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How Children Fail

By John Holt

Book Review by Stephanie Mitchell & Beverley Paine

First published in the mid 1960s, How Children Fail began and an educational reform movement that continues today. In his 1982 edition, John Holt added new insights into how children investigate the world, into the perennial problems of classroom learning, grading and testing, and into the role of the trust and authority in every learning situation. His understanding of children, the clarity of his thought, and his deep affection for children have made both How Children Fail and it's companion volume, How Children Learn enduring classics.


I found John Holt's writing in this book very insightful and thought provoking. In the preface John talks about how teachers tend to want to blame the child for not learning when really it is the method of teaching that is not working. He urges schools and teachers to "begin to hold themselves responsible for the result of what they do". In chapter three he notes that "when learning happens, the school and teachers take the credit; when it doesn't, the students get the blame. The words change a little, from bad and stupid to 'culturally disadvantaged' and 'learning disabled'. The idea remains the same. Only when the results are good will schools and teachers accept the responsibility for what they do". He goes on to say that children who are kept back a grade often don't do any better the second time around: the blame, he claims, is do to the faulty teaching method - "if a certain kind of teaching failed to produce learning the first time, why will it suddenly produce it the second time?"

John sums up his belief of why children fail school: "Thy fail because they are afraid, bored and confused. They are afraid, above all else of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them.. They are bored because the things they are given and told to do in school are so trivial, so dull.."

How Children Fails gives lengthy and details examples of how John felt he failed as a teacher in the classroom when trying to get his students to understand certain things. One particular example is about a set of scales he used to teach multiplication, with no success at all. He states: "It is worth noting that a couple of years later, when I put a balance beam and some weights on the table at the back of my class and just left it there without saying anything about it or trying to 'teach' it, most of the children in the class, including some very poor students, figured out just by messing around with it how it worked."

John describes some of the 'dumb' behaviours children exhibit in school and how perplexing it was for him to know these kids were really smart and yet give such bad answers to simple question. "What I did not see until later was that we, our classroom, our orders, judges, graders, were the source of these children's strategies". In chapter two, he explores these concepts further: the relationship between fear and failure in the classroom in relation and why children don't learn, and how grading and programming creates these fears. He believes "that 'success' as much as 'failure,' are adult ideas which we impose on children. They are opposite sides of the same coin. It is nonsense to think that we can give children a love of 'succeeding' without at the same time giving them an equal dread of 'failure'.

Babies learning to walk fall down often, as do six year olds learning to ride a bike fall off many times. They do not think each time they fall, "I failed again." Healthy babies or children tackling difficult projects of their own choosing think, when they fall, "Oops, not yet, try again." Nor do they think when finally they begin to walk or ride, "Oh, boy, I'm succeeding!" They are more likely to think "Now I'm walking! Now I'm riding!" The joy is in the act itself, not in some idea of success.

John writes about how when children are given freedom to choose their own activities in his classroom, and were able to do them in the manner and quantity that they choose, they did not display the same characteristics of 'dumb' behaviour. A bright child subjected to years of fear and boredom in the classroom often tries to figure out what the teacher wants him/her to say instead of sing his/her own intelligence. They just want to get through this next questioning session 'unscathed'. I remember feeling this way at school; frozen in fear of giving the wrong answer, thinking of the "no" that was coming, worrying more about the possibility of giving an incorrect answer than considering the question at hand.

John points out an interesting observation he made about "teaching", and goes on to give an example of in one of his "free" classrooms.

"Teaching, that is: "I know something you should know and I'm going to make you learn it" - is above all else what prevents learning. The inventors of clever teaching ideas tend to think that if one good teaching idea helps to make some learning happen, a hundred good ideas will make a hundred times as much learning happen. Not so. A hundred good ideas may stop learning altogether.

"It took me a long time to learn, as a classroom teacher, that on the days when I came to class just bursting with some great teaching idea, good things rarely happened. The children, with their great quickness and keenness of perception, would sense that there was something "funny", wrong about me. In no time they all fell back into their old defensive and evasive strategies began to give me sneaky looks, to ask for hints and say "I don't get it". I could see them growing stupid in front of my eyes.

"By the time I was teaching my last fifth grade class, I usually knew enough, when I saw this happening, to back off and drop my big project. If I had some sort of gadget that I thought might interest the children, I would leave it in a corner of the room and so nothing about it until someone said "What is that". Of if there was some kind of activity I wanted to "expose" them to, I would do it myself without saying anything."

Holt also talks about testing and how when we quiz a child to see what he knows - by giving him endless problems to solve and stories to write etc - that in effect what we are really doing is creating a learning block for the child: "I now realize that when we keep trying to find out what our students understand we are more likely than not to destroy whatever understanding they may have. Not until people are very secure in their knowledge and are very skilful in talking about it - which rules out almost all children - is there much point in asking them to talk about what they know and how they know what they know."


I went to school in the 1960s and could relate to everything John writes about in How Children Fails, both as a student and a parent. I first read this book in the mid-1980s when my eldest, April, was five years of age and we were looking for a suitable school.

I found little had changed since my school days - the period covered in this book. It was only reasonable to expect progress, especially as John Holt wasn't the only ardent education reformist asking for the accumulated excellent knowledge, ideas and inspirations of generations of educational thinking to be integrated into the educational system.

I expected that schools would, by then, be churning out bright, well educated young people with a zest for life long learning, but it wasn't happening. Schools were still failing children and their families. The lessons, so brilliantly outlined in this book, and the equally enlightening How Children Learn, were ignored. John's added insights in the 1980 revised edition helped me understand that learning is a on-going life process - it's okay to change my mind about what I believe to be appropriate in the light of new knowledge and understanding; it's okay to continue to grow throughout adult life.

His example of continuous life-long learning, especially about the learning process itself, still inspires me. This book is compelling reading - it helped to change my life.

If your children are in school and having trouble, this book will tell you some of the reasons why. If they are learning at home it may help you avoid some of the mistakes made in the classroom, or help you learn the behavioural signs in your children that indicate you're making some of the errors commonly made in schools. His empathy for children and understanding of how they learn make John Holt a powerful educator.

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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