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Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better: Way to Help People Do Things Better

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It has become common knowledge that our educational system is in dire straights. Children graduate high school without knowing how to read while students are driven to violence by the brutal social climate of school. In Instead of Education John Holt gives us practical, innovative ideas for changing all that. He suggests creative ways to take advantage of the underused facilities we already have. Reading this brilliant educator revolutionizes our thinking about what schooling is for and what we can do to accomplish its true goals.

268 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 1, 1977

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About the author

John C. Holt

26 books298 followers
After teaching in private schools for many years John Caldwell Holt wrote his first two books, How Children Fail, and How Children Learn. He became a vocal advocate for school reforms, and wrote several more books about education theory and practice, including alternative forms and many social issues relating to the education system. Eventually he decided school reform was impossible, and changed his focus to homeschooling. He started America's first magazine dedicated to the subject, Growing Without Schooling, in 1977.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 39 reviews
Profile Image for Alex.
81 reviews7 followers
September 7, 2011
From the guy who kicked off the homeschooling movement in the united states - not attached to Christianity, but to free kids from the pursuit of achievement, which he equates with Education. John Holt tells us that Education prepares students for a restricted life, constrained by the everlasting failing to pursue one's curiosity and develop a holistic being.

This is a well-written and concise treatment of the Education system from an unschooling perspective. Not much has changed since he wrote it in 1977, except that Education's accelerated pursuit of goals has further trapped kids into a life of regimentation.
280 reviews7 followers
April 7, 2014
I'm not sure where to start about how short-sighted, bigoted, and damaging this book is.

Let me say two things first off: 1) I am not opposed to quality homeschooling. I came very, very close to pulling two of my kids out of school and teaching them at home. I fought hard to get a third one into a specialized school, and won. 2) I am not a fan of the current trends in public schools, and the Almighty Test curriculum, for it fails every student every time.

That said, this author is both right, and grossly wrong in his attitude toward education.

By the author's ideology, classical education demands are damaging to a child, that by "teaching" a child in a demanding process, he ceases to "learn" and is bored, turned off, and tuned out, and then fails to feel good about himself.

In some cases, yes, this is true, but is most often due to a variety of ills, from poor teachers, poor schools, social issues like poverty and lack of role models, and a poor, uninspiring curriculum.

Holt's idea is to abandon "teaching" and allow children to drift and explore whatever they want, however they want, for as long as they want, and that when the motivation to know and learn something strikes them, they will then sit down and learn it all on their own under their own motivation. If they wish to learn math, they will do it when they are ready and it makes sense to them. If they wish to take apart clocks all day for 3 years straight, then that's okay, because there are too many scholars in the world and the world needs more repairmen and factory workers and such, too (a frighteningly familiar political stance). There are only so many good schools and good jobs, and they should be reserved for those who will do best at them, and the rest of the students should just learn their place and be happy at what they do.

While what he basically touts is a Montessori approach, with a lot of Bettelheim and some Kanner thrown in, can you imagine an anarchical school approach? Without common societal norms, a society cannot function. If there is no standard level of reading, computation, and science, not only have you thus created a feudalistic peasant, but a stratified social ladder where upward mobility has become almost impossible.

I have no issue with his basic tenant: schools do not allow enough hands-on and experiential learning for students who do not do well in a straight-laced tied-to-the-desk read-and-spit-out curriculum. I'd love to see more of a Montessori method in public schools, but some group instruction needs to occur. Here is the lesson, now go forth and play while you process it. That is a method that requires very small classes, and very intensive teachers. Our schools are not willing to pay for that. My kids benefited tremendously from visiting every museum from Maine to Florida; they are amazed at kids who have never been to see anything.

But telling people to abandon traditional schooling because it's damaging children, to lie to school boards and send your children to relatives, anything to get them out of public schools, is wrong. Wrong to dump unwarrented guilt on parents, wrong to children, and wrong to society. Yes, public education is failing us, because we have ALLOWED it to fail us, replacing hands-on job training skills with computers as the answer to all our ills, but this guy is a nut job of highest caliber, and MY kid is not going to become a victim of anyone's social downscaling. Hands-on is what hobbies are for.

