How Children Fail: angry lessons from failures to teach

Earlier this week, I blogged a review of John Holt's classic book on "unschooling," "How Children Learn, promising that my next read would be the companion volume, How Children Fail, a book that's really about how teachers fail students.

"How Children Learn" was, most of all, an exuberant book, a celebration of the a-ha moments that Holt had been privileged to witness first hand and the lessons he'd learned about teaching. Even though it sometimes slipped into anger as Holt decried his own conceit and those of his peers in failing to get out of the way when kids want to learn, Learn is, first and foremost, a happy book.

Not so "How Children Fail" -- in this volume, Holt focuses the majority of his attention on the "I don't get it" moments that his students experience as he attempts to conform them to the curriculum and the lessons he's learned from these bad experiences. This is a much angrier book, though no less humane and caring, and it's equally important, even if there were fewer smiles per page. Here's some choice bits for your perusal:

...The valiant and resolute band of travelers I thought I was leading toward a much-hoped-for destination turned out instead to be more like convicts on a chain-gang, forced under threat of punishment to move along a rough path leading nobody knew where and down which they could see hardly more than a few steps ahead. School feels like this to children: it is a place where they make you go and where they tell you to do things and where they try to make your life unpleasant if you don't do them or don't do them right...

Many people seem to think that the way to take care of children is to ask in any situation what is the most stupid and dangerous thing the children could possibly do, and then act as if they were sure to do it....Little children are indeed very careful at first -- watch them on a stair or some steps, deciding whether to step down forwards or crawl down backwards. They are eager to try new things, but at the same time they have a remarkably accurate sense of what they can and cannot do, and as they grow older, their judgement about this improves...

So many people have said to me, "If we didn't make children do things, they wouldn't do anything." Even worse, they say, "If I weren't made to do things, I wouldn't do anything."

It is the creed of the slave....

...Schools tend to mistake good behavior for good character. What they prize above all else is docility, suggestibility; the child who will do as he is told; or even better, the child who will do what is wanted without even having to be told. They value most in children what children least value in themselves.

How Children Fail

See also: How Children Learn: classic of human, kid-centered learning


  1. That first blockquote paragraph brings back so many childhood memories. Where will this lead? Why do I need to learn this stuff? You would think a teacher could tell a student why they need to know this stuff. It’s not like it’s a new question.

  2. Not really saying anything new, but nice to see it being reinforced. Who knows, maybe eventually somebody will listen… but probably not. Primary & secondary education’s primary purpose is to generate people capable of running our burger shacks and clothing shops. Independance and critical thinking skills would really get in the way of that.

  3. Can we also give the parents some responsibility here. As a parent, I see myself as an advocate for my child in school, so when learning isn’t happening, I expect to hear it from the teacher. As a teacher, I try so many times to communicate with the parent in addition to working extra time with the child. So many of my colleagues are doing the same thing.

    Time is the enemy for most of us. Many children need more time and individualized instruction. Overcrowding is the second enemy. That’s why I used to love staying after school. Extra time like that is a luxury we sometimes don’t have anymore. Sometimes our school is on lockdown, or we’re forced to attend inane meetings about standardization – the very thing I fight every day. Jimmy and Johnny do NOT learn the same thing in the same way. I would also recommend reading Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating your Underachieving Child by Michael Whitley.

  4. In the future we can all educate our children to be free spirits and great thinkers. As long as they aren’t all spoiled brats too. I was made to do things I didn’t want to. Like go to school and a lot of other things. Culture isn’t always a fun game to learn, for children or adults, but it really can help. When in Rome, and all that.

  5. Buying. This. Book. Now.

    I’ll be teaching in colleges (I hate to say it, but I’m really enjoying teaching freshman comp)hopefully for the rest of my life, and this is exactly what I believe as a teacher and what I experienced as a student. It leads to a slightly less formal and structured classroom, but I believe I can (and am already) have enough power to go ahead and decentralize and destandardize it in a productive way so that I can encourage my students to get involved in their learning process.

    In fact, I believe I’ll preempt my planned lecture on how to logically order premises from a thesis statement for a reflective writing exercise and a discussion of how to approach education in a way that allows for creation and invention. I do this at home with my kids and other people’s, anyway.

    That is exactly what I wanted to tell the students around me when I was an undergrad and what I pictured saying the first day, anyway. (But they gave us a mandatory sequence and observers which I have just now gotten out form under.)

