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How Children Learn

(Classics in Child Development)

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  2,670 ratings  ·  207 reviews
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 encourag ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 4th 1995 by Da Capo Lifelong Books (first published October 18th 1967)
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Average rating 4.19  · 
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 ·  2,670 ratings  ·  207 reviews

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James Swenson
May 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
tl;dr: Teachers, parents, and students might like to read How Children Learn and think about it, or even use it to jump-start a discussion with their peers.


Because I'm a college math professor, How Children Learn is a hard book for me to deal with.

Today, I spent the day grading final exams. The students' performance was tremendously discouraging. Many problems were left completely blank; in many other cases, the students wrote things that were not even false – just meaningless – or otherwise
Jun 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in education
Recommended to Natasha by: GWC 5 Pillar
Shelves: education
I was energized as an educator after reading this book. Imagine my delight when I learned my own father read this book when it was first published in my childhood. That explains a lot. (I come from a family where none of us have ever moved off the educational path.) We all love to learn!

John Holt recommends: let learners have the freedom to explore their own tastes. This is particularly important with children. Holt points out that children yearn to do real things with real facts now (see page 2
Oct 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in learning how children learn!
Although John Holt is best known as a "founding father" of the homeschool movement, this remarkable book is a simple but profound collection of his observations about how children learn. It is a much-needed reminder for most "grown-ups" to open their eyes to view the world as children do, if only to better understand the young ones in their life and be a more patient, enthusiastic, warm and empathetic parent/friend/mentor. Most of all, Holt believes that children learn best when they learn at th ...more
Mar 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
When I was first given copies of John Holt's "How Children Fail" and "How Children Learn", I was loath to give them more than a scant perusal. I had read a few articles by and about the man who was probably the first to coin the term "unschooling" and generally considered one of the early instigators and champions of the homeschool movement, but I had, for the most part, distanced myself from reading his works in depth.

Born, raised and schooled in Singapore, I had had a rigid and rigorous educat
Nov 08, 2007 rated it it was ok
John Holt's basic premise is that "teaching" children anything is unproductive at best. He believes that children will direct their own learning guided by curiosity, need and exposure.
He has an, often recalled, bit on his daughter discovering and becoming enthralled with his type writer.
It's a lovely theory and possibly highly applicable for those with resources and patience to provide a plethora of objects/experiences. What it lacks (and admittedly isn't attempting to propose to offer), is wh
Jun 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This book was recommended to me by my husband, a former school teacher.The author, was originally a math and french teacher, but after spending a lot time studying children and education and writing a couple of books went on contribute a great deal to the home school movement. Between reading this and How Children Fail, homeschooling is something that I am contemplating. And if nothing else I will very closely monitor what and how my children are learning. I strongly recommend this book to paren ...more
Aug 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing
John Holt has some really fascinating observations from working with children that really reflect my own experiences with my kids. Children learn through games and play. They seem to learn spontaneously without being taught (like Holt makes the point...if we taught kids to speak how we teach them to read, they would never learn!)

I learned it's important to sort of "watch myself" and not interfere with my kids learning process. I need to let go and let them discover on their own or gently guide t
Jul 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: education
This is my first book by Holt. I'm aware he has a large following. I can understand why. The man has a gift for understanding children and how they learn and navigate the world. The genus of this book is it's timelessness. Written in the 60's the book is still accurate today.

Holt said that children do not need to be taught because learning is human nature for children and they have their own unique way of doing it. I'm a believer. My son taught himself to read and do simple math at a young age
Feb 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Wow! I am already a very relaxed mom--not by nature, by nature I am like the Tiger Mom, but I have read enough and understand enough at this point to take a very relaxed approach to parenting--this book helped me relax into that relaxing, if that makes any sense. If a book can help you have faith in your children and life, this is it! I have understood for a long time the high self-esteem children get from being raised from babyhood with great respect. This book helped me to see the sense-of-lif ...more
Feb 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Margret by: Vivian
Shelves: 2017
After plugging away at reading this book over the course of an entire year, I forgot much of the details but left with great ideas and a deeper understanding of a child's process in learning.
I enjoyed how Holt observed children and their learning styles within their natural environments of home, outings, and school. (With school being admittedly the least natural of the three). He helps you see the child through the eyes of the child. He helps an adult relearn the process and difficulty of lear
Nicholas Karpuk
Dec 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Parents, Prospective Parents, Avid Learners
People as a whole are only as smart as a society is comfortable with.

In prose style "How Children Learn" reminds me a lot of "The Omnivore's Dilemma", in that both present some pretty depressing news with a great deal of compassion and hope. John Holt wrote this in the 60's and revised it in the 80's a few years before his death, and it's alarming how many of his criticisms of education are still applicable decades later. But it never comes off as polemic or divisive, just concerned for the min
Jun 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is kind of a sequel to How Children Fail. In this book, Holt examines how very young children (infants to toddlers) learn, and what that has to tell us about how humans are hard-wired to learn. Holt doesn't spend as much time in this book talking about the specific failings of the educational establishment, but he doesn't need to: the indictment is clear when one considers how humans naturally learn, and then contrasts that with how schools attempt to teach. Holt's theory is that schools, i ...more
May 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Follow up to Mr. Holt's first book, with much the same subject matter. However, this time the emphasis is not on the learning that takes place in the classroom, but rather on how infants and very young children go about learning about their world. Mr. Holt is an interesting writer, so the book was a pleasure to read, but its conclusions seemed much more forced than in the first book. It felt as if Mr. Holt started out trying to prove that children learn perfectly well on their own, without any a ...more
Jul 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I really enjoyed this book. I've been recently learning about the idea of unschooling and other various learning philosophies, and so I had to try one of Holt's books. And while I didn't really agree with everything he said I found a lot of his stories really enlightening.