AVOID this jackass, and read someone worthy, such as Kozol, or Montessori.
Profile Image for Milloum.
14 reviews
September 27, 2010
Very radical. A 100 years back in Europe, and to this day in many parts of the world, compulsory schooling was social progress; but now, Holt says, school as we know it has to be wiped out.

Reading this book, if nothing else, revealed how many preconceived ideas I had harboured about education. I laughed out at my stupidity when reading John Holt explaining that "learning" and "doing stuff" are not in fact different processes, the one taking place at school, the other, outside... How much more obvious can you get.

Gets you thinking about school, schools. About whether school really teaches kids to think by themselves -- or to bend blindly to authority. Then you just look around you -- hell, you just look at yourself! And you realise, this guy's got a point here...
Profile Image for Justin Podur.
Author 10 books37 followers
July 6, 2013
John Holt's approach to education, teaching, and learning has been a major influence in my life. What Holt brings to the table is an optimism about people's ability to learn. You don't really need to do anything to get people to learn, especially children, who are incredibly efficient learning machines. But the way our bureaucratic, credential-driven, behaviourist education systems work is to stifle the learning instinct. Holt works this basic message throughout all his books, but this one was one of my favourites because I was looking for practical advice. What to do as a teacher, given these realities? Holt can help with this, a lot.
Profile Image for Elliot.
50 reviews46 followers
November 12, 2010
This is vintage John Holt, who is considered by many to be the father of the homeschooling movement. Written in the seventies, his criticism of the public education system is apropos and prescient. Thirty years ago Holt proposed that school reform was not possible, that the whole system needed to be scrapped. He offered many alternative ways for children to pursue learning and self-education instead of the environment of compulsory schools whose social function is "ranking....grading and labeling, putting children into pecking orders, dividing them into winners and losers."
Profile Image for Beau.
3 reviews
September 17, 2012

I imagine this is and will be one of the most important books I've read for my son's sake. Brilliantly succinct and on point. I love it and recommend literally everyone read it. :P
4 reviews
October 17, 2008
I am really enjoying all of Holt's books. His premise, as I understand it, is that humans are born with an innate curiousity to learn and understand the world around them. Regarding public school here is my favorite quote from this book. “Meanwhile, education-compulsory schooling, compulsory learning-is a tyranny and a crime against the human mind and spirit. Let all those escape it who can, any way they can.” John Holt. Pretty much sums it up. Read it if you are curious about a new path for education.
Profile Image for Kate Davis.
485 reviews42 followers
May 17, 2020
Such a helpful frame! Holt argues that there is no such thing as "learning" -- there is just doing something poorly and repeatedly until one begins to do it better. That frame is a little difficult to translate to abstract concepts (say, post-graduate theology), but has formed the way I approach designing curriculum and assessment. What are people actually *doing* on the development of their learning, and how is that visible?

For my own learning: this frame has allowed me to expand a growth mindset that lets me take up hobbies and interests with more readiness. I'll remind myself that learning *is* doing something poorly to give myself permission to be bad -- not as a sign of failure or lack of talent, but as exactly the developmental step I should be at as a new practitioner.
334 reviews29 followers
November 17, 2009
This is a wonderful book; I don't know if I'd go quite as far as Holt does in his scathing appraisal of compulsory schooling--but I'd go pretty far, and his book is a cogent, lucid, and jargon-free explanation of why.

Profile Image for Dena Guzman.
Author 5 books43 followers
August 30, 2012
I give the concept and content five stars, six, seven, eight, nine. Shoot me for this, but I find John Holt's writing itself to be slightly dry and thick. However, he's the Father of Homeschool and I think this should be required reading for all parents.
Profile Image for Zag Abdulrahman.
42 reviews26 followers
March 27, 2014

We don't see someone who has been home-schooled, advocating homeschooling, do we?