  6. It’s the creed of the slave? A little extreme, don’t you think?

    I have not read this book, but I have real problems with what this author seems to be saying. Under his logic, we should allow children to choose their own diets, play with whatever things they might choose to. Of course, the lesson of playing with a knife and stabbing yourself certainly would go to great lengths to teach a child that knives are dangerous, and becoming horribly ill from eating candy would do the same, but not all lessons are most properly learned by experience. A child shouldn’t be allowed me to stab herself for the sake of learning to be safe around knives. The guidance of adults — those who know more — is an integral part of learning and education.

    Anyone who has actually worked with young children – those ages six and younger – who are still learning about how the world functions, still getting their balance and coordination and finding the foundations of education (the alphabet, numbers, other basic concepts that lead to more abstract ideas) know that sometimes children have to do things they might not choose for themselves towards a greater outcome. It’s a basic tenet of learning and economics: sometimes we sacrifice current pleasure for later gain. We all do this to some degree. To say it is detrimental to children to delay utility goes against the way we adults learn and human beings generally function.

  7. I got really into programming in middle school since I had a lot of free time, and I taught myself QuickBASIC, and was able to make some pretty cool games — I learned how to use inline assembler to call mode x and do advanced input control..
    When one of my teachers found out, she accused me of “hacking” the computers, and I got in even more trouble when I contradicted her and said I was not, in-fact, “hacking”, so the principle threatened to have me sent to jail and didn’t let me use computers for the rest of the year.

  8. Wish I could remember what SciFi book– or TV episode– told the story of the world’s greatest problem-solver, who accidentally had a memory wipe– but the scientist weren’t worried; they just pumped into him the equivalent of the world’s best education. When our fellow was revived, he knew everything but had lost all his creativity. Turned out that he’d never been to school a day in his life, was totally home and self-taught. An education ruined him.

    My first exposure to John Holt was through his book “Escape from Childhood.” I think it’s his most radical, and still one of the most radical books I’ve ever read. I wrote a little about it here:

  9. @#7

    When I was in grade school I was using a computer in the school library and playing around with an early image editor. When it came time for me to return to the classroom I wanted to continue working on a drawing I was making so I saved it to a floppy and started to leave. A librarian stopped me and accused me of illegally copying the entire image editing software to the floppy. I showed her I had only saved the one image file – but that only convinced her I was guilty since opening the file from the disk loaded it in the image editor. I ended up getting a nearly hour long lecture about software copyright and licenses from the principal who then erased my disk.

  10. On one hand — I had a teacher accuse me of tracing because my drawing was too accurate of Snoopy. She wouldn’t relent and my parents were of the “teacher is always right school” (remember that ancient theory? do ya?) so it felt like a trial in which under pressure, I had to re-draw Snoopy to everyone’s satisfaction.

    On the other hand — I whined and wheedled my way out of piano lessons after six months. My parents had fought all my sisters on this one, I think they were over it. I also remember using some “child rights!” defense. Of course, I regret this decision immensely, especially everytime I was dealing with a noxious guitarist accompiniast.

    As with all things — the answer is balanced. Too much self-esteem for no good reason — sense of entitlement. Too much brow-beating — timid souls. Too much freedom — the train don’t run on time. But do you have to go to the Mussolini extreme to get them to run on time?

    What I would love to address in the current educational system is the only skill that seems to matter for progress — the ability to rapidly learn new skills and put to use in a worthy matter. Problem-solving through research and new skill accrual. Everything should stem from that central conceit. The learn-a-trade model seems antiquated in a society where trades may last a decade and disapear.

  11. There’s the golden mean somewhere between too much instruction, rote, drill, etc. and too much freedom where an uninstructed student will chase tangents. The good teachers can identify the students that need more or less of each. Most students need the middle path.

    Parents share a lot of blame too though for passing off (sometimes completely) the education of children to so called “experts”. No one knows a child better than his parents.

    Thanks for the tips on the books — they sound like great and interesting reads.

  12. Just FYI, “How Children Fail” was Holt’s first book, published in 1964. “How Children Learn” was published three years later.

  13. That first paragraph is a perfect summary of how I felt about school in the late 80s and through the 90s. And beyond, actually — though being able to choose courses was a huge relief.

