Having recently been fascinated by John Holt’s writings on how children learn to read, I was equally keen to digest his reflections on ‘Art, Math and Other Things’. To me, the key points arising from this chapter are:
1) We must not underestimate what children are capable of
2) Children learn best when they can clearly see the reason for what they are doing
3) We must allow children the time and space to play with new objects and tools before moving on to ‘teach’ them specific uses
4) We should allow the natural flow of ideas that cross traditional academic disciplines
Initially describing art, he notes that many schools were dropping the amount of time spent on developing creativity in order to focus on the more ‘important’ and traditionally academic targets in literacy and numeracy. ‘They should at least be exposed to the idea that art can be, not just a diversion, but a very powerful way of getting in touch with and expressing reality’. From my own perspective, I remember wanting to be an artist when I was a young child; I don’t know if I ever had the aptitude or skill, but I do remember taking a sketch pad and charcoal pencils around with me when I was aged about 10. However, art was not seen as a ‘real’ subject, and as I wanted to be a doctor, it had to be dropped. (Interestingly, my husband was given the opportunity to take photography to a high level during his schooling despite similar career intentions). The observation that ‘even very young children want to do things well, or at least as well as they see us do them. They are perfectly able to learn how to use many kinds of tools, including sharp woodworking tools, cooking tools, musical instruments, and cameras, that most people would insist they could not use’. Again, freedom and trust are encouraged, and one can clearly see the advantages in informal home education whereby a child can develop and explore in these areas. Holt concludes, ‘I will insist once again, and more strongly than before, that art is a very powerful and essential way for many children both to explore the world around (and inside) them and to express much of what they have learned and felt about it. It is not a ‘frill’ but a central human activity and need, one we neglect at our peril’.
Problem solving as a motivation for learning is discussed both in relation to art and in terms of the scientific and mathematical sections that follow. ‘Any situation, any activity, that puts before us real problems that we have to solve for ourselves, problems for which there are no answers in any book, sharpens our intelligence. The arts, like the crafts and the skilled trades, are full of such problems which is why our skilled artists, artisans and craftsmen are very likely to be sharp-witted people. Their minds are active and inventive; they have to be.’
Again, regarding problem solving and the acquisition of real-life, useful skills, he describes the limitations of mainstream education: ‘One of the fundamental ideas behind most of what we do in school is that children should and must spend many years memorizing a lot of dull facts before they can begin to do interesting things with them.’
Realising that learning for learning’s sake was not the answer, Holt felt that arithmetic was ‘a territory to be explored, not a list of facts to be learned’. Children were given time and space to explore the interrelationships between numbers, sizes and shapes; one example he gave was taking a roll of paper (such as that used in a shop till) and writing consecutive numbers at regular intervals up to 1500 so that children could see just how large numbers related to the smaller ones. However, he does remark that to try and reproduce some of his educational tools may run into the error of simply replacing one curriculum with another, and that flexibility in approach is key. ‘They need to see, again without hurry or pressure, how numbers change and grow and relate to each other.’
Importance of Free Play; More than ‘Messing About’
The section that really captivated me was the evidence regarding free play rather than immediately trying to ‘teach’ and expect children to apply principles which they have not really internalised. First, describing the work of Bill Hull and colleagues: ‘If, when a child came in for the first time, they tried to get him ‘to work’ right away, to play some of their games and solve some of their puzzles, they got nowhere. The child would try to do what he was asked to do, but without joy or insight. But if at first they let the child alone for a while, let him play with the materials in his own way, they got very different results... This proved to be so consistently true that the experimenters made it a rule always to let children have a period of completely free play with the materials before asking them to do directed work with them’.
A more detailed article, entitled ‘Messing about in science’ was published by Professor David Hawkins in 1965. He expands upon this concept. ‘There is a time, much greater in amount than commonly allowed, which should be devoted to free and unguided exploratory work (call it play if you wish; I call it work). Children are given materials and equipment – things – and are allowed to construct, test, probe and experiment without superimposed questions or instruction.’ An example is then given regarding pendulum motion. Some children were given simple frames with weights hanging on strings (the most basic type of pendulum) and were left to play around with the length of the string, the speed of swing etc. These children were able to work out for themselves some of the basic physics involved in this process, even though they might not be able to summarise these in terms of an equation or a ‘rule’. The article by Professor Hawkins concludes, ‘In starting this way I, for one, naively assumed that a couple of hours of ‘Messing About’ would suffice. After two hours, instead, we allowed two more and, in the end, a stretch of several weeks. In all this time there was little or no evidence of boredom or confusion. Most of the questions we might have planned for came up unscheduled. Why did we permit this length of time? First, because in our previous classes we had noticed that things went well when we veered towards ‘Messing About’ and not as well when we held too tight a rein on what we wanted the children to do. It was clear that these children had had insufficient acquaintance with the sheer phenomenon of pendulum motion, and needed to build an appreciative background, against which a more analytical sort of knowledge could take form and make sense.’