How perplexing it is, to be who you are as "compulsory Schooled". Nonetheless, you advocate homeschooling!

Profile Image for Prerna Munshi.
73 reviews1 follower
May 14, 2020
This book isn't about reforming education but to completely do away with it. Therefore, this book doesn't even give 'alternate' ways of educating.

Holt has a massive experience in elementary schooling and therefore he has extensively studied how education systemically castrates the thought process of both the child (the supposed student) and the adult (the supposed teacher). This forms a prelude to his concept of 'de-schooling'. This problem persists in a college/University system as well but here in this, he primarily focusses on the institution of school. He says how with the industrial revolution,schools also multiplied in order to make the society industrially adept. This industry ran through machines and humans had to be made in sync with these machines. That is where through a rigorous outline of its curriculum , education began to be forcefully rammed inside, making the individual incapable of her own thought process and like machines she had to be told 'what to learn'.

Holt's philosophy is 'learning by doing' and he universally tries its application in not just learning a physical skill like music, dance , sport but also in disciplines that are majorly theoretical. He believes in the free will of the child(student). [Holt has been a champion of youth rights]. He leaves learning solely upon the discernment and interest of the student. Similarly, he also liberates the teacher from a mandate to teach. He leaves it upon their discretion whether or not they would want to teach the individual . He argues a teacher isn't somebody who guides but one who makes the student see the teacher in her own self. While you're a student, you're simultaneously your own teacher. The teacher's job is neither to elicit an interest in what she thinks 'ought to be there' nor it is to put an individual in a certain crucible but to let the individual exist in her complete autonomy.

He identifies the institutional schools as S-chools and the somewhat deschooled schools as s-chools. While he knows that the S-chools are going to exist for long because parents demand their children to be winners (and thus graded). He argues how in such highly competitive places,learning cannot happen as someone has to bear the cost to enable another to be the winner. So the solution doesn't lie in making more nos.of winners but to altogether defy this system for it corrupts one's self worth.

He also points out how the institution of School forms its teachers , who function entirely on disbelief. They don't trust their students and build a professional authority out of fear and distrust. Their institutional positioning is so that they are themselves a captive. He recounts of an experiment where teachers became torturers under institutional mandates.

Holt explores many such interesting areas. He talks about the instances of deschooled schools. Beacon Hill Free School in Boston was one such. Even Bertrand Russell along with his wife ran one where people on their will could learn anything (out of a multifarious catalog ranging from Math to house building to language) which wouldn't award them with any degree or certificate . They would also have the autonomy to leave as per their discretion. These schools didn't own an infrastructure rather they were run in houses, churches or other such places where space and permit were available. He talks about Lilleskole in Denmark where children were not told what to do and what to expect out of it. The Denmark school was named 'school' just to build a community of similar learners and their facilitators.
Holt also talks about the alternative and effective learning through Exchange centers , free press, public libraries where any person could assume the role of a teacher or student. Suppose XYZ knows something (not even to the extent of qualifying as an 'expert' ) and if she is approached by someone who is interested in that particular subject/skill, she could impart her knowledge and if the latter still has a persisting interest, she has the freedom to suit herself. Such learning is not only liberating but self sustaining as well.

He also argues how the industry could function better when it opts for individuals with an ability 'to do/to perform' a certain operation rather than going after the evidences of efficiency in the form of degrees and certificates.

The language in the book is not authoritative. It doesn't preach or try indoctrinating it's belief. It doesn't talk in a passive sentimental tone rather pragmatically and actively , through scientific substantiation of it's propositions. Holt was a proponent of home schooling (although suffixed by 'schooling' yet not so). He quite aptly professes as early in the mid 20th century how education shall become predominant in the succeeding generation and how difficult it would be to get away with it. He doesn't even implore every parent to go and demand radicalisation of schools since deschooling is a major political shift involving a series of radical changes.

