How Children Learn (50th anniversary edition)


By John Holt

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This enduring classic of educational thought offers teachers and parents deep, original insight into the nature of early learning. John Holt was the first to make clear that, for small children, “learning is as natural as breathing.” In this delightful yet profound book, he looks at how we learn to talk, to read, to count, and to reason, and how we can nurture and encourage these natural abilities in our children.


Note: In 1983, John Holt added a number of new observations about children's ways of learning to the original edition of his book. These passages are indented, with an icon at the beginning and one at the end .

Foreword by Deborah Meier

When John Holt's first book, How Children Fail, came out, my own children were just starting at a Chicago public school across the street—and I was picking up a few dollars by subbing in South Side elementary schools. Those of us teaching at the time in so-called "ghetto schools" were taught to fill children's minds since their families and communities were seen to be bereft of useful learning. The children, it was said, did not "know" enough or have enough language to express curiosity.

Being intensely political, I approached my part-time subbing more as an anthropologist seeing how the "other half" lived, and also as an anxious mother whose children would be attending such schools. Holt's book came as a shock, a blessed one that more closely corresponded with what I observed in my racially mixed neighborhood and in the backyards where the children played with their neighbors.

How Children Fail also opened my eyes to something else, something fascinating—to the ways in which even "good" schools teaching middle and upper-middle class children failed them. I recognized myself—the product of a progressive NYC independent school—in the stories he told about the "enlightened" classrooms he observed. Holt showed the ways most schools "foster bad strategies, raise children's fears, produce learning which is usually fragmentary, distorted, and short-lived, and generally fail to meet the real needs of children." His empathy and insights grabbed my attention and lit a small fire that, as time passed, became a passion for me—and for a whole generation of young teachers—not only to change the world but also to get to the bottom of how we humans learn.

As if to feed the yearnings of our generation, Holt soon came out with a book to answer that question. His goal for How Children Learn, he said, was to "describe children—and in a few cases adults—using their minds well, learning boldly and effectively.… Children have a style of learning that fits their condition and which they use naturally and well until we train them out of it." I began to watch my own children in new ways—catching them in the act of learning all sorts of complex things, from learning to swim, to learning to read, and to making sense of the hierarchy on our block of row houses.

Putting John's ideas into practice absorbed the next half century of my life. I always returned to his work to remind me of what we all shared: the fears that make learning harder and limit the intelligence of almost all of us.

The lucid writing and stories that fill How Children Learn were a delight, and I pestered all my friends and colleagues by reading sections aloud. "You have to hear this!":

"Most 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."

"Keeping [children's] curiosity 'well supplied with food' doesn't mean feeding them, or telling them what they have to feed themselves. It means putting within their reach the widest possible variety and quantity of good food—like taking them to a supermarket with no junk food in it (as if we can imagine such a thing)."

Holt's insights quickly lead readers to notice so many other "acts" of learning in the adult world as well, and how fearful we still are of being seen as "stupid" or "ignorant" and all the techniques we develop to hide it from others—and at times even from ourselves. I made it a rule: never say "obviously!" I saw the "teacherly" moments in a new light, and tried to avoid them.

While following Holt's deep exploration of how children learn I therefore wasn't surprised to discover Holt had joined "the enemy"—homeschoolers. His little magazine, Growing Without Schooling, was the most useful guide a teacher could ever read. As time passed I began to change my views of homeschooling. I'm still first and foremost working to preserve public education but homeschoolers can be our allies in devising what truly powerful schooling could be like. If we saw the child as an insatiable nonstop learner, we would create schools that made it as easy and natural to do so as it was for most of us before we first entered the schoolroom. Our task is to make schools ready for kids to learn in, not kids ready for schools.

We have a long way to go to make John Holt's dream available to all children. But his books make it possible and easier for many of us to join him in the journey.


