How Children Fail

In his groundbreaking book,  John Holt,draws upon his observations of children both in school and at play to identify ways in which our traditional educational system predestines our young people for failure.

Holt argues that children fail primarily“because they are afraid, bored, and confused.”  This, combined with misguided teaching strategies and a school environment that is disconnected from reality and “real learning”, results in a school system that kills children’s innate desire to learn.

The following is a summary of the author’s conclusions:
1. Fear and failure: Schools promote an atmosphere of fear – fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of disapproval – that most severely affects a student’s capacity for intellectual growth. External motivation – rewards such as grades and gold stars – reinforces children’s fears of failing exams and receiving disapproval from the adults in their lives. Rather than learning the actual content of the lessons, students learn how to avoid embarrassment. This atmosphere of fear not only quells a child’s love of learning and suppresses his native curiosity, but also makes him afraid of taking chances and risks which may be necessary for true learning to occur.

2. Boredom: Boredom serves as another major obstacle, blocking both the child’s innate motivation to learn and his love of learning. Before attending school, children feel free to explore and discover those things that interest them. But once the child becomes part of our modern school system, both the institutions and the parents unknowingly sabotage their child’s education. Schools demand that children perform dull, repetitive tasks which make limited demands on their wide range of capabilities; such demands may or may not be suitable to a particular child’s interests or needs.

Schools provide a ‘cookie-cutter’ education, which compels children to vie “for petty and contemptible rewards,” rather than cultivate their intrinsic love of learning, which would serve to enhance their individual gifts and talents. Rather that forcing our children to adapt to a system which makes them consider learning a dreary and painful task, Holt advocates that children be encouraged to learn by following their natural curiosities and interests, without fear and guilt.

3. Confusion: Once enrolled in school, the child often founds himself being taught things that contradict what he has learned from his parents or other adults. Furthermore, the adults at school treat him very differently than the ones at home. This confusion is further exacerbated when a child, who is taught at home that curiosity is a positive and commendable thing, faces mockery and contempt from both teachers and fellow students for asking a question. Through his research, Holt has observed that most children – largely for fear of such ridicule – cease to ask questions by age ten.

4. Real Learning: Holt believes that “real learning” does not necessarily equate to mastering the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but rather, occurs when a child is encouraged to develop his own gifts and talents. Every expert has different views on what should be included in a child’s curriculum, and furthermore, much of what is taught in our schools is outdated by the time children need to apply that knowledge to real life. This reinforces Holt’s belief that there is no single body of information that all children should learn.

Quoting the author: “The proper place and best place for children to learn whatever they need or want to know is the place where, until very recently, almost all children learned it: in the world itself.”
5. Strategies: Current teaching strategies cultivate a fear of
humiliation in children, and do more to harm young people than they do to meet their needs. Such fear drives students to develop various coping strategies or defense mechanisms – mumbling, acting like they don’t understand, acting overly enthusiastic so they won’t be called upon, etc – to dodge the demands placed upon them by adults, or to avoid being humiliated in front of their peers.

Holt concludes that there is a vast difference between what children really know, and what they only appear to know. Rather than learning the content of a lesson, children learn how to perform, or how to survive by deflecting the teacher’s questions with the least possible amount of embarrassment. Almost everything we do in our schools tends to make children ‘answer-centered,’ rather than ‘problem centered,’ which inadvertently deprives them of the skills that they need to function in the real world.

From the time of birth until the age of three years, children have a “tremendous capacity for learning, understanding, and creating.” Adults – either through their own actions, or through excessively dictating their children’s actions – destroy most of the this intellectual and creative capacity. Most frequently, we destroy this capacity by making our children afraid; afraid of being wrong. Holt’s examination of our present educational system is a critical and insightful study, one which forces us to look more closely at the lessons that we are unwittingly imparting to our young ones.