In the beginning, he hopes that through the efforts of a handful of such parents and other such true learning facilitators (who see through the deformities in education) education & attending school could be made non compulsory.
Profile Image for Heather.
197 reviews1 follower
April 25, 2020
I'd give this book 5 stars for the impact it's going to have on my thinking for decades. It is a lovely book in its own right. The section that includes writing prompts for developing skill in written communication (though hardly the focus of the book) will be useful to us. More than practical, this book is philosophical, shares research and ideas, and includes examples of extraordinary alternative s-chools (lower case, his distinction between compulsory S-chools and s-chools that don't mistake what is truly required to learn. The biggest challenge for readers of this book is likely John Holt's reprimand of good, caring, and interested teachers who, he argues, are focused on how to teach a child a particular skill set out by the curriculum, rather than understanding that learning becomes much more difficult in a compulsory environment. For my teacher friends, this book will be uncomfortable at best, and potentially downright infuriating. To you I say give this book a chance --see what he is saying about learning (rather than teaching), and see that the challenge is working within a system that needs to change so dramatically that most would not recognize school by the end.

One of the most interesting concepts John Holt explores is the distinction between compulsory school that teaches a particular curriculum, and voluntary learning environments that teach an equally rigid "curriculum". Karate classes, or art classes, or any other opportunity, if it is the choice of the student to attend, is different than S-chool. Students who wish to learn karate can join a dojo if they are willing to accept that joining that school means learning "this particular way". In other words, "you can attend this school if you wish, and if you do, this is what we teach and how we teach it." The distinction is whether it is voluntary to attend or not.

293 reviews1 follower
May 15, 2021
An atom bomb in a plain briefcase. I spend the better part of every day thinking about education, and it's rare that I encounter a libertarian argument that feels weighty, real, and considerate. Holt's, unfortunately, is so good at being all three of those that he's able to fundamentally rewire not just how I teach, but frankly whether I want to teach at all. He takes three simple premises (education tries to change us long-term, long-term changes only stick when done consensually, and the vast majority of education isn't consensual), and hacks gleefully from there. It's not so much a book about what's wrong with schooling as it is a catalog of what's right with learning, and how little of those real behaviors can be coerced or induced on command in scheduled bursts.
Profile Image for Doni.
582 reviews
October 7, 2018
I've been trying to find the right word for this: tirade, polemic, and diatribe aren't right because he's outlining the ideas for something rather than against. Still, it very much carries that feel. He provides no evidence or even supporting arguments for his views. While I agree with some of his ideas, I don't think anyone who disagreed with him would find his writing persuasive.
Profile Image for Kathy.
351 reviews1 follower
March 10, 2020
Much of this book is outdated/irrelevant in a way that his other books aren't because of developments in the internet and legality of homeschooling.
Sometimes his tone about people who work in schools is more than I can take.
Also--it's very clear that he's coming from a privileged background and that affects his generalizations about how a world without schools would function.
Profile Image for Jonna Higgins-Freese.
704 reviews44 followers
February 15, 2016
The father of homeschooling and unschooling, Holt argues that people are natural learners and explorers, and that formal S-chooling kills that process through overemphasis on testing and credentials.

His analysis was interesting, but his solutions weren't compelling to me. While he talks about children and the need to avoid compulsory schooling, most of his solution examples relate to *adult* learning. Clearly he thinks that adults should have more ability to supervise their children, that it's the capitalist man that keeps them in the workplace and unable to supervise childrens' free learning (though what this means for women is left unexplored).

I'm always torn by these books -- philosophically, these ideas feel comfortable and fit with my view of the world. But having children of my own (Wikipedia doesn't indicate that Holt did), I know that my gentle philosophies don't always work out well in practice. My own kids would spend their entire lives playing Minecraft or running around the neighborhood shooting each other with gun-sticks if given a chance, and though I tried for many years to believe this was cultivating their faculties, I'm just not sure it is. Or at least, I think that an hour or so a day of that, more on the weekends, is plenty, and that going to school is fine the rest of the time.