This book is largely filled with anecdotal evidence and he doesn't mess around with statistics and studies (if he did, those would probably be very outdated by this point anyway). But I learned a lot from the stories he told a
Feb 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Essential read for parents, especially homeschoolers.

My favorite section was the Art, Math & Other Things Section. I have a highly capable kid who bristles at math and I'm on a mission to change this.

This quote felt like a sucker punch:

"The children begin to feel, after a while, that there was no time for art, that it was not serious. They show a parent or teacher a picture, and the adult says, in a perfunctory voice, "How nice, dear." Then they take home some idiot workbook, whose blanks they
Sep 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
Took me a while to get through, but so so good. One part that really stuck with me and represented the main ideas of the book: "They need to build up a mental model of the territory before they start trying to talk about it. We teachers like to think that we can transplant our own mental models into the minds of children by means of explanations. It cant be done" (222). The whole book gave me a lot to think about as a parent.
Nick Davies
Fascinating reading. This non-fiction book discusses John Holt's views as a teacher and educational pioneer about how children (more particularly young children) learn to make sense of the world in which they are growing up, and in doing to start to pick up understanding and competency in tasks.

Written in the late sixties, it makes an interesting counterpoint and comparison with more modern educational practices - Holt does sometimes come over slightly liberal and (from my point of view as an e
Aug 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Original and insightful. Some great points - and good reminders - on respecting and taking children seriously as small (yet very smart) people, trusting their love of and instinct for learning (and not rushing it), and valuing play as important work, to name a few. Also, some fun first-hand observations of children playing and learning!
Mar 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
So often we as adults expect children to fit within the prescribed framework we have in mind, whether it's within the household, schools, church, or really any framework within society. And there are many ways that we should of course teach children to be a good citizen... but what of the individual? Sometimes in our hurry to fit every child into a certain, fixed system, we stifle the natural love children have for learning, and can even cause the child to hate learning. This book is a bit dated ...more
Andrea Balfour
Jul 13, 2015 rated it did not like it
John Holt was an intelligent man writing about his studies of childrens' learning styles and education. His writing, however, is difficult to process, convoluted with high level science and low level observation, and mixed between anecdotes and quotes from others. I found it very hard to follow. Additionally, his main subject in the beginning hundred pages is Lisa. She is an obstinate, stubborn child who seemingly mandates how she wants things to be done, starting at 18 months old. This seems to ...more
Aug 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
One of the strongest arguments for homeschooling/learning at a individual child's pace that I've ever seen. Holt includes theory on learning literacy, mathematics, science and life skills. A fascinating read.

"The one thing we can be sure of, or surest of, is that children have a passionate desire to understand as much of the world as they can, even what they cannot see and touch, and as far as possible to acquire some kind of skill, competence, and control in it and over it. Now this desire, thi
Jul 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This was the first time I've read a John Holt book, and it was definitley worth it. I'm looking forward to reading How Children Fail next. There was much I marked, and many pages I dog-earned to return to in the future, but I will at least share his ending comment: "What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and th eclassroom: give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; ...more
Basirat Atif
Jan 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
I give this book a 4 star. As a teacher, this book really helped me understand children better and I have tried a different approach in class room after reading this book and did get some positive result. The whole point of the book boils down to; trust and appreciate a child and he will do wonders.
Even as grown ups, we don't like to be forced into learning or believing something so how can we expect children to do that.
The only little problem I had with the book was it sometime leaves you wit
Jun 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
It's the sort of book that, if you read it properly, has a permanent effect on the way you think. For me, a reread, so not quite so shocking and fundamental, which is perhaps why I've only given it four stars. It feels impossible to argue with most of what he says.
Really, anyone with a youngish child should read this and How Children Fail, and should keep it in their heads when they talk to their children.
Jenna Anderson
May 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-homework
This was a delightful read. The whole book is just sweet observations. Kids are fascinating. I was and am a person who loves to learn, but school never ever brought that out in me. I saw myself in these pages, and I so wish that there was more trust folded into the way we educate our kids.

As a parent who is trying to wrap my head around how I want my own kids to get their education, I believe this text (its sentiment) will serve as a solid foundation.
Aug 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book has had the greatest influence on me and my family. My husband and I are striving to stop correcting the kids and have a renewed respect of their ability to learn. No book I have ever read has given me a better direction to provide an environment for learning. Watch out!! Be aware of the "Teacher Devil" in you!
Sep 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
As a tutor, i am always awared of how over-pampering we have on our child nowadays. The book uses some year long research echoes my hunge. I remind myself the value of keeping a child's pride and dignity in learning, more importantly their spirit of independence in Learning. Our school, esp asian schools, are destroying it.
Mar 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
"When they learn in their own way and for their own reasons, children learn so much more rapidly and effectively than we could possibly teach them, that we can afford to throw away our curricula and our timetables, and set them free, at least most of the time, to learn on their own.”
Celeste Batchelor
Oh how I wish I had read this book when my children were young! I would have done things very differently. A must read for home educators.
Sep 02, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
The summary of this book seems to be: "you want to know how children learn? Go and watch them. Just don't ask a scientific or heaven forbid a teacher - those know nothing real". All this told in anecdotes describing children's behaviour.
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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 ...more

Other books in the series

Classics in Child Development (10 books)
  • Babies and Their Mothers (Classics in Child Development)
  • The Child, the Family, and the Outside World
  • Talking To Parents
  • The Biography Of A Baby
  • The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School
  • Children's Secrets
  • The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost
  • The Self-respecting Child: Development Through Spontaneous Play
  • How Children Fail

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“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.” 1 likes
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