BOOK REVIEW: How Children Fail

Posted on May 3 2018 - 11:04am by Rebekah Schrepfer

John Holt understands children.   If you are an educator of any kind, and that includes parents, take the time to read this book!  How are we teaching?   How do our students think?  How can I help them think?  Even with 300 pages, “How Children Fail” is a super easy read.  Holt’s conversation style and simple observations kept me glued to the pages.

If you were a poor student, you will identify with this book.  If you were a “troublesome” student who exasperated your teachers, you will identify with this book.  Because you will be reading a teacher/author who really gets you.  If you were a good student with few academic problems, your eyes will be opened.

I  really wanted to underline the whole book!  This book explores those who are not just poor students, but poor thinkers.  What is the thought process that leads them to continually get things wrong?

  The application to my homeschooling was obvious, and many concepts I was able to implement right away.  But it struck me early in the book, how much of this is applicable to all of life! As we read our Bibles and go to church and Bible studies and conferences, are we learning?  Really learning?   Am I internalizing and fully understanding the material laid before me?  Or am I just coasting through, giving the best guess/rote answers when called upon?  Do I have a way of thinking that continually gets me the “wrong answers?” 

On the flip side, am I teaching and admonishing in effective ways when given teaching and discipleship opportunities?  How can I help those who simply have given up even trying to find real and true answers? 

To avoid trying to force a secular book into spiritual meanings, I will say up front that Holt is simply observing how a student behaves and how classrooms and teachers help him or hinder him.  My extrapolation into the Christian life is purely my own.

I especially thought about discipleship when he said this:  “How can we foster a joyous alert, wholehearted participation in life if we build all our schooling around the holiness of getting ‘right answers'” (pg. 242)?   There is a difference between learning things by rote memorization and by full understanding of how things fit together.  Maybe that’s why English grammar and spelling is so difficult.  Maybe that’s why phonics is a key component of reading and why many homeschool families are teaching Latin and other languages early.  There are seemingly random rules to grammar and spelling that break phonics rules, but there is an order to the madness after all.   

It was interesting to see his updated notes.  The first edition of “How Children Fail” was printed in the 1964, and then the second edition was done in 1982.   Instead of replacing his thoughts with new things he’s learned, Holt added just another paragraph to show his new thoughts.  In some cases his theories and observations were corroborated,  but in other cases he modifies his thoughts a bit.  You can really hear the difference in his tone between his earlier and later observations.  That’s really important to remember when researching and coming to conclusions (in any areas of life).  We don’t usually have a final definitive answer that can never be modified.  Humility and integrity to look at things honestly and without bias is crucial when seeking solutions.  Only Scripture can claim that infallible status! 

It was interesting how he encourages real behavior in front of children.  Parents, he says, should not try to be some idealized model parent (a growing trend he saw even in the 60s!), but parents should simply be themselves.  Not being “real” to children is more scary to them than normal human behavior.

Also fascinating was his description of the fearfulness  in poor students. 

I saw why  for some children the strategy of weakness, of incompetence, of impotence, may be a good one.  For, after all, if they (meaning we) know that you can’t do anything, they won’t expect you to do anything, and they won’t blame you or punish you for not being able to do what you have been told to do….It is often said that alcoholics may be very able people who feel they cannot meet the high standards they have set for themselves, and hence don’t try.  When you set out to fail, one thing is certain– you can’t be disappointed.  As the old saying goes, you can’t fall out of bed when you sleep on the floor.  (pg. 109)

I thought of church attendees, members or not, who never serve or contribute in any way.  They attend and participate passively, they seem friendly enough, but they seem stuck and content with just getting by in the Christian life.   I wonder if church members or attendees feel this way when we try to get them involved in a meaningful way.  Do we project that they need to be perfect?  So they just don’t even try in order to get out of that awkward challenge. Or do we love and help and teach openly with graciousness?

In many ways visitors who come to church must feel like they’re back in school again.  Nervous, confused, trying to find the lay of the land, maybe digging themselves a fox hole to hunker down in.  Some people handle it all well, and of course they are rewarded for their openness and positive responses.  Yet others just squirm and check out mentally feeling fear, anxiety, and tension and they can’t say why, deciding it may have been better not to come.

 This book was a good exercise for me. I was a good student.  I knew the  answers and mostly knew the concepts and how they fit together.  I can easily find dissenting views and pick apart the flaws and find my way back to reality.  I do this with grammar and spelling, too.  While I do this a lot in the realm of ideas, I don’t much in my kids’ math class.  Indeed this is a good exercise for students as well, and maybe it’s good for my kids to see me struggle through my own thoughts and come out the other end with the right answer, with truth. 

Knowledge, learning, understanding, are not linear.  They are not little bits of facts lined up in rows or piled up one on top of another.  A field of knowledge, whether it be math, English, history, science, music, or whatever, is a territory, and knowing it is not just a matter of knowing all the items in the territory, but of knowing how they relate to, compare with, and fit in with each other….[in his later edition] I believe this now more strongly than ever, and it seems to be as important as any other idea set forth in this book  (pg. 178).

Wow.  Something to consider.   Maybe this is why it is ok to tell your children, “because I said so,” and then leave them to wonder about the “why” questions.   It reminded me of my grandpa’s history with school.  He was a poor student as a child.  He thought that the way to get the right answer was to guess.  He thought that there was a “secret of the numbers”, until someone finally showed his how math worked.  If I believe that the Holy Spirit renews us in our minds (Rom. 12:1-2) then that old concept of grounding people, educating people, and saturating minds with God’s Word and God’s truth will transform how we think about our world.  The pieces will fall into place about how God works in our lives and with each passing day we have more and more confidence and peace that “All things work together for good”  (Rom. 8:28).

I was astonished at the examples of students who could “follow me down the trail if I went slow enough, but could never find the trail himself.”    Boy, does that sound like some discipleship situations!  This fits with God’s design for His people to be in church.  For the sheep to follow a shepherd.  It must be more than rote, more than just following.  Especially when spiritual health us at stake, not just passing a math class. 

Here’s another excerpt:

Years of watching and comparing bright children and the not bright, or less bright, have shown that they are very different kinds of people.  The bright child is curious about life and reality, eager to get in touch with it, embrace it, unite himself with it.  There is no wall, no barrier between him and life.  The dull child is far less curious, far less interested in what goes on and what is real, more inclined to live in worlds of fantasy.  The bright child likes to experiment, to try things out.  He lives by the maxim that there is more than one way to skin a cat.  If he can’t do something one way, he’ll try another.  The dull child is usually afraid to try at all.  It takes a good deal of urging to get him to try even once; if that try fails, he is through.

The bright child is patient.  He can tolerate uncertainty and failure, and will keep trying until he gets an answer.  When all his experiments fail, he can even admit to himself and others that for the time being he is not going to get an answer.  This may annoy him, but he can wait.  Very often, he does not want to be told how to do the problem or solve the puzzle he has struggled with, because he does not want to be cheated out of the chance to figure it out for himself in the future.  Not so the dull child.  He cannot stand uncertainty or failure.  To him, an unanswered question is not a challenge or an opportunity but a threat.  If he can’t find the answer quickly, it must be given to him, and quickly; and he must have answers for everything.  Such are the children of whom a second-grade teacher once said, “But my children like to have questions for which there is only one answer.”  They did; and by a mysterious coincidence, so did she.

The bright child is willing to go ahead on the basis of incomplete understanding and information.  He will take risks, sail uncharted seas, explore when the landscape is dim, the landmarks few, and the light poor.  To give only one example, he will often read books he does not understand in the hope that after a wwhile enough understanding will emerge to make it worthwhile to go on.  In this spirit some of my fifth-graders tried to read Moby Dick.  But the dull child will go ahead only when he thinks he knows exactly where he stands and exactly what is ahead of him.  If he does not feel he knows exactly what an experience will be like, and if it will not be exactly like other experiences he already knows, he wants no part of it.  For while the bright child feels that the universe is, on the whole, a sensible, reasonable, and trustworthy place, the dull child feels that it is senseless, unpredictable, and treacherous.  He feels that he can never tell what may happen, particularly in a new situation, except that it will probably be bad  (emphasis mine)  (pg. 276).

I’m astounded.  Do I know people who behave this way in their Christian walk?   More than I’d like to see.

The Lord teaches us!  He’s given us multiple avenues for learning and growing.  His written Word, available at all times.  Pastors and teachers who shepherd us along.  The Holy Spirit renewing our minds to be have the mind of Christ.  Testing and experiences that give opportunities for applying truths.1   God is a good teacher according to John Holt’s measure.  [wink]

I’m currently reading his second book, “How Children Learn,” and the next on one my list is “Teach Your Own”.  I recommend these classic books for everyone, not only teachers.

 

 

  1.  See my article “The Teacher and the Tests”.

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