How Children Fail

How Children Fail



The Pequod Review:

John Holt was one of the more thoughtful and persuasive of the 1960s and 1970s radical education theorists, a group that included Jonathan Kozol, James Herndon, Ivan Illich, and Paul Goodman. His first two books (How Children Fail and How Children Learn) were attempts to not merely argue that measured/ranked achievement are not conducive to learning, but to *show* through specific first-hand observations how the teaching methods of conventional classrooms do not engage children’s natural curiosity and interest.

Through it all is Holt’s humane and quietly intense prose:

It is hard not to feel that there must be something very wrong with much of what we do in school, if we feel the need to worry so much about what many people call "motivation." A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing.


What I now see for the first time is the mechanism by which fear destroys intelligence, the way it affects a child’s whole way of looking at, thinking about, and dealing with life. So we have two problems, not one: to stop children from being afraid, and then to break them of the bad thinking habits into which their fears have driven them.

What is most surprising of all is how much fear there is in school. Why is so little said about it? Perhaps most people do not recognize fear in children when they see it. They can read the grossest signs of fear; they know what the trouble is when a child clings howling to his mother; but the subtler signs of fear escaping them. It is these signs, in children’s faces, voices, and gestures, in their movements and ways of working, that tell me plainly that most children in school are scared most of the time, many of them very scared. Like good soldiers, they control their fears, live with them, and adjust themselves to them. But the trouble is, and here is a vital difference between school and war, that the adjustments children make to their fears are almost wholly bad, destructive of their intelligence and capacity. The scared fighter may be the best fighter, but the scared learner is always a poor learner.


We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.

I am not fully persuaded that his open style of learning always works (except perhaps in cases where the teachers are of extraordinarily high quality), but Holt makes his case well – and we should in any event try as much as possible to create learning environments that don’t require threats and coercion.