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, took it to its proper place, and tried to fit it in. But he had turned it a little bit away from the proper angle, so that he couldn’t get it to go right up to the edge. Also, there were no other pieces in place around it to guide it in. He struggled and pushed with it, turning it this way and that, but couldn’t quite get it to fit. He grew more and more uneasy; he knew that it was supposed to go there, but it wouