What We Talk about When We Talk about Education


John Holt (1923-1985)

For about seven years, I have taught a seminar at Case Western Reserve on progressive education and school reform. (Its formal title, believe it or not, is “Schoolhouse Rocked.”) At the beginning, I hoped to introduce my students to the liberal reformers of education I admired: John Dewey, Maria Montessori, John Holt, James Herndon, and Jonathan Kozol, for example. As time has passed, however, we’ve had to deal with other sorts of reform as they’ve arisen–first, No Child Left Behind, and, more recently, rigorous and highly disciplined charter schools.

A local Cleveland example is E Prep, an urban school which attempts to improve kids’ education with lots of structure. “Improving education,” in this context, means raising test scores. There’s some evidence that these schools do raise test scores, and thereby might provide city kids with a better chance at keeping up with their suburban peers and getting into college.

Here is a promotional video about the kindergarteners’ first days at Village Prep, the E-Prep school for younger children. My Case students–even after studying Montessori and “Trust the child,” after discussing the need for greater choices in high school, after writing about how hard it is to learn things you’re not interested in, and after debating the hazards of rewards and grades–almost universally approve of this video and this school’s approach. I don’t get it.

If this school helps urban kids have a better chance at life, then I have to agree. Some people insist that poor, urban kids require this kind of schooling. Even so, I feel like crying when I watch it. The rigid authoritarianism, lack of rationality (really, if you touch another kid in the hall, they’ll all fall down like dominoes?) and the assumption that you have to bribe kids (such a Byzantine system of stars, checks, and ice-cream scoops!) make me want to cry. This video always makes me sad, despite the kids’ undeniable charm.

Control. That’s what we’ve come to. Giving kids more freedom is not even on the table.

In contrast, consider how it was in 1971 when John Holt wrote the following passage in his book Freedom and Beyond.

“In a way this book marks the end of an argument. For some time I and others have been saying—some before I was born—that children are by nature smart, energetic, curious, eager to learn, and good at learning; that they do not need to be bribed and bullied to learn; that they learn best when they are happy, active, involved, and interested in what they are doing; that they learn least, or not at all, when they are bored, threatened, humiliated, frightened. Only a few years ago this was controversial, not to say radical talk. . . (O)n the whole these once radical and crazy ideas have become part of the conventional wisdom of education.”

Holt’s radical and crazy ideas have become radical and crazy once again, so much so you rarely even encounter them, and few educators I know have even heard of John Holt. That’s why I was thrilled and gratified to see this TED talk by Sugata Mitra, sent to me by a friend. He gave poor kids computers and then left them alone. Enjoy it, and think about the stunning implications of Mitra’s findings. Then let me know what you think.


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1 Response to What We Talk about When We Talk about Education

  1. joanne says:

    Very interesting. It certainly makes sense that children can learn things on their own when not threatened with punishment, ridicule or bad grades. I wonder though if some of the learning shown is parroting what they heard on the computer without true understanding – seems there is still a role for the teacher to get them to deepen or manipulate the information to reach real understanding.

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