How Children Fail described children using their minds badly. This book tries to describe children—in a few cases, adults—using their minds well, learning boldly and effectively. Some of the children described are in school; most are not yet old enough. It is before they get to school that children are likely to do their best learning. Many experts agree that this is so, though they differ about the reason. I believe, and try to show here, that in most situations our minds work best when we use them in a certain way, and that young children tend to learn better than grownups (and better than they themselves will when they are older) because they use their minds in a special way. In short, children have a style of learning that fits their condition, and which they use naturally and well until we train them out of it. We like to say that we send children to school to teach them to think. What we do, all too often, is to teach them to think badly, to give up a natural and powerful way of thinking in favor of a method that does not work well for them and that we rarely use ourselves.

Worse than that, we convince most of them that, at least in a school setting, or any situation where words or symbols or abstract thought are concerned, they can't think at all. They think of themselves as "stupid" and incapable of learning or understanding anything that is complicated, or hard, or simply new.

What are the results? Only a few children in school ever become good at learning in the way we try to make them learn. Most of them get humiliated, frightened, and discouraged. They use their minds, not to learn, but to get out of doing the things we tell them to do—to make them learn. In the short run, these strategies seem to work. They make it possible for many children to get through their schooling even though they learn very little. But in the long run, these strategies are self-limiting and self-defeating, and destroy both character and intelligence. The children who use such strategies are prevented by them from growing into more than limited versions of the human beings they might have become. This is the real failure that takes place in school; hardly any children escape.

When we better understand the ways, conditions, and spirit in which children do their best learning, and are able to make school into a place where they can use and improve the style of thinking and learning natural to them, we may be able to prevent much of this failure. School may then become a place in which all children grow, not just in size, not even in knowledge, but in curiosity, courage, confidence, independence, resourcefulness, resilience, patience, competence, and understanding. To find how best to do this will take us a long time. We may find, in fifty or a hundred years, that all of what we think of as our most up-to-date notions about schools, teaching, and learning are either completely inadequate or outright mistaken. But we will make a big step forward if, by understanding children better, we can undo some of the harm we are now doing.

All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. And so we go on treating children as we ourselves were treated, calling this "reality," or saying bitterly, "If I could put up with it, they can too."

What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted. To do this will take a long leap of faith—but great rewards await any of us who will take that leap.

Since I wrote this book our schools have with few exceptions moved steadily and often rapidly in the wrong direction. Schools are on the whole bigger than they used to be, more depersonalized, more threatening, more dangerous. What they try to teach is even more fragmented than it was, what Professor Seymour Papert in Mindstorms calls "dissociated," i.e., not connected with anything else, and hence meaningless. Teachers have even less to say than they used to about what they teach and how they teach and test it. The schools cling more and more stubbornly to their mistaken idea that education and teaching are industrial processes, to be designed and planned from above in the minutest detail and then imposed on passive teachers and their even more passive students.

I recall something that at the time seemed less significant than it does now. During the late sixties, at the height of the so-called revolution in education (which in fact never took place), a prominent educator, after spending a few days at a big top-level conference on the future of education, said to me, "Those people weren't the least bit interested in alternative schools or open classrooms or any of that stuff. You know what they were really excited about? Something called behavior modification and behavioral objectives." It proved to be so. Fragmented learning became even more so, the weekly test became the daily or hourly or even the fifteen-minute test.

The Back to Basics era is now seven or eight years old, with, so far, mostly bad results. But this only leads the schools to say, "Now we're really going back to basics," as if that particular wheel had been invented only the day before yesterday.

In any case, I no longer believe we can make schools into places in which all children grow in the ways described above. An exception might be a few very specific kinds of schools, like schools of the dance, or computer programming, or flying. But on the whole I don't think children with any range of real choices in the world are going to want to spend much time in places where nothing but learning happens, and where the only adults they meet are child specialists whose job it is to watch them and make them do things.