And I'm also torn because school was a great place for me -- though I'm a person of scholarly temperament. So, yes, schools are designed to sort and label. But they can also be places of mind-expansion and deep inquiry -- processes that are sometimes painful to engage in.

His idea that learning and doing are the same thing makes absolute sense to me, and has impacted the way I talk about drum "practice" at home - instead of reminding my son to practice every day, I remind him now to "play."

At the same time, I do resonate with the idea that schools fundamentally treat children as if "if we didn't make you come here you wouldn't learn anything, you'd just waste your time, spend the whole day playing basketball or watching TV or making trouble, you'd hang out on the streets, never do anything worthwhile, grow up to be a bum. Even if you could be trusted to want to find out about the world, you are too stupid to do it. Not only do we have to decide what you need to learn, but then we have to show you, one tiny step at a time, how to learn it. You could never figure it out for yourself, or even have enough sense to ask good questions about it. The world is too complicated, mysterious, and difficult for you. We can't let you explore it. We must make sense of it for you. You can only learn about it from us" (171).

He doesn't argue, fortunately, that doing/learning requires no discipline -- only that that discipline should be freely undertaken by someone, say, who wants to learn Spanish: "If you come here and do what we ask, at the end of three months you will speak fluent Spanish. You undertake to do certain things (come to class); we undertake to do certain things and provide resources" (22).

Interestingly, he argues for a fundamentally formative definition of teaching: the teacher breaks down the task into an order that makes sense and allows learning, gives a model, and gives feedback "shows the student the difference between what he did and what he was supposed to do, and shows how to close that difference . . . by doing this, he tries to give the student (or help him make for himself) standards, criteria, a heightened awareness, a model in his own mind/body, from which he will in time get his own instructions, feedback, and correction. Thus, as he sharpens the student's movements, he sharpens the criteria by which the student will later judge and correct his own movements" (58).

Argues that the only legitimate use of tests is to find out where the student is to better order the tasks (80).

Points out that any intellectual activity begins with asking a question, and that school textbooks rarely make this clear (what question was Einstein trying to answer, and where did he go wrong).

group work as collective feedback (often lost in lone unschooler thought) (103)

Again formative: helping students learn to write through formative use of criteria/standards that become real to the student (104).

Fundamentally argues that our view of children should be different: "children need a society which is open, accessible, visible to all its citizens, young and old, and in which every citizen, however young or old, has the right to play an active, serious, responsible, and useful part" (135).

Schools are fundamentally about sorting winners and losers (157). "Schools are, after all, selling tickets to jobs and careers. The more good grades they give, the less their tickets are worth" (160).

And they make people obedient -- extensive citation of a research study in which people were asked to hurt another person by someone in authority, and did so. Though he does not offer a comparison group of people *not* having attended S-chool who behave differently, so I'm not sure what the point is, other than that people are socialized to follow the leader. What role S-chool plays in this is empirically left unclear, though Holt clearly links it to S-chool.
6 reviews
July 23, 2017
An old book so some of the ideas are old, but the ideas about doing what you are interested in instead of forcing a child to learn something they never wanted to learn and giving them a grade that tells them you are bad at this stands the test of time.

