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