Heretic who castigated compulsory learning

5th November 2004 at 00:00
If you were listing the books that have inspired teachers you would include American philosopher and teacher John Holt's How children fail, published 40 years ago this year.

"Most children in school fail," he wrote in 1964. "They fail to develop more than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding and creating with which they were born and of which they made full use during the first two or three years of their lives."

Professor Roland Meighan, founder of Educational Heretics Press, and one of Holt's friends in the UK (they were planning a book together shortly before Holt died in 1985) reminded me, when I phoned him, that Holt didn't have much time for schools.

"He believed not that schools represented a good idea gone wrong, but that they were a bad idea to start with," he said. "Mind you," he added. "I think John missed out the words 'in a democracy'. Schools are a bad idea in a democracy, but I'd argue they're a jolly good idea in a totalitarian society!"

Holt followed How children fail with How children learn, then went on to produce several more titles, all of them arguing his belief that compulsory learning is a contradiction in terms.

And yet Holt has inspired many excellent classroom teachers over the years - encouraging them to see the the school experience through the child's eyes. Lucy Griffiths, head of Jesson's primary in Dudley, recalls her own encounter with his work.

"I come from a working-class Baptist background, and when I went to college, my idea was to go out and change people - to do missionary work in school. He was a revelation to me, because he took it from the other direction - believing that children were people with their own perceptions.

One of the things he himself did, was to tell children at the beginning of the year what their tests were going to be at the end. And when you think about it why shouldn't they know what they are going to have to do?"

Holt's books, including How children fail, are still available in Penguin.

Roland Meighan's own book, John Holt: personalised learning instead of 'uninvited teaching' is published by Educational Heretics Press, Pounds 10.

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