    One of the best things to ever happen when I was going to school was a teacher’s strike in 3rd or 4th grade. We still had to go to school if our parents didn’t arrange an alternative, so they sat us at tables in the gym. A handful of teachers and other staff were around, but not really directing us. We were supplied with vaguely educational puzzles, games, and art supplies, and left to our own devices. (The teachers still answered questions and kept us quiet, but didn’t tell us what to do.)

    Suddenly we actually had an opportunity to converse with our classmates, cooperate, and learn from each other. Suddenly fourth graders were talking about the politics of the strike. This wasn’t recess, we weren’t really playing — who can play flat out for six hours? — we were learning but in a totally different way.

    Maybe I’m romanticizing the situation a bit (I do remember it got a little boring after a few days), and we probably fell a little behind on math, but I think a little more free time to think and learn would be beneficial.

    It seemed like the only time we were away from our desks otherwise was recess or gym — and I can’t tell you how many times I would have preferred to stay inside and doodle or chat or read. That’s probably not so great from a physical fitness perspective, but I ran around plenty in my free time and never appreciated having sports turned into an unpleasant chore, nor being pushed out into the rain, sun, or snow three times a day.

  14. Kids would be a lot more engaged if they had good challenging tasks to do. This means teachers need access to clear organized, exciting lesson plans. The best I ever saw was from the Teacher’s Curriculum Institute. The directions are so clear and the activities do an amazing job of conveying historical events. I used their stuff alot, but it didn’t fit for all my classes, so inevitably I’d have the Sunday night panic… “What the hell am I going to do with these kids tomorrow?” experience.

    As a teacher, you better know what the “standards” are, what concepts you need to be working on, BUT… you have to figure out how to convey those concepts in an interactive, cooperative, active-learning way every day. It is too much burden for the teacher to have to come up with all of that on their own.

    Textbook publishers have come a very long way in making the books colorful and interesting. But, you don’t always have those nice books. I left a job because the school adopted this dreadful textbook for the english curriculum with boring stories, no color, no clear cut instructions for the teacher or the student. A really high level student could make something of it (and I guess that was the idea) but I’m afraid it would leave the a lot of the students and teachers kind of cold. Curriculum needs to be a lot more clear, a lot more open-ended, and a lot more accesible for the teacher. We need smart creative people making curriculum, lots of smart (and durable) people to teach, and more smart people to administer. And the kids need to calm the fuck down at times.

  15. I don’t think it’s extreme to say that believing you wouldn’t do anything if someone didn’t make you is the creed of a slave. Actually, maybe it doesn’t go far enough. A slave does not choose slavery. A person who believes they would do nothing unless forced is making a powerful choice.

    Why assume that children who are free to make their own choices will make themselves horribly ill or stab themselves with a knife? People who are consistently trusted to make good choices for themselves are much more likely to do so. And for the record, Holt in no way discourages parents from offering guidance. Quite the opposite in fact.

    Anyone interested in learning more about children who live as unschoolers (a term coined by Holt), might want to check out these sites:

    I wrote a book about my own family’s experiences with unschooling, but I’ll spare you the shameless plug .

  16. ” She wouldn’t relent and my parents were of the “teacher is always right school” (remember that ancient theory? do ya?)”

    …My parents used to subscribe to that bullshit belief when I was in school, and it lasted until I got almost through Junior High. It was learned that the particular Junior High in question was a “magnet school”, but not for gifted students. The district assigned all their “troublemaker” teachers to this school so they could keep an eye on them – putting all their bad eggs in one basket, so to speak. Examples of “troublemakers” included teachers who were and/or were suspected of being:

    * Severe alcoholics, including those actually caught drinking on the job.
    * Drug addicts, especially pot smokers.
    * Extreme leftists and/or Communist Party sympathizers
    * Homosexuals
    * Those having gone through *very* messy divorces
    * Union rabble rousers
    * Those with less-than-honorable military discharges
    * Those accused of some form of assault on a student or other faculty member

    …Now, to make matters worse, the school district set this school up as a “magnet” two years before desegregation was imposed by court order. The year before bussing started, a race riot broke out at the school after one of the teachers reportedly made racist comments to a black student about the “inability” of black students to learn as well as whites. That teacher, it was later learned, had been moved from another school for similar inappropriate comments towards hispanic students. By the time I got over there, tensions between *all* students was still so thick you’d need more than a couple of ginsus to even begin to cut through it. At least six fights a day on average, and at least one teacher involved a month.

