CYC-Online 57 OCTOBER 2003
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teaching and learning

Making Letters

We have the opportunity to think along with famous educator John Holt as he examines a simple principle of teaching.

In our work with children, there are a couple of good rules to keep in mind. One is that it is always better to say to a child, instead of “Do it this way”, “How many ways can you think of to do it?” The other is to let children find, by experiment, trial and error, and imitation, which of the possible ways of doing a thing is best for them. This best way may often be our way, the way we would have “taught.” This is what Dennison means by “the natural authority of adults.” But even if in the end children do come to our way of doing things, we should let them do so in their way. Some might say, “Why waste time? If we know that a given way of doing things is best, why not just tell the children to do it that way?” But our way may not be the best way, but only the way we are used to. Also, the best way for us, or for some children, may not be the best way for all. Finally, it is always better, if he can do so at not too great cost or risk, for a child to find out something for himself than to be told. Only from making choices and judgments can he learn to make them better, or learn to trust his own judgment.

A scene comes to mind. While I was visiting a college, giving several talks and observing different parts of the school’s work with children, someone asked me to come to a seminar, run by some operant conditioners, behavior reinforcers. In general, I don’t like this way of dealing with children, or for that matter people of any age. This seemed all the more reason to see some of what they were doing. Perhaps what they were doing was better than it had sounded. Perhaps it was worse.

The leaders of this seminar were telling about some of the work they had done teaching four- or five-year-olds to write – that is, to make letters. They explained reinforcement theory and their own methods. I believe they generally gave the children tokens or points. Soon one of the leaders said, “Now the first thing we have to do is teach the children the right way to hold the pencil.” We all nodded agreement. But then, as they told about the prizes they gave to children who held their pencils correctly, I began to wonder. Suppose we didn’t teach children how to hold the pencil? What would happen? And then an even more subversive thought crept in. Is it really true that the way we all hold our pencils is the only way, the best way? Might some other ways not work as well? So, sitting on the floor in my corner of the room, I began to experiment. Soon I found five other ways of holding a pencil. One was at least as good as the conventional grip. The others were a bit awkward, but with them I could make a legible handwriting recognizably my own. Switching to the left hand, where I was starting from scratch with all grips, I found one of my new grips much more comfortable for me than the conventional grip, though it made my handwriting slant the other way.

Now, as I write, I have done the same experiment again. Results are the same. There are other ways to hold pencils, and some of them, for children with small and weak fingers, might at first be a good deal better than the one we try to teach them. Given the right kind of pencil or pen (like a ball-point), it is really very easy to write with the pen gripped in the whole fist. Writing with the left hand, for me at least, the fist grip is considerably easier and more controllable. Also, my hand doesn’t have to touch the paper, which might do away with the problem of smearing the ink. I suspect that the fist grip might be much less cramping and tiring for little children. But anyway, why not let them learn to hold a pen the way they learn to ride a bike or whistle or do a thousand other things far more complicated and difficult than holding a pen? Children want to learn to write “watch any two-year-old with pencil and paper. If we give them pencil and paper, they will try out different grips to see which works best for them. They will certainly look to see how we do it, and will probably do it our way if they can. But if something else is more comfortable for them, where’s the harm?

I did not raise this issue at the seminar. I had come to hear their story, not to tell them mine. I left the meeting feeling as strongly as before (and much more strongly now) that getting children to do things by rewarding them every time they do what we want is unnecessary, harmful, and even in its own terms inefficient.

Men, and above all little children, have much more intelligence than, say, pigeons, and it seems unwise, to say the least, to treat them the same. Even if efficiency is all we are interested in “and it ought not to be “the efficient way to teach any creature is to make the fullest possible use of his capacities.

This feature: Holt, J. (1973). Making letters. In Goodell, Carol (Ed.) The Changing Classroom. New York: Ballentine Books. Pp. 252-254

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