This book is more concerned with describing effective learning than explaining it, or giving a theory about it. In many places people are busy trying to find out what goes on in the brain, electrically, chemically, and otherwise, when we think and learn. Such research is interesting and may prove to be useful, but it has nothing to do with the aims of this book. We do not need to learn more about the brain, as an organ, in order to make schools better. We could make them a great deal better, knowing no more about the brain than most people know right now. Thus it is interesting that people should be finding evidence that experiences are stored in the brain, in the shape of complicated molecules, like file cards stored in a file. What teachers and learners need to know is what we have known for some time: first, that vivid, vital, pleasurable experiences are the easiest to remember, and secondly, that memory works best when unforced, that it is not a mule that can be made to walk by beating it. It is interesting to read Wolfgang Kohler's theory, perhaps now held by many others, that electrical fields are set up in the brain when we perceive, think, and feel. This would certainly account for the fact that we think badly, and even perceive badly, or not at all, when we are anxious and afraid. But we don't need the explanation to know that the fact is a fact, and to learn from it that when we make children afraid we stop their learning dead in its tracks.

This book is more about children than about child psychology. I hope those who read it will come to feel, or feel more than when they opened it, that children are interesting and worth looking at. I hope that when they look they will notice many things they never noticed before, and in these find much food for thought. I want to whet their curiosity and sharpen their vision, even more than to add to their understanding; to make them skeptical of old dogmas, rather than give them new ones.

A friend said to me after reading this book, "I always was very fond of little children, especially my own. But until now I could never have imagined that they might be interesting."

They interest me now even more than when I wrote this book. Watching babies and children explore and make sense of the world around them is for me one of the most exciting things in the world. I have watched them and been with them at many times and places, and I find not just more pleasure but much more food for serious thought in what they say and do than in the sayings and doings of a great many older people. Not to like little children, or find them interesting and enjoy their company, is no crime. But it is surely a great misfortune and a great loss, like having no legs or being deaf or blind.

The human mind, after all, is a mystery, and, in large part, will probably always be so. It takes even the most thoughtful, honest, and introspective person many years to learn even a small part of what goes on in his own mind. How, then, can we be sure about what goes on in the mind of another? Yet many people talk as if we could measure and list the contents of another person's mind as easily, accurately, and fully as the contents of a suitcase. This is not to say that we ought not to try to understand more about other people's minds and thoughts, but only that we must be very modest and tentative about what we think we have found out.

There's an old story about two men on a train. One of them, seeing some naked-looking sheep in a field, said, "Those sheep have just been sheared." The other looked a moment longer, and then said, "They seem to be—on this side." It is in such a cautious spirit that we should say whatever we have to say about the workings of the mind, and it is in this spirit that I have tried to write, and in which I hope others will read, this book.

Learning About Children

In the early sixties, when I wrote much of the original How Children Learn, few psychologists were paying close attention to the learning of very young children. As a field of research it was not important or well known—or in some places even respectable—precisely the reason why a friend of mine at a major university, who wanted to do a Ph.D. thesis on the work of Piaget, was told by his thesis adviser that he could not do so. And even Piaget himself, except perhaps for his own children, did most of his work with children four or five years old and older. Babies were still seen mostly as blobs, waiting for time to begin to turn them into people worthy of serious attention.

Now all this is changed. The study of very young children, their view of the world, their powers and abilities, and their learning, has become a very important field in psychology. Everyone agrees that we should know much more than we do about young children, and how they perceive the world, and live, grow, and learn within it. The question is, how to do so.

Many think the best way to do this is by doing direct research on the brain itself. Some of this was going on when I wrote the Preface to this book; much more is going on now. So far, it has still had little effect on schools. Thus, one theory now much in fashion is the right-brain left-brain theory, which holds that for some kinds of thinking we use one side of our brain, while for other kinds we use the other. People who want to change schools try to use the theory as an argument. So far, they have not had much success. Thus, people who, because they liked or believed in art, have tried for years to get more of it in the schools, now say that we need it in order to develop the right side of children's brains. But the people who always wanted art out of the schools are no more impressed by the right-brain argument in its favor than they were by any other. They still want it out. It seems unlikely that in any near future schools will be much changed because of this or any other new theories about the workings of the brain.

