Inspired by John Holt

Last week I attended a homeschooling book group discussion about The Legacy of John Holt. We were fortunate to have Pat Farenga in attendance. He shared stories about John Holt the person — his ideas, his journey, his quirks, and his commitment to his beliefs. The meeting inspired me to read Holt titles I haven’t yet read (Escape from Childhood is number one on my list), and to revive this post I wrote in 2009.

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“Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.”

John Holt, the late “father of homeschooling,” said that. It’s eminently logical. Sensible. Practical. Profound, even. But what does it mean? Ditch my carefully constructed homeschooling curriculum? Ditch my lesson plan? My textbooks?

Holt was an esteemed educator and school reformer who ultimately turned away from the idea of fixing schools and pursued ways of helping children learn without them. He also coined the term unschooling. Its definition has evolved over the years, but generally it means homeschooling without a rigid curriculum. Its aim is to produce self-sufficient, lifelong learners such as those described in the quote above.

As a new homeschooling parent, I was inspired by Holt’s ideas. His book Teach Your Own helped me forge a path I would follow for years to come. That was almost two decades ago, and since then I’ve watched the word unschooling become a subject for debate among homeschoolers. There are those who claim that anyone who uses a textbook is not an unschooler. Others claim that setting limits on television or video games is not allowed in unschooling.

To me, the essence of unschooling lies in the fact that it can’t be pinned down. Like the human beings who practice it, it is perpetually unfolding, changing, and growing. It’s not so much a method as a philosophy. If you’re dying for an answer to the question How do I unschool? – sorry, there is no rulebook.

There are guideposts. One of the core points of Holt’s message is to trust children’s innate curiosity and ability to learn. One way for parents to accomplish that is by trusting themselves first. In the most successful unschooling families I know, the parents practice self-knowledge, use their instincts, know their kids well, and don’t let ideology trump reality. They’re also enthusiastic learners themselves.

When I read the quote above, I hear so much more than just ditch the curriculum. I hear that I can’t control everything, that trying is a waste of energy, and that open-mindedness and flexibility are going to serve my family and me in education, and in life.

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