How Teachers Fail

How Children Learn

by John Holt
Pitman, 189 pp., $4.95

John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail, described the strategies of avoidance and failure children adopt in school when they feel pressed to reproduce whatever their teachers consider is necessary for learning. It shows how nervous and unhappy children try to figure out what their teachers expect of them, rather than learn what they themselves care to know. Therefore, it is not surprising that when Holt turns his attention from failure to learning, he studies primarily children who have not yet been to school and have never been taught formally.

In his new book, How Children Learn, John Holt recounts in diary form several years’ observations of children between the ages of sixteen months and six years. When, in the later part of the book, he shifts his observations to the classroom and discusses, in a discursive and anecdotal style, studies in the academic curriculum, such as reading and science, the young child unspoiled by school experience still remains the paradigm of a true learner.

Holt does not merely study children but seems to look with them at the world. His observations are informal. He watches the children, plays games with them, and describes what he sees. No theory imposes itself on the accounts in the diary. Holt does not set the children specific tasks nor bother them with constant questioning. The games he plays with children are not developed to prove some psychological or developmental point, but grow spontaneously out of specific situations; often they are created by the children themselves. Holt throughout the book talks about the need for adults to “think like a child,” to perceive things freshly and without preconceptions, and his diaries illustrate this view:

March 22, 1963

The other day Danny did something so exactly like what little children are supposed to do that it sounds made up. He has three picture puzzles, like jigsaw puzzles, only much simpler. Two are the Playskool variety, seen in many nursery schools. The other is a very pretty, and much more intricate and interesting Dutch puzzle. Though Danny is only 29 months old, he can put these puzzles together with no outside help. It is surprising that he should have such skillful fingers, or be able to keep three such complicated patterns in his head. He does not do these puzzles by trial and error, not any more. He knows where each piece in each of the puzzles goes. He has a rough order in which he likes to put the puzzles together, but he is not a prisoner of that order. At any one point there is probably a piece that he would rather put in than any other, but if that piece doesn’t fall under his eye, he can use another, and place it correctly. It is quite something to watch.

The other day he was working on one of the Playskool puzzles, which is about boats. One of the pieces, which fits along an edge, is a cloud. He picked it up …

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