John Holt on structure and freedom

I recently had cause to reread John Holt’s Freedom and Beyond, one of my favorites of his.  I came across this passage which, like so much of his work, rings as true today as it might have when he wrote it decades ago:

One group of words, that twist and hide truth and understanding, is “structured–unstructured.”  Almost everyone who talks or writes about learning situations that are open, free, non-coercive, learner-directed, calls these situations “unstructured,” and their traditional authoritarian, coercive, teacher-directed opposites “structured.”  People who support open learning use these words in this way as much as people who oppose it.  It is a serious error.  There are no such things as “unstructured” situations.  They are not possible.  Every human situation, however casual and unforced… has a structure.

I often hear that certain kids “need more structure.”  Generally people mean, as John suggests here, that these kids need more of being told what to do, to have more limits or boundaries or confinements set up around them.  And while I don’t always disagree that structural changes might benefit a particular child, we tend to undermine our intentions when we lunge for habitual structure before considering what kind of structural changes might actually serve a child who’s struggling in one way or another.  A child who’s expressing some sort of discontent or lack of compatibility with a situation may well not benefit from being more closely confined by rules and mandates.  He may instead need, for example, more clear communication, or better access to different materials or resources.  It’s possible to make this kind of structural change and it can be tremendously beneficial, but we’re often too busy with setting new schedules and requirements to explore a range of possible structural adjustments.

Quick descriptions of John Holt’s work tend to refer to his opinions and positions on opting out of traditional schooling, but to look more closely is to find a long, inspired series of unusually careful and clear observations and illuminations of how learning actually works.  This early section of Freedom and Beyond is one such pairing of observation and illumination.  If you have the chance, find a copy of the book and read through these seven pages on the structure of freedom.  Be warned, though, it may be difficult to stop there; there’s the rest of the book, and then all his others.


2 Responses

  1. Going to go get the book right now…. Thank you! I think this captures some of my discomfort with the schooling/unschooling labels, that unschooling ends up being named for the absence of something when it’s really full of all kinds of other wonderful things. Labels are always tricky, but words are what we have, so it’s helpful sometimes to take a closer look at how they get used and to what ends — this structured/unstructured dichotomy is such a great example.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I’ve read 6 books by Holt and now, after reading you, I would love to read Freedom and Beyond.


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