On John Holt and Teaching

This is Part II of my response to John Holt’s book, Teach Your Own. Part I can be found here.

John Holt was never formally trained as an educator. He has few academic credentials and includes zero scholarly citations in his writing, a far cry from E.D. Hirsch or Susan Wise Bauer. Yet his observations on children ring true. Furthermore, they make me rethink my own schoolteacher training, especially in the area of assessment and its impact on learning.

The Problematic Need For Assessment.

Assessment has long been a hotly debated topic among teachers. The biggest concerns taught in teachers’ college are validity (do results demonstrate learning?) and reliability (are results objective and accurate?), to which I would also add practicality (is the assessment usable in the subject / school year?).

To give you a sense of why assessment is so difficult, consider this: Sally, a high school student, has just finished reading an assigned novel, and the teacher must check for her understanding of the novel. Does writing an essay demonstrate learning? Sally could just be parroting responses found online or from class discussions. Happily, she writes an original essay. Unhappily, the essay ignores the essay question and instead explores in depth a pivotal scene she found very gripping. Should she be failed because she did not answer the question? She still demonstrated understanding in the essay, albeit not of the question asked.

Sally’s teacher has had enough of these marking shenanigans and, in the following semester, offers a creative assignment in lieu of demonstrating understanding. Tom and Brett, two students with similar understanding of the novel, both decide to draw a comic about their novel. Tom finishes his project in a week, handing in panels filled with stick figures. Brett fails, because he set out to draw a full manga series, sketched and inked. Brett loses marks because he failed to consider deadlines, not because he didn’t understand the novel. Sorry, Brett. Cue the trombone.

Holt asks why we need children to prove their learning. The quick answer is that, faced with the factory needs of teaching set learning outcomes in a tightly scheduled amount of time, teachers must provide some quantifiable data to demonstrate learning and justify the advancement of students. There is precious little room to maneuver for students’ special needs or talents. Regardless of subject or years of experience, there is always room for improvement in assessment because assessment is a beast.

The problem is when we bring this need for assessment into the home. Because the majority of us (myself included) have gone through the public school system, we’ve been drilled in the idea that learning must be proven to someone else before it can be counted as learning. In other words, we suppose that if a child learns a skill but no one is around to test it, we question whether learning has actually occurred.

Preposterous. Of course learning has happened. The child is witness to their own increase in ability and draws joy. My toddler is immensely pleased with herself every day for a variety of reasons. She took joy in crawling, walking, running, and now it’s in climbing as high as possible. When she stands and realizes that today is the day she can see above the kitchen table, it is a good day. I need not test her. She knows her learning for herself.

And yet, question I do. I quiz her sometimes on what object is on a page or shown on screen. Why? To make myself feel better, to give me the assurance that I have taught her something. But of her own accord, she will tell me that a dog has just crossed the street, a plane is in the sky, and that an elephant hides on a shelf in the corner of a book I have forgotten I owned. My quizzing has been for myself; she needs it not. Assessment is for an external purpose; the student needs it not to ascertain their own understanding.

There are some who will argue this, of course. This is where formative and summative assessment come in. Formative is assessment for the sake of learning, and summative for the sake of assigning a grade. Everything is formative, technically, since assignments can / should lead us to question our own understanding and help us find the gaps in our own knowledge. But what I am learning to believe is that formative assessment is not something that needs arbitrary assignment. A child who gains knowledge will progress. In the course of their progression, they may come to a roadblock. To overcome this obstacle, they will check their own understanding, making reference to external teachers. As they do so, they will discover the gaps in their knowledge and then correct their own path.

Of course, this sort of progression assumes a good deal of self-initiative. Given a goal that the student wants to meet, however, this progression will naturally happen. Consider your own case, dear reader. When you set out to accomplish a task, you realized there was one thing or another you weren’t sure about, and you set out to find answers from other more experienced people, or from books, or other sources. Because you had a goal, you were happy to do what it took to meet that goal. The same will follow for any child.

Photo courtesy of Ricardo Arce on Unsplash.

The Problematic Results of Assessment

In the case of the fictitious students described above, consider what a grade has done for them. Sally, the misguided essayist, scraped by with a passing mark because she wrote an original essay but failed to answer the question (her teacher was gracious enough to pass her anyway). She now assumes that she is a mediocre reader and has less interest in reading. Tom, the stickman artist, understands that so long as he meets the rubric, he doesn’t need to strive too hard to do well enough. Brett, the unfortunate mangaka, still likes to draw. Now he worries more about deadlines than creativity, though, because he doesn’t want to repeat the course.

Holt sums up the impact of assessment as this: when we ask children to prove their knowledge, we take away the joy of their learning. Suddenly acquiring information is about proving it to someone else, not gaining for one’s own sake and use. He goes on to add this:

The most important question any thinking creature can ask itself is, ‘What is worth thinking about?’ When we deny its right to decide that for itself, when we try to control what it must attend to and think about, we make it less observant, resourceful, and adaptive, in a word, less intelligent, in a blunter word, more stupid… The more we [teach] babies tricks, the more they think that learning means and can only mean being taught by others to do tricks, and the less they want to or can explore and make sense of the world around them in their own ways and for their own reasons (166).

Holt, J. and Farenga, P. (2003). Teach your own: The John Holt book of home schooling. Holt Associates.

In short, the effect of assessment (aside from its function in school administration) is often to reprogram students to think that all that matters is what’s on the test. In a school setting, encouraging creativity or self-initiative can butt heads with assessment, but in a school, assessment isn’t going away any time soon.


More to come next post on how this all leads into homeschooling.

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