no way to say them.

Being willing to do things wrong
p. 84  "Every child learns how to make the sounds of his own language. . . How does he do it? . . .  The answer seems to be by patient and persistent experiment; by trying many thousands of times to make sounds, syllables, and words; by comparing his own sounds to the sounds made by people around him, and by gradually bringing his own sounds closer to the others; above all, by being willing to do things wrong even while trying his best to do them right."

How soon is this willingness gone?  Jonathan and Aaron both have expressed to me fear about new tasks because they want to do it RIGHT.  How much could we all learn if we were a little more like children?  This seems to me to be the crux of what Jesus meant when he asked us to be like little children.  

If we taught children to speak
p. 84-85 "Bill Hull once said to me, "If we taught children to speak, they'd never learn."

Stop quizzing kids!
p. 94-95  "Nor did I test him by saying, "What's this? What's that?"  This kind of checking up is not necessary, and it puts a child in a spot where he will feel that, if he says the wrong thing, he has done wrong and is in the wrong.  I have seen kindly, well-meaning parents do this to young children, hoping to help them learn.  Almost every time the child soon took on the kind of tense, tricky expression we see on so many children's faces in school, and began the same sad old business of bluffing, guessing, and playing for hints.  Even in the rare case when a child does not react his defensively to questions, too much quizzing is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups."

p. 95 "A child's understanding of the world is uncertain and tentative.  If we question him too much or too sharply, we are more likely to weaken that understanding then strengthen it.  His understanding will grow faster if we can make ourselves have faith in it and leave it alone."

"This is particularly true of children just learning to read.  They have a lot of very tentative hunches about the connections between the look of printed letters and the sounds of spoken words.  If we give them enough time, they will gradually, as they read for pleasure, test and confirm and strengthen these hunches, and make them a part of what they really know.  But if we put too much pressure on these hunches, by continually asking children questions about what this or that letter says, we are liable to jar these hunches loose altogether and convince the children that they don't know anything, can't figure out anything, and must depend on us for all their information."

The "teacher devil" in me
p. 96 & p.98 Holt twice talks about ways to encourage speech development in children by talking through what you are doing on a daily basis. i.e. "Now we'll tie up this shoe; pull the laces good and tight; now we'll get the boots. . . "  However, he later corrects himself, saying that "I suspect that most people who try to talk this way to children will have so much more teaching in their voices than love and pleasure that they will wind up doing more harm than good.  If talk is not honest, does not have real feeling behind it--like most of the talk children hear on TV--they will not think of it as something they can or want to do themselves, and hence will learn little or nothing from it."  He was not at all happy about what he had previously written and later refers to the constant temptation to "teach" kids what they haven't already learned for themselves as "the teacher devil in me."

True observation can only occur in an atmosphere of trust.
p.104  Speaking of  research on the way children learn, Holt argues that "We cannot learn anything important about other people until they trust us."

This has particular bearing on a conversation I had with my brother-in-law the other day about how children learn.  He held up a book called, "Teaching with the Brain in Mind," which is a compilation of research on how better to teach children based on brain research.  Something bothered me at the time and it took until now for me to understand what bothered me so.  I was trying to explain to him that children, if given the proper environment, don't need to be "taught" at all.  They learn differently from adults in the sense that their minds are absorbent.  This idea isn't just espoused by Holt.  It is central to the theories of Sinichi Suzuki, Maria Montessori, Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Thomas Jefferson Education.  The difference between these and the brain researchers is that these people spent a huge amount of time being with and observing children in their natural habitat.  They gained the trust of the children they learned from.  Their work was a labor of love and in every respect represents true art--rising above pure science.  This is why I just don't even buy the whole "teaching with the brain in mind."  It's the teaching that's the fundamental false assumption underlying the entire theory.

The Myth of "Bad Habits"
p. 113  Correcting bad "habits" only deprives the child of the opportunity to identify and fix mistakes on their own.  The less they have to depend on us, the faster they can teach themselves.

p. 116 "A word to the wise. . . is infuriating."

Correcting children is not only unnecessary, it can be counterproductive
p. 118 "Many of us are tactful enough with other adults not to point out their errors, but not many of us are ready to extend this courtesy (or any other courtesy, for that matter) to children.  Yet it is important that we should, because they are perceptive and sensitive, and very easily hurt, humiliated, and discouraged."

"Answer Pulling"
p. 123 "The teacher asks a series of pointed questions, aimed at getting students to give an answer that he has decided beforehand is right.  Teachers' manuals are full of this technique--"Have a discussion, in which you draw out the following points. . ."  This kind of fake, directed conversation is worse than none at all.  Small wonder that children soon get bored and disgusted with it."

p. 124 "It can't be said too often: we get better at using words, whether hearing, speaking, reading or writing, under one condition and only one--when we use those words to say something we want to say, to people we want to say it to, for purposes that are our own."


  1. Good golly, if my daughter's grandparents don't quit quizzing her all the time I'm going to scream! It's Thanksgiving, give her a break!

  2. I have even trouble squelching the "teacher devil" inside me. It's so hard when you have to deal with it from the outside too! Maybe they should get a copy of "How Children Learn" for Christmas?? ;)