|The Baby Is Not "Getting
|by John Holt
Educators talk all the time about "skills": reading skills, writing
skills, communication skills, even listening skills. It may be true, at the level of
words, to say that anyone doing a difficult thing well is using a variety of skills.
But this does not mean that the best way to teach a difficult act is to break it into
as many separate skills as possible and teach them one by one. As Whitehead said years
ago, we cannot separate an act from the skills involved in the act. The baby does not
learn to speak by learning the skills of speech and then using them to speak with, or
to walk by learning the skills of walking and then using them to walk with. He learns
to speak by speaking, to walk by walking. When he takes his first hesitant steps he is
not practicing. He is not getting ready. He is not learning how to walk so that
later he may walk somewhere. He is walking because he wants to walk, right now.
He has thought about it, worked it out in his mind, convinced himself that he knows
how to do it and can do it. And now he is going to do it.
|We cannot separate skills and acts, and we make a disastrous error when
we try. Talking is not a skill, or a collection of skills, but an act, a doing. Behind
the act there is a purpose; whether at two or ninety-two, we talk because we have
something we want to say, and someone we want to say it to, and because we think or
hope our words will make a difference. The baby who begins to talk, long before he
makes any sounds that we hear as words, or even understands words, has learned from
sharp observation that the sounds that bigger people make with their mouths affect the
other things they do. Their talk makes things happen. He may not know exactly
what, or how. But he wants to be a part of that talking group of bigger people, wants
to make things happen with his voice. In the same way, walking is not a skill,
but an act, with a purpose; the baby wants to move as he sees the bigger people
moving, and quickly and skillfully, like them.
Reading is not a skill, but an act. The child sees written words all around him; he
sees that the older people look at those words, use them, get meaning from them. Those
words make things happen. One day (if we give him a chance) he decides that he wants
to find out what those words say and mean, and that he can and will find out. At
that instant, and with that decision, be begins to read. Not to "learn to
read," but to read. Of course, at first, he doesn't do it well. He may not even
be able to read one word. But if he is allowed (as few children are) to continue to do
it, to seek out in his own way and for his own reasons the meaning of written
words, with only as much help as he may ask for; if this task which he has set himself
isn't taken from him and replaced with a lot of fragmented and meaningless tasks
invented by someone else and done on their command; if he is not convinced by adults
(as many children are) that he is not able to do this task he has set for himself, to
figure out what written words say, but must "get" reading from a teacher as
a patient gets a shot from a doctor; if he is very lucky, and none of these bad things
happen, he will be reading well in a short time, perhaps even in a matter of months.
Not long ago I wrote to a number of people who work in reading and reading
instruction in various schools of education, to ask if they knew of any research to
find out how many children teach themselves to read, and beyond that, how they may
have done it. Only one person answered, to say that he had never heard of any such
research. Nor have any of the hundreds of educators and reading experts I have asked
since. At first it seems strange that reading experts have not asked this question.
One might think it would be the first question they would ask. On second thought, it
is not strange at all; the answer to this question might be dangerous. It might show
once again that our most rapid, efficient, far-reaching, useful, and permanent
learning comes from our doing things that we ourselves have decided to do, and
that in doing such things we often need very little help or none at all.
Excerpted from Instead
of Education Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2003. Reprinted with permission of
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