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Homeschooling Names to Know: John Holt


Holt Teach Your Own
John Holt (1923-1985) was a teacher and education reformer who helped launch the modern homeschooling movement and introduced the idea of "unschooling."


Holt attended a "prestigious" boarding school and college, where he studied physics. He was served aboard a submarine during World War II, and after the war became a world government activist.

Moving on, Holt taught at private schools in Colorado and Massachusetts, which led to his theories and books about the shortcomings of traditional education and testing. Because he had no formal training in education, he assumed that the problems his students faced were a result of his teaching and not their ability to learn. He came to believe that design of school itself was the cause of student learning problems.

Holt's first book, How Children Fail, was published in 1964 and he began publishing the magazine Growing Without Schooling magazine in 1977. He went on to a career writing and lecturing about education, and founded a company, Holt Associates, that worked to spread his ideas about education and other social issues. After Holt's death, the magazine continued until 2001 under Holt's protege Pat Farenga, who now runs the website HoltGWS.com.

Impact on Homeschooling:

In his books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, John Holt first argued that traditional schooling did not provided children with the best learning environment. His later books and his magazine Growing Without Schooling encouraged parents to teach their children at home and shared ideas for how to do it.

Holt's message was that -- from birth on -- children are by nature "smart, curious, and eager to learn." They do poorly in school because they are bored with meaningless work, scared of being punished or humiliated, and confused by the typical method of teaching abstract concepts before concrete examples. But when placed in an environment where they feel safe to explore and receive help when they need, they are capable of learning on their own.

Holt coined the word "unschooling" in the first issue of GWS in 1977. His appearance in 1979 on The Phil Donahue Show helped spread the idea of homeschooling to a large segment of the American public. Today the revised version of his books are still read by families who are considering homeschooling.

Selected Writings:

  • Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling -- Originally published in 1981, re-released in an updated version by co-author Pat Farenga in 2003. Explains basic homeschooling logistics, including dealing with regulations.

  • Learning All The Time: How Small Children Begin to Read, Count, and Investigate the World, Without Being Taught (1989)

  • How Children Learn -- First published in 1967, revised in 1983 and 1995. Focuses on Holt's observations of preschool age children.

  • How Children Fail -- Holt's first book, written in 1964, was based on his experiences as a classroom teacher. The book was revised in 1982 and again in 1995.

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