Review of "How Children Fail"

How Children Fail, by John Holt. ISBN 0-14-022571-4.

A classic. I’d guess that most English and American teachers have read this book. I’d also guess that most of them did so with a rather indulgent smile and dismissed Holt as too radical. I think they’re wrong.

Holt argues that schools are systematically teaching their pupils to fail, by keeping them in an atmosphere of fear (fear of failing, fear of being laughed at by teachers or other pupils, fear of disapproval, and so on) -- which kills their native curiosity, makes them unwilling to take the risks that are necessary for learning, and encourages them to think of learning as a dreary or painful task imposed from above.

We think of learning as the primary thing children in school are expected to do. Holt points out that in practice, what schools motivate children to do is to find ways to survive without having to learn the facts or understand the ideas. (For instance, adopting a strategy of persistent failure so that no one expects so much of you. There are more subtle strategies, too, and Holt discusses several.)

The book is organised in the form of a diary, recording Holt’s experiences in the classroom and his reflections on them. It’s full of illuminations of the odd ways in which some children think and behave, and of the successes and failures of various approaches to teaching.

Holt is not a great writer, but he’s a good one. His writing style is clear and direct.

If you have anything to do with the education of children (particularly young ones) and you haven’t read this book, then you should do so. You are warned that you might disagree with a lot of what Holt says; still worse, you might agree with it, and who knows what might happen then?