John Holt (educator)

For the earlier Holt, see John Holt (English educator).
John Holt

Holt in 1980
Born (1923-04-14)April 14, 1923
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died September 14, 1985(1985-09-14) (aged 62)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Occupation Author, educator

John Caldwell Holt (April 14, 1923 – September 14, 1985) was an American author and educator, a proponent of homeschooling and, specifically, the unschooling approach, and a pioneer in youth rights theory.

From homeschooling to unschooling

Holt became disillusioned with the school system after several years of working within it; he became convinced that reform of the school system was not possible and began to advocate homeschooling. He believed that "children who were provided with a rich and stimulating learning environment would learn what they are ready to learn, when they are ready to learn it".[1] Holt believed that children did not need to be coerced into learning; they would do so naturally if given the freedom to follow their own interests and a rich assortment of resources. This line of thought came to be called unschooling.

Holt's Growing Without Schooling (GWS), founded in 1977, was America's first home education newsletter. He also set up John Holt's Bookstore, which made selected books available by mail order. This brought in additional revenue that helped sustain the newsletter, which carried very little advertising.

Holt's sole book on homeschooling, Teach Your Own, was published in 1981. It quickly became the "Bible" of the early homeschooling movement. It was revised by his colleague Patrick Farenga and republished in 2003 by Perseus Books.

Holt on education

Holt wrote several books that have greatly influenced the unschooling movements. His writings have influenced many individuals and organizations, including the Evergreen State College, Caleb Gattegno, Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions, the National Youth Rights Association, and the Freechild Project.

Since Holt did not have a teaching degree, many believe this allowed for his work in the private school sector to make way for him to have a more objective opinion on the American school system. Being new to the environment, it is thought that he was able to make more objective distinctions between what the schools said they were doing and what they were actually doing than other educators. For the first many years of his teaching career, he maintained the belief that schools overall were not meeting their missions due to using the wrong methods and pedagogical approaches and that these failures were the cause for rendering young scholars as children who were less willing to learn and more focused on avoiding the embarrassment and ridicule of not learning.[2]

As Holt wrote in his first book, How Children Fail (1964) "...after all, if they (meaning us) know that you can't do anything, then they won't blame you or punish you for not being able to do what you have been told to do." It was this notion that led him to make changes within his own classroom to provide an environment in which his students would feel more comfortable and confident. With the support of his colleague Bill Hull, Holt began putting less emphasis on grades and tests, and began taking steps to decrease the notion of ranking the children. He focused on his students being able to grasp the concepts he taught, rather than having them work for the correct answer. Instead of using the typical methods to determine the progress of his students, he adopted a more student-centered approach to teaching. Patrick Farenga has paraphrased Holt's distinction between good students and bad students when he said, "a good student is careful not to forget what he studied until after the test is taken."[3] Eventually, his new methods for teaching caused him to be terminated from his position in what he claimed was the school wanting to maintain "old 'new' ideas not new 'new' ideas."[2]

After leaving Colorado, Holt sought other opportunities in education. Although it took him some time to come to a conclusion about his own thoughts on education as well as make sense of his observations, studies, and data, ultimately he felt that schools were "a place where children learn to be stupid." Once he developed this conclusion, his focus shifted to making suggestions to help teachers and parents capable of teaching their children how to learn, thus prompting his second book How Children Learn in 1967. Despite his successful career, he still met a number of rejections, resentment, and false hopes from colleagues and the school systems surrounding his ideas and methods. This reality pushed him further and further into the idea of deschooling.[2]

After a few more years of teaching and some visiting professor positions at area universities, Holt wrote his next two books The Underachieving School (1969) and What do I do Monday? (1970). Both books focused on his belief that schools weren't working and how they could be better. Holt had determined by this time that the changes he would like to see happen in the school systems were not likely to become a reality. These changes included the relationship between the child and the teachers and school community that child is apart of.[3] It was at this point in the history of education that the free school movement was in full swing, and his next book, Freedom and Beyond (1972) questioned much of what teachers and educators really meant when they suggested children should have more freedom in the classroom. While Holt was an advocate for children having more rights and abilities to make decisions for themselves, he felt that the free school movement was not the answer to the question of how to fix the school system.

It was at this time that Holt wrote Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974), in which he made claims that children should have independence including the right to work for money, receive fair and equal treatment, the right to vote, and even the right to choose new parent, among other things.[2] At the time, his notions of children having so many rights and responsibilities was not terribly popular, but since then the court systems have seen more and more cases of children attempting to realise many of Holt's suggestions, such as choosing their legal guardian.[3]

Although many of Holt's previous works had discussed the needed reform and failure of the traditional school system, Holt's seventh book, Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Better (1976), focused more on his encouragement that parents find legal ways to remove their children from compulsory schools. Specifically, he referred to an Underground Railroad in which schoolchildren could escape the failing school systems that he had been so critical of. It was this publication that sparked a number of parents to reach out to him regarding their own homeschooling of their children. This correspondence grew so much that he decided to start a newsletter for homeschooling parents. In 1977 Growing Without School was developed and distributed. It's thought that this newsletter is the first published periodical regarding homeschooling in the United States.[3]

Holt's focus began to switch from critiquing school systems and writing from afar to speaking engagements and educating adults on how they can teach their children while learning themselves. His next book, Never Too Late: My Musical Autobiography (1978), focused on showing adults that they were not too old to learn new things. This was translated into ways in which parents who had no experience in education could learn to teach their children on their own in a homeschooling setting.

In 1981, the first edition of Holt's most noteworthy book on unschooling, Teach Your Own: The John Holt Manual on Homeschooling, was published. This book, as was noted in the first lines of the introduction, is "about ways we can teach children, or rather, allow them to learn, outside of schools--at home, or in whatever other places and situations (and the more the better) we can make available to them. It is in part an argument in favor of doing it, in part a report of the people who are doing it, and in part a manual of action for people who want to do it".[4] This manual has since been revised by Holt follower and homeschooling parent Patrick Farenga, and is still distributed today.[3]

Even after Holt's death in 1985, his influence on homeschooling continued through his work. His final book, Learning All the Time:How Small Children Begin To Read, Write, Count And Investigate The World, Without Being Taught, was published posthumously in 1989. It contained a number of his writings for Growing Without School. Since then, the GWS newsletter has garnered followings in a number of different countries and has been continuously distributed since its inception as a tool for the promotion and encouragement of homeschooling in light of the lack of school system reform.[3]


See also


  1. "Who Is John Caldwell Holt: Author". 1986-05-16. Retrieved 2013-10-05.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Lant, J. L. (76/77). Considering John Holt [Electronic version]. Educational Studies, 7(4), 327-335
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Farenga, P. (1999, January). John Holt and the Origins of Contemporary Homeschooling. PATHS OF LEARNING: Options for Families and Communities
  4. Holt, J., & Patrick, F. (2003). Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling (First Paperback ed.). N.p.: Da Capo Press.

Further reading

External links

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