Food Storage & Other Adventures in Motherhood

Book Review: How Children Fail

by heather

As my husband is a teacher by trade, he has read several books on children and education that he recommended I read. One of these is How Children Fail by John Holt. I found it to be profound and fascinating and recommend it to anyone who cares about what their children learn or education. (Plus at under 200 pages, it’s a quick read.) John Holt was a teacher and this book is a collection of memos that he shared with other teachers and his administration. His memos were based on observations in teaching his own students and observing other teachers in their classrooms. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • The only answer that really sticks in a child’s mind is the answer to a question that he asked or might ask of himself.
  • Our aim must be to build soundly, and if this means that we must build more slowly, so be it. The work of the children themselves will tell us.
  • The invention of the wheel was as big a step forward as the invention of the airplane—bigger, in fact… Above all, we will have to avoid the difficult temptation of showing slow students the wheel so that they may more quickly get to work on the airplanes…Knowledge that is not genuinely discovered by children will very likely prove useless and will soon be forgotten.
  • There must be a way to educate young children so that the great human qualities that we know are in them  may be developed. But we’ll never do it as long as we are obsessed with tests…How can we foster a joyous, alert, whole-hearted participation in life, if we build all our schooling around the holiness of getting “right answers?”
  • A child is most intelligent when…he cares most about what he is doing.
  • When a child gets right answers by illegitimate means, and gets credit for knowing what he doesn’t know, and knows he doesn’t know, it does double harm. First, he doesn’t learn, his confusions are not cleared up; secondly, he comes to believe that a combination of bluffing, guessing, mind reading, snatching at clues and getting answers from other people is what he is supposed to do at school; that this is what school is all about; that nothing else is possible.
  • Kids really like to learn (they) just don’t like being pushed around.

Throughout the book he talks a great deal about the use of fear to get children to learn. Fear is not an effective motivator. It may have immediate results, in that children grasp at whatever means possible to find the right answer, but they don’t usually understand or retain the process this way. As he described the children he worked with and their various learning failures I thought back to a girl I had worked with during my psych rotation of nursing school. She started out as bright, smart, cheerful, healthy and happy. After a weekend visit to her father, she was found abandoned and huddled in a little ball. No one knows exactly what happened to her. They suspected some extreme abuse, but she never came out of the secret world that she had run away to. I observed her more than a dozen years after the incident and she was still rocking and hiding somewhere else, only emerging occasionally to scream. This is obviously an extreme example, but I think that it holds true. Children can become so crippled by fear and stress that they don’t learn. Afraid of failure and disapproval they often hide away within themselves, away from the unpleasant stimulus that they can’t bear.
 Another method that he speaks against is tricks and formulas. I remember as a student being bothered by formulas. They didn’t tell me why I was getting the answer I was getting. And when I would I ask why, my teachers would be annoyed and generally tell me in an exasperated manner, that’s just the way it is. As a result I forgot most algebra as soon as I possibly could. No one could ever tell me where these answers were coming from, I was just manipulating numbers. The “right answers” were not relevant to me, so I didn’t retain it.
 This book makes me resolved to be a better teacher of my own children. I want them to love learning. To do so, I can’t push them into learning the things that I feel are important. If my daughter wants to learn about bears or bugs, I’ve got to run wear her curiosity takes us. And when it comes to things like math and reading, the essentials, I’ve got to apply things in ways that make sense to her and never give her the answer “That’s just the way that it is.”  or “because I say so.”  When I don’t know an answer, I must admit it and try to find it. She is and is becoming an intelligent person, and I must treat her as such. I must teach her that it is ok to fail, we just need to learn from our mistakes. So many people don’t try because then they can use the excuse ‘I didn’t do well because I didn’t try’. But if they put forth their best efforts and still fail, then how do they face their peers? Now I think to a great extent, all of us want our children to love learning, but effectively kindling that love in them is much easier said than done.

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