For one thing, the theories themselves change faster than we can keep up with them. In a recent issue of Omni magazine an article called "Brainstorms" tells us that the still new right-left brain theory has already been disproved and that different kinds of mental activities cannot be precisely located in either one side or the other. The article says, in part:

Alan Gevins, director of the EEG Systems Laboratory at Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California School of Medicine, in San Francisco, says, "What we're doing now is to try to develop a new way of imaging the functional electrical activity of the brain, to see things that couldn't be seen before." Electrical patterns never before seen in such detail have suddenly become coherent schematic designs.… The people at the EEG Systems Lab are now working to perfect their 64-channel EEG scalp recording helmet, which will allow them to carry out even more advanced types of computerized signal processing of the brain's functional electricity.… The long-term results of their line of research could virtually open a door into the brain, admitting its user for the first time to look in on his own "wiring."…

But a few days at the EEG Systems Lab made it obvious to me that, as in so much of science, [emphasis added] the lab's new research… was concerned with a subtle and complex series of experiments that would appear almost as incomprehensible to most of us as a tablet of ancient Sumerian trade regulations.

What happened to the old idea that a central task of science was to make the world more comprehensible? Back to the lab:

By careful design of their test conditions, and by using mathematical pattern-recognition analysis, they have charted rapidly changing, complex correlations of electrical patterns, involving many areas of the brain.… This suggests to them that different types of information are not processed in only a few specialized areas of the brain, as has been a theory for decades. Rather, many regions of the brain are involved, even in the most elementary cognitive functions.

In a study of 23 persons, the lab initially confirmed the hypothesis that writing sentences [etc.]… did indeed seem to be more associated with either the right or the left side of the brain. But by looking closer with the mathematical pattern recognizer, they failed to see any significant differences in electrical activity between the tests in which the participants were writing paragraphs or those in which they were just scribbling.… So they went back and wired up 32 more willing participants.… The researchers saw that hemispheric differences between tasks in the EEG "spectra" disappeared entirely. Instead, they witnessed rather uniform patterns involving many areas of both hemispheres. "This suggested," Gevins states, "that different types of tasks are not processed in a few specialized areas but that many widely dispersed areas of the brain are involved. So it is not correct to say that arithmetic, for example, is located in one place just because damage there results in an inability to add numbers. All you can say is that the damaged area is critical for doing arithmetic."

If I am doubtful of the value of this kind of research, as indeed I am, it is not because in this case I don't agree with its findings. I agree with them very strongly, and would be happy to see them confirmed by later research. From the first the right-left brain theory seemed to make far too simple what my own experience as a mind user told me was not simple at all. There is of course no doubt that we do indeed use our minds in different ways, sometimes a very conscious, directed, linear, analytical, verbal way—as when the car won't start and we try to figure out why—at other times (and perhaps even sometimes at the same time) much more randomly, inclusively (many things at once), intuitively, often sub- or unconsciously. We "hear" sounds, "see" images, experience directly our mental models of reality rather than any verbal or mathematical descriptions of them. We let our minds roam freely, keeping ourselves open to whatever they may tell us.

So far I have no quarrel with the brain theorists. It is even possible that some kinds of mental activity may be largely centered in some parts of the brain, and other kinds in others. But it would be simple-minded and silly to say that all the complicated varieties of thought, of mental experience, can be neatly separated into two kinds and that one of these can be exclusively assigned to the left side of the brain, the other to the right. When I say that I am sometimes surprised by what my mind tells me, I am talking about a very common experience. But where in my brain is the "my mind" who does the telling, where the "me" who is surprised?

The idea used to be that the "me," the conscious observer, was in a kind of upstairs, in the living room maybe, while "the mind" was down somewhere in the (often dark and dirty) basement. Has right-left brain theory merely shifted the old upstairs "me" over to the left brain and the old basement "mind" over to the right? How then do I account for this experience, well known to us all, that a name which I have been consciously and unsuccessfully struggling to remember will suddenly pop into consciousness, the awareness of the "me," while that "me" is thinking about something else? In right-left brain theory, it is the left brain that is supposed to be the maker, keeper, and rememberer of lists. What of the fact that often, while thinking of something else, I will find that "my mind" has suddenly presented "me" with a complete sentence, sometimes even two or three, which "I" like so much that I rush to write them down before I forget them? "I" have certainly not produced those sentences in the way I am now producing these sentences on the typewriter, thinking about what words to use or where to put them. On which side of my brain is the producer of these sentences, on which side the observer, critic, editor who judges them to be good?