20 reviews
December 13, 2017
Sometimes learning happens outside the classroom. This book reaffirms that children learn best when they are engaged in hands-on learning from people in their community. Definitely reminds us that we all have gifts to share.
April 22, 2020
3.5 stars
Published in the late 70s, several references in this book are now outdated. The overall message, though, is very much relevant and important. The more I read on this topic the more I believe compulsory schooling isn't the answer to anything.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
392 reviews8 followers
April 20, 2018
This took me a while to finish but there are a lot of great ideas I'm here. Definitely solidified my decision to not send my son to traditional school.
Profile Image for Arline.
178 reviews3 followers
March 21, 2019
Speed-skimmed it and still took away a ton. Definitely a good resource for anyone thinking about education and its many pitfalls.
Profile Image for Amrit Blahblah.
6 reviews1 follower
May 30, 2020
A very thought provoking book, I read it like a study and took my time in orderto digest and consider each section. I would love to read more books like this.
Profile Image for Heather.
129 reviews2 followers
August 6, 2015
I bought into the first half of the book--Do-ers, learning is easier when there's interest and choice in the learner, doing something and learning to do it really aren't two different processes. Great.
The second half--or the final third, perhaps--he lost me. Some of his solutions to getting kids out of compulsory schooling are not well thought out at all. For example: The students could take competency tests to move up a grade instead of having to sit in a classroom for the year. Well, who writes the tests? Who determines what the student should learn in whatever grade? It wouldn't be magical Do-er Fairies but either professional educators (those who create the problems he's worked up about) or legislators (who may or may not have the faintest clue about education or child development). He was writing in 1976 before "Common Core" had entered our cultural lexicon, but that's far from uncontroversial now.
He disparages the educational establishment as racist and biased toward the wealthy--which is all too true too often. Another of his solutions is to send children out to the country, or to relatives who live out of the parents' district. How many of the poor have such relatives? That's a solution for the wealthy, entirely missing his target audience.
Much of this is quite dated as well; his Learning Exchange is being done by Khan Academy or even plain old Youtube. I think he'd approve of that. However, the idea that anyone can gauge their own proficiency is distorted. Someone has to be the amateur doctor's first patient, and I sure wouldn't want it to be myself or any of my loved ones.

I could go on, but it feels like ranting.
Profile Image for David.
28 reviews4 followers
January 5, 2016
So, overall, I really enjoyed this book. His distinction of S-chools and s-chools was hard to read. I get what he meant by the distinction, and appreciate it, I just found the mechanism (the 'S-' and 's-') awkward. A few of the chapters were a little dry, but I think that had to do with the subject matter more than his commentary or writing style. However, chapter 10 (On Human Nature) was awesome, and chapter 13 (What S-chools Are For) kind of blew my mind. And really, really pissed me off. Which is what a good book that challenges your assumptions should do. At least in some cases.

A small passage I found memorable:

"The parents who gave me the list told me that his child's kindergarten teacher told him in November, "Well, one thing is certain, you son will never be a scholar." Hiding as best he could his amazement and anger, the father asked what else the teacher had learned about his child in eight weeks."

And a quote from Chapter 10:

"A culture which says that people are bad will produce a great many people who will behave badly."

Which is part of a much longer and very cohesive thought about culture and the 'malleability' of human nature.
3 reviews1 follower
June 17, 2016
I read this book after haveing been a homeschooler for 20+ years. So, I had been to conventions and heard a lot about him being the father of the homeschool movement. Ironically, I had to read books from a list given me at an online college where I am now studying to complete my BAES degree, Bachelor of Arts, Edu. studies. After 3.5 years of taking public school teacher classes, it seemed quite radical at first, but I really got into the real-life, hands-on, success and student-led cases. In fact, my open-ended problem in my vision for education in the future is 'the public school system is broken' and my proposed solution is to bridge public school and homeschooling via the great new technology that is available, and charter schools. Public schools that are vacant in the evenings can be a valuable venue for homeschool/community interest classes, and homeschoolers with their great flexibility and service minded, and organization skills can help with reading in library classes, peer aides to special needs students, etc. Even organizing field trips that involve ps parents to learn the joy of being involved with their children's education. Yes, this book inspired me!
Profile Image for Emily Mellow.
869 reviews8 followers
September 29, 2013
I don't know, this book seems redundant. I love John Holt, but I guess I just don't need more convincing.
I hate to give it a low rating because maybe it will be the book that turns things around for someone else, so I'll leave it unrated- but it's a boring read for those of us already unschooling.
Profile Image for Katelyn.
180 reviews
July 2, 2013
A great resource, full of wonderful things to think about in regards to how to truly educate children. Many, many examples and research and observations and also practical advice and application. I want to read his other books now as we'll as many of the ones he referenced. This book solidifies the idea that compulsory schooling is NOT a good thing, but still ways to deal with it. Loved it.
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