John Holt summarizes the three metaphors which govern and dominate organized education in the U.S. The article is “Why Teachers Fail” in The Education Digest, December 1984, p.58-60, which is a condensed version of an article in The Progressive, XLVIII (April 1984), p.32-33.

The first metaphor “presents education as an assembly line in a bottling plant.” Students are the bottles and teachers squirt things at them like “math,” “art,” and “science.” If the bottle’s hole isn’t big enough or nonexistent the management upstairs decides what to do about it. No one raises serious questions about the assumption that “whatever is squirted at the container will go into it…”

The second “depicts students in a school as laboratory rats in a cage being trained to do a trick.” Holt describes the task-morsel/task-shock sequences and explains that it is camouflaged with fluffy terms like “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement.” Students who continually get more shock than morsel begin to think about how they can destroy the cage. He goes on to say that current proposals to deal with the current poor state of education focus on more “shocks and more stick.” For examples, if a child doesn’t learn what he is supposed to learn, flunk him and make him repeat the grade; and cut out courses that many poor youth find interesting and make grading tougher (which only causes more to leave schools).

Holt explains the third metaphor as being perhaps the worst. It “… describes the school as a mental hospital, a treatment institution.” After World War I more parents demanded accountability on the part of schools for the learning that was not occurring. Schools responded with the perfect alibi that sounds satisfyingly scientific – “learning disabilities.” He goes on to speak of the (ab)use of diagnostic tests. And then Holt ends this idea speaking of the many cases of children “losing” their “disabilities” when placed in stress-free environments.

The three assumptions are wrong and children are “passionately eager” to learn about their world. Children get better and better at making sense out of the world if they are not prevented from doing so. And, they “… do it as scientists do, by creating knowledge out of experiece.” At this time, John Holt sees no sign that teachers, educators, and schools will renounce their false metaphors.

The article is written as opinion based upon many years of experience with schools and their ability (or lack of) to change for the benefit of children’s learning. There are no references to other studies and there is no bibliography. Holt does refer to the fact that many parents have informed him of their children’s changes and successes when taken out of schools and taught in the home. It is interesting for me to note that the comments of Halt, under his discussion of metaphors two and three, are very similar to thoughts expressed by Robert Barr (Dean of School of Education, Ore. St. U.; noted expert on alternative education) at the recent Washington Alternative Learning Association’s annual conference in Washington State that I attended. Holt and Barr apparently hold some similar views of schools, but rely on different modes of change.

The article is succinct and provides significant food for thought. This type of writing is beneficial in that it helps educators ask basic why questions about the how of education in the United States.


Please send correspondence to me by June 26 with the following information:
1.   If you are doing research, the approximate date of when it will be completed and written up
2.   Your bibliography (preferably annotated) relevant to Home Centered Learning (HCL); please asterisk any that are, in your mind, “research” literature (you’ll notice that I have not defined “research”)
3.   This suggestion comes from Jane Van Galen – If you have a copy of an HCL dissertation, let me know if you’d be willing to loan it so that others can see it before they decide whether to purchase it.
4.           Whether you object to your name, address, and phone number being published in a directory in the next issue of the HSR.
5.   What you would like to submit for publication in the Home School Researcher.

The above information would greatly assist my efforts for all of us. Please note, as mentioned earlier, that their will be a special item cost for the extensive bibliography that I hope to complete by mid-summer. If you want the bibliography mailed to you as soon as it is compiled, send $3.00 to me with your next information letter. If you want to order the bibliography after it is announced in the next HSR, the price may be higher or lower depending on its length and the time involved in preparing it.

I have enjoyed editing this issue and once again wish to thank you for your support and interest. Special thanks go to Ellen Moeller, Kathy Knez, and Jane Van Galen. A warm and enjoyable Summer to each of you! Brian

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