What a child is doing when they might appear to be ‘messing about’ is in fact developing their own models of how the world around them works. Often these models are developed through trials and failures, by subtle changes in application, by continually re-evaluating what was previously considered to be true. ‘When the mind is evolving the abstractions which will lead to physical comprehension, all of us must cross the line between ignorance and insight many times before we truly understand.’ Of course a child is unaware that this process is occurring, but it is producing a very solid foundation upon which more complex work can be built. I think many of us as adults are aware of times when we have rushed ahead on something, getting impatient or frustrated with the fundamental principles, when in fact we might as well be wasting our time if we haven’t given due time and attention to the foundations. Something along these lines, although difficult to precisely analyse, appears to be occurring in children. ‘This applies just as strongly to reading, or numbers, or arithmetic, or history, or geography or language, as it does to science.’
Diversity of Ideas
This concept of ‘Messing About’ or taking time to play and explore objects and ideas has many other advantages. Referring to his work in science, Hawkins wrote, ‘we were eager to see where and by what paths their interests would evolve and carry them. We were rewarded with a higher level of involvement and a much greater diversity of experiments.’
A couple of detailed examples are given whereby children (firstly an individual child, and then a small class of children of diverse ages) pursued ideas through many different areas. For example, a boy who first became interested in scuba diving, then in deep sea diving for wrecked ships, through to ancient history and lost civilisations, through to archaeology and through several other areas in the interim. The point made is that nobody would start a history lesson with scuba diving, but this was how the child developed his interests. Of course, such an approach simply will not work in mainstream schools; there is not the time or space for each child to develop his own chain of ideas, and furthermore, the teachers tend to artificially draw a dividing line (perhaps more so in secondary education where there will be separate courses, classrooms and teachers) to separate ‘history’, from ‘geography’, from ‘literature’, from ‘humanities’ etc.
So Why Does Everybody Not See This?
I found reading this book a breath of fresh air and reason, especially when compared to the voices I more frequently hear, the voices of my slightly anxious friends who are continually trying to justify their own choices with regard to childcare and education. But of course not everybody thinks this way, and not everybody can. Interspersed throughout the book are comments regarding the opposition that any challenge to the status quo may engender. My interpretation of the main challenges preventing all education being based on a child-led model with much free time for ‘Messing About’ is thus:
1) There is an attitude in our country that teachers know best, and that parents should delegate all educational responsibility to the ‘professionals’
2) Along these lines, the political drivers in education are usually not motivated primarily by the best for each individual child
3) Therefore much of what I have written about here represents a paradigm shift; it is different to what we have been taught from our own education, and challenges our prevailing worldview.
4) Some teachers have unhelpful motives – either in terms of balance of power, or of a need to be needed – that may reduce their ability to truly see what is best for the child
5) Many teachers are afraid of frequent tests of attainment that judge both their pupils and themselves; free-play seems like too much of a luxury
6) Possibly some teachers are afraid of losing control, of not being able to follow neat and precise lesson plans, of being placed ‘on the spot’ of having to think outside the box. (I know during teaching in Higher Education, some educators prefer the teacher-led, prescriptive, traditional lecture format even when more student-led and interactive technologies can be adopted; often this relates to the confidence of the lecturer and their familiarity with the subject matter. It is harder to be flexible)
7) Some teachers may not have the freedom to adopt a flexible approach, but instead may need to show evidence regarding how individual elements of the curriculum are being addressed
8) True understanding and acquisition of principles cannot be easily measured; both parents and teachers would prefer to have ‘proof’ of the child’s progressThere will be others. I wonder what your initial reaction to reading this is? Is it an unattainable, utopian ideal, or a model you could embrace? I’d love to know your tho