Rather than give an overarching theory of how children learn, John Holt, the father of the modern home school movement, uses anecdotal observations that question assumptions about how children acquire knowledge and learning skills.
Holt rejects the idea that children are "monsters of evil" who must be beaten into submission or computers whom "we can program into geniuses." Neither are they the passive receptacles of knowledge that can only learn in a schoolroom. Instead, he calls upon parents and educators to "trust children."
First and foremost, Holt believes that children are born learners and that there is a curiosity in all children that begins at birth, not when they are put in school. His observations of young children reveal that their brains are trying to make sense of the world.
Children want to solve problems; they like to think. The problem is that parents and educators get in the way of this natural process by placing children in large, impersonal schools, and by teaching a meaningless curriculum in an industrial factory setting.
Holt rejects knowledge that is entirely taught in an abstract manner. He uses the example of teaching fractions as an anesthetic experience with little real world application. Similarly, he is disgusted by children’s primers and picture books with their “dumb” and simple vocabularies. Rather, Holt believes in exposing children to real world problems of increasing complexity. For example, he encourages parents to expose their children to newspapers, letters, warranties, the yellow pages - anything tangible and visceral to promote their curiosity about the world.
Staying with the theme of promoting real problems for children, Holt is nostalgic for a time when children observed their parents at work, indeed, when parents and children worked side by side. He believes childhood observation of parental work would accelerate learning on the part of their children, rather than just having information disseminated from the classroom. This is one reason why Holt is so receptive to home-schooling or as he calls it. "unschooling."
Holt is full of ire against teachers and educational institutions, whom he believes actually serve as a hindrance to acquiring knowledge and learning skills. If the aim of education is to create independent thinkers, then educators must learn to refrain from “unasked teaching,” which he argues only frustrates children into believing that they are not smart enough to learn. This destructive process to Holt shatters their self esteem and extinguishes their confidence in their ability to learn for themselves and, at worst, turn them away from learning forever.
Teachers, rather, should be more passive, be willing to take a step back, and give direction only when students need - and ask for, help. Teachers make the mistake of believing that they are essential to the learning process and that students can not work without them.
Holt maintains that the best results can be gained when a student is given time to figure things out and to develop hunches that become more and more sophisticated with experience. For Holt, there are no stupid mistakes as children develop their cognitive skills.
The concept of self esteem is the second fundamental belief that Holt espouses. Self confidence is the key to a child’s learning. Overbearing teachers and parents, coercive educational institutions, the rote drudgery of learning and endless testing - all serve to create a sense of anxiety, of crushing curiosity, of making learning a painful rather than a natural and pleasurable act. Over time students come to believe that they are failures. Indeed, Holt asserts that stammering and stuttering are the consequences for some children of destroyed self esteem.
Fear of failure, punishment and disgrace, along the with the anxiety of constant testing, severely reduces students’ ability to perceive and remember, and, thus, drive them away from learning. Holt, with his trust children philosophy, believes, perhaps naively, that they have a strong sense of what is right and have an innate self correcting mechanism that will help them to (eventually) solve a problem. Most instruction, especially reading, Holt argues, is self taught anyway, so why the need for overbearing teachers and parents? Holt believes that learning can be pleasurable and that learning in the form of games can be the first step in having children embrace a lifetime of learning.