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John Holt - How Children Fail

John Holt - How Children Fail

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Published by: mikepscullin on Apr 07, 2010
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02/06/2012

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How Children FailBy John Holt, Penguin Education
ForewordMost children in school fail.For a great many, this failure is avowed and absolute. Close to forty percentof those who begin high school, drop out before they finish. For college, thefigure is one in three.Many others fail in fact if not in name. They complete their schooling only because we have agreed to push them up through the grades and out of theschools, whether they know anything or not. There are many more suchchildren than we think. If we "raise our standards" much higher, as somewould have us do, we will find out very soon just how many there are. Our classrooms will bulge with kids who can't pass the test to get into the nextclass.But there is a more important sense in which almost all children fail: Exceptfor a handful, who may or may not be good students, they fail to developmore than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding,and creating with which they were born and of which they made full useduring, the first two or three years of their lives.Why do they fail?They fail because they are afraid, bored, and confused.They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing themany anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectationsfor them hang over their heads like a cloud.They are bored because the things they are given and told to do in school areso trivial, so dull, and make such limited and narrow demands on the widespectrum of their intelligence, capabilities, and talents.
 
They are confused because most of the torrent of words that pours over themin school makes little or no sense. It often flatly contradicts other things theyhave been told, and hardly ever has any relation to what they really know— to the rough model of reality that they carry around in their minds.How does this mass failure take place? What really goes on in theclassroom? What are these children who fail doing? What goes on in their heads? Why don't they make use of more of their capacity?This book is the rough and partial record of a search for answers to thesequestions. It began as a series of memos written in the evenings to mycolleague and friend Bill Hull, whose fifth-grade class I observed and taughtin during the day. Later these memos were sent to other interested teachersand parents. A small number of these memos make up this book. They havenot been much rewritten, but they have been edited and rearranged under four major topics: Strategy; Fear and Failure; Real Learning; and HowSchools Fail.
Strategy
deals with the ways in which children try to meet, or dodge, the demands that adults make of them in school.
 Fear and Failure
deals with the interaction in children of fear and failure, and the effect of thison strategy and learning.
 Real Learning 
deals with the difference betweenwhat children appear to know or are expected to know, and what they reallyknow.
 How Schools Fail 
analyzes the ways in which schools foster badstrategies, raise children's fears, produce learning which is usuallyfragmentary, distorted, and short-lived, and generally fail to meet the realneeds of children.These four topics are clearly not exclusive. They tend to overlap and blendinto each other. They are, at most, different ways of looking at and thinkingabout the thinking and behavior of children.It must be made clear that the book is not about unusually bad schools or  backward children. The schools in which the experiences described heretook place are private schools of the highest standards and reputation. Withvery few exceptions, the children whose work is described are well abovethe average in intelligence and are, to all outward appearances, successful,and on their way to "good" secondary schools and colleges. Friends andcolleagues, who understand what I am trying to say about the harmful effectof today's schooling on the character and intellect of children, and who have
 
visited many more schools than I have, tell me that the schools I have notseen are not a bit better than those I have, and very often are worse.FOREWORD TO REVISED EDITIONAfter this book came out, people used to say to me, "When are you going towrite a book about how
teachers
fail?" My answer was, "But that's what this book is about."But if it is a book about a teacher who often failed, it is also about a teacher who was not satisfied to fail, not resigned to failure. It was my job and mychosen task to help children learn things, and if they did not learn what Itaught them, it was my job and task to try other ways of teaching them untilI found ways that worked.For many years now I've been urging and begging teachers and studentteachers to take this attitude toward their work. Most respond by saying,"Why are you blaming us for everything that goes wrong in schools? Whyare you trying to make us feel all this guilt?"But I'm not. I didn't
blame
myself or feel guilt, just because my studentswere so often not learning what I was teaching, because I wasn’t doing whatI had set out to do and couldn't find out how to do it. But I did hold myself 
responsible
."Blame" and "guilt" are crybaby words. Let's get them out of our talk abouteducation. Let's use instead the word "responsible." Let's have schools andteachers begin to hold themselves responsible for the results of what they do.I held myself responsible. If my students weren't learning what J wasteaching, it was my job to find out why.
 How Children Fail 
, as I said, was a partial record of my not very successful attempts to find out why. Now,twenty years after I wrote most of 
 How Children Fail 
, I think I know muchmore about why. That’s what this revised version of the book is about.I've decided to leave the original exactly as I wrote it, and where I havesecond thoughts about what I then wrote, I’ve put those to. It may seem tosome that it took me too long to learn what I have learned, and that I mademany foolish mistakes, and missed many obvious clues. I feel no guilt aboutthis. I was trying as best I could to discover something difficult and

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