The right-left brain theorists, at least the more modest of them (some are far from modest), might say, "We're not trying to say that every kind of thinking can be clearly assigned to either the left or the right brain, but only that certain kinds of thoughts can. So we give our subjects simple tasks and see where the electrical squiggles turn up." The problem—as I've said for years—is that it is hardly ever possible to separate what we think about something from how we feel about it. It is dangerously simple-minded for any brain researcher (or other psychologist) to suppose that when as part of his experiment he gives us some "simple" task to do we are not thinking about anything except that task. Chances are we are thinking about many other things—why does he want me to do this, am I doing it right, am I being a good subject in this experiment, will he ask me back, what will happen if I do it wrong, will I mess up his data, what is this for, anyway? and so on.

The problem with all such research and researchers is that, even with sixty-four-channel helmets, the data is so crude compared to the activity. The living mind probably processes (to use their way of talking) many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of bits of information every second. Making judgments about how the mind or the brain (they're not the same) works on the basis of a few (or even sixty-four) squiggles on a chart is like deciding what lives in the ocean by lowering and then pulling up a five-gallon bucket and seeing what you can find in it. Nor is the situation much improved by using bigger buckets. You won't find out that way. Learning about the mind is a lot more like learning about the ocean than figuring out how to start a car. The only way we will ever learn much about it—and even this will be highly incomplete and uncertain—will be to dive, swim about, and see what we can see in the deep waters of our own thoughts.

There is another very profoundly mistaken assumption in all this research: that from what we can learn about people in a very limited, unusual, and often very anxious situation we can make reliable judgments about what they do in very different and more usual situations.

During the sixties a famous educational psychologist decided to do some research into how children look at things, in what kinds of patterns they scan unfamiliar objects. One of his team designed what they called an "eye camera." While the subjects looked at pictures put before them, the eye camera, only a few inches away, shone a fine beam of light at their eyeballs and took a series of photographs of its reflection. The idea was that these photographs of tiny dots of light would tell the researchers which way the eyes had been pointing from instant to instant. From this the researchers were supposed to be able to figure out the patterns in which the eyes moved as the subjects looked at the test pictures.

Since it was essential that the subjects not move their heads while these photos were being taken, the researchers attached to the subjects' chairs U-shaped bars of flat metal, into which the subjects were supposed to push their heads until the bar clamped them very firmly at the temples. Since they might still move their heads a little up and down, another piece of metal was put before them, the "bite bar." As the subjects pushed their heads as far as they could into the U-shaped clamp, they were also supposed to open their mouths, let the bite bar (covered with cardboard) go in, and then bite down hard on it, so that their heads could not move in any direction.


  • "Holt is a class with Piaget."
    New York Review of Books
  • "By his vision of what can be done in education, he makes us think in new ways about what is being done."
    The Wall Street Journal
  • "One of the most profoundly moving books I've ever read, the truest account of how I remember my best learning experiences as a child and an adult."
    Cory Doctorow, author of Walkaway and Little Brother
  • "The gentle voice of reason."
    Life magazine

On Sale
Aug 1, 2017
Page Count
320 pages

John Holt

John Holt

About the Author

John Holt (1923-1985), one of this country's leading educational and social critics, was the author of ten influential books which have been translated into fourteen languages. Known both as a passionate reformer and as "the gentle voice of reason" (Life magazine), John Holt offered insights into the nature of learning that are more relevant today than ever before.
Pat Farenga, writer and president of Holt Associates, brings more than 34 years of fieldwork, advocacy, and personal experience to help children and parents learn in their own ways. He lectures all over the country and is the father of three home-schooled daughters.

Learn more about this author