    No, this isn’t NYC last week, this was Central Texas 1974-1976.

    …Before I moved on to High School, I moved to a different JH, where the environment was a complete 180 in the right direction from the “magnet” one. I didn’t fully understand why until four years later, when the principal for the 2nd JH and I sat down and discussed the differences. That’s when I learned about the “secret” of the “magnet school”, and last I heard they were still using the school for that purpose. Which is probably why they keep from closing it even though its the worst performer in the district for five years straight.

  17. I have not read this book, but I have real problems with what this author seems to be saying. …

    Yeah, that’s the sure way to make an informed comment!

  18. To really understand what’s been going on in education for a century … and why it’s the way Holt describes it … people need to study the history of education. *The environment is not an accident*. It was *designed* to do what it has done. That *design* has become the expectation that we’ve all been conditioned to expect and to support.

    There’s a philosophy behind the psychology. There’s a reason schools are set up like sweatshops. There’s a reason for the frustration and for the drudgery and for the soul-killing. None of these experiences are accidental.

  19. Oh yeah … and blaming the teachers for the state of education is like blaming Haitian plantation-workers for the plantation’s gross profits.

  20. I’m so glad these books are still available, and so sad that so little has changed that they’re still right on target. I read both of them, along with a number of other books critical of the education system, for my senior thesis in college, and remember being blown away by how well they explained the failures of education.

  21. I love how I routinely work through lunch and spend hours after school to make sure that my students have an awesome environment to learn art in, only to come home and find someone else generalizing about how awful our nation’s teachers and schools are. Does anyone outside of education realize how much the teach-to-the-test madates have killed creativity in our schools? Trust me, teachers want to have fun just as much as the kids do, but fun through learning is verboten these days.

  22. @6- Re: Knives and candy.

    Those both sound like pretty decent examples of learning by exploration, actually. Personally, I learned not to play with stoves as a child by playing with a stove. I aquired a small scar and a healthy respect for things that get hot.
    As long as it’s not too likely to maim or kill (which the candy certainly isn’t), what’s the harm in a little harm while learning? You get plenty of skinned knees and elbows while learning to skate or ride a bike.

  23. ‘Oh yeah … and blaming the teachers for the state of education is like blaming Haitian plantation-workers for the plantation’s gross profits.”

    …Then again, every one of us has had at least one teacher who obviously had no business teaching anyone. So there is some credence to putting a large percentage of the blame on the teachers. Especially the ones who shouldn’t be teaching in the first place.

  24. And after Holt, you may be wondering how the education systems in the US and Europe got like that…

    John Taylor Gatto, while he was New York State Teacher of the Year, quit his job to find out.

    You can get the full text of his book here:

    The system Holt decries is not an accident, it was designed by the intellectual forefathers of the current economy.

    PS – Rabid, secular, elective home educator here. Teachers doing their best to actually help kids to grow as people have my full support… but really, they need to read Holt and Gatto to know where the system comes from and what it does.

    I think some folks here would be surprised how many home educators are former (and sometimes current) teachers. It’s not ignorance of the system that drives us… what drives blind defences of an education system that, in the UK, leads to an estimated 16 suicides, and nearly half a million bullied children every year?*


  25. The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.

    Kahlil Gibran

  26. I read How Children Fail (and then most/all of Holt’s other books) when I was in 11th grade some OMG ~40 years ago. While it was a great read, I’m sure it didn’t do anything for my morale to understand that I was smack-dab in the middle of something Holt proclaimed was so entirely broken. His words rang true to me then, and likely would ring true to me now (as a former secondary school principal, ironically enough).

    I was fortunate, however, to have a number of excellent teachers to mitigate the damage.

  27. I’m late to the discussion, but when the review is a book from the 1960’s, a year doesn’t make much difference in this century.

    Neither of those books is about unschooling. John Holt’s book about unschooling is “Teach Your Own,” from 1981. The older books were school reform books.

    Just because unschoolers like to cite John Holt doesn’t mean John Holt was an unschooler. He didn’t even have children. And just because he later wrote in support of homeschooling in very non-schoolish ways doesn’t mean every book he ever wrote is about that. has some links to online interview and reviews.

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