John Holt, How Children Fail

No matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.

I read this after I read its follow-up, How Children Learn. Like that book, I read the updated version, which has Holt’s notes on what he thinks he got right and what he got wrong. (At the very beginning he notes that the book wasn’t really about how children fail, but how teachers fail, and more specifically, how he as a teacher failed.)

What I love about Holt’s writing is how much of it comes from direct observation of life, and how little of it comes from theory. (This book began as a series of memos Holt wrote to his teaching partner.) However, while I respect these stories and direct observations from the classroom, they can also make for a slower reading experience, and I found myself skipping a lot of sections where Holt describes the specifics of trying to teach his students mathematics.

The writing in this book seemed to me to be much more frustrated and somewhat angrier than the writing in How Children Learn, and there were a few sections that made me cringe a bit from their brutal honesty. (One also needs to keep in mind the book was published in the mid-60s, so some of Holt’s descriptions, particularly one about a retarded child, were a little bit of a shock to me.)  

Still, I’ve learned from Holt more than anybody else about how children learn, and there’s a lot to glean from this book. My notes, below — will try my best not to repost the themes I’ve already noted from Teaching As A Subversive Activity, which was obviously much influenced by this book. 

Intelligence is a way of operating.

When we talk about intelligence, we do not mean the ability to get a good score on a certain kind of test, or even the ability to do well in school, these are at best only indicators of something larger, deeper, and far more important. By intelligence we mean a style of life, a way of behaving in various situations, and particularly in new, strange, and perplexing situations. The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.

Humans are born intelligent, and children are natural learners.

“Children do not need to be ‘taught’ in order to learn,” Holt writes. “They will learn a great deal, and probably learn best, without being taught.”

Human beings are born intelligent. We are by nature question-asking, answer-making, problem-solving animals, and we are extremely good at it, above all when we are little. But under certain conditions, which may exist anywhere and certainly exist almost all of the time in almost all schools, we stop using our greatest intellectual powers, stop wanting to use them, even stop believing that we have them.

Holt observes how much a baby acts like a scientist:

She is always observing and experimenting. She is hardly ever idle. Most of her waking time she is intensely and purposefully active, soaking up experience and trying to make sense out of it, trying to find how things around her behave, and trying to make them behave as she wants them to.

Holt handily outlines “a few good principles” for how children do their best learning:

(1) Children do not need to be “taught” in order to learn; they will learn a great deal, and probably learn best, without being taught. (2) Children are enormously interested in our adult world and what we do there. (3) Children learn best when the things they learn are embedded in a context of real life, are part of what George Dennison, in The Lives of Children, called “the continuum of experience.” (4) Children learn best when their learning is connected with an immediate and serious purpose.

Small children do not worry about success or failure.

The words “success” and “failure” both “seriously distort our understanding of how we, as well as children, do things and do them better.”

Children who undertake to do things…do not think in terms of success and failure but of effort and adventure. It is only when pleasing adults becomes important that the sharp line between success and failure appears.

Holt points out how the baby scientist goes about engaging with the world:

In the face of what looks like unbroken failure, she is so persistent. Most of her experiments, her efforts to predict and control her environment, don’t work. But she goes right on, not the least daunted. Perhaps this is because there are no penalties attached to failure, except nature’s—usually if you try to step on a ball, you fall down. A baby does not react to failure as an adult does, or even a five-year-old, because she has not yet been made to feel that failure is shame, disgrace, a crime. Unlike her elders, she is not concerned with protecting herself against everything that is not easy and familiar; she reaches out to experience, she embraces life.

Good thinkers are comfortable with uncertainty and not-knowing.

Good thinkers are more interested in asking questions than getting answers.

The poor thinker dashes madly after an answer; the good thinker takes his time and looks at the problem…. The good thinker can take his time because he can tolerate uncertainty, he can stand not knowing. The poor thinker can’t stand not knowing; it drives him crazy.

Unfortunately, schools reward students who grasp for the right answer right away. “Schools are a kind of temple of worship for ‘right answers,’” Holt writes. “The way to get ahead is to lay plenty of them on the altar.”

School make us unintelligent — primarily through fear.

“To a very great degree, school is a place where children learn to be stupid,” Holt writes. “It is no coincidence at all that in many of their worst nightmares adults find themselves back in school.”

The problems are many — see my notes on Dumbing Us Down and Teaching As A Subversive Activity — but Holt spends a lot of time talking about fear: he writes that even in the “kindest and gentlest of schools, children are afraid.”

What are they afraid of? They’re “afraid of failing, afraid of being called stupid, afraid of feeling themselves stupid.”

Where does this fear come from?

First, other children. Holt writes of the “spiritual violence” and “mockery and contempt” that goes on in school:

They are thrown too early, and too much, into a crowded society of other children, where they have to think, not about the world, but about their position in it.

(This is interesting to me, personally, as the first thing anybody says when they get a hunch that you might be considering unschooling is, “What about socialization?”)

Second, children are afraid of the adults who are trying to teach them something:

We adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children by the things we do to them or make them do. We destroy this capacity above all by making them afraid, afraid of not doing what other people want, of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, of being wrong. Thus we make them afraid to gamble, afraid to experiment, afraid to try the difficult and the unknown.

More often than not, administrators and teachers prize and reward “docility, suggestibility; the child who will do what he is told; or even better, the child who will do what is wanted without even having to be told.” In order to please the adults, children do what they can to behave in these ways, many of which are antithetical to real learning. (The self-directed learner will not concern herself with what others think she should be learning—she learns in order to satisfy her own curiosity.)

This goes back to intelligence as a process, a way of operating, and the way it only works under a kind of intellectual fearlessness, a lack of fear over failure, or being wrong about something. Once this kind of intelligence is destroyed, you can’t just fix it with more information or content, you have to fix it with new environments, new conditions, so that new habits and ways of being can be developed:

The remedy is not to think of more and more tricks for “building intelligence,” but to do away with the conditions that make people act stupidly, and instead make available to them a wide variety of situations in which they are likely once again to start acting intelligently.

Or, in other words:

We don’t have to make human beings smart. They are born smart. All we have to do is stop doing the things that made them stupid.

Worst of all: we know how bad school can be, but no matter how bad it is, we still think it’s good for kids.

“We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do even for an hour.”

This is the saddest and most damning part of the book, and it’s something you hear parents say a lot — it’s good for you to be “toughened up” as early as possible, because life is tough, and you might as well get used to it:


Though I didn’t enjoy this book as much as How Children Learn, in the past few months, John Holt has had a tremendous impact on my thinking about how I should go about educating my kids, but more importantly, and maybe more surprisingly, he has had an enormous impact on how I think about my own work, so much of which is based on self-guided, self-directed learning. Even, and maybe especially, as someone who liked and excelled at school and is now moderately successful in my chosen career, he’s made me rethink why it is that I do what I do, re-examine some of my “teacher-pleasing” habits, why it was I “succeeded” in school in the first place, and how my “success” in my career, has been, mostly, attributable to methods and ways of operating that I didn’t learn in school, and how, in fact, a great deal of my best work was done outside of school, when I turned my back on formal education, and struck out on my own.

Filed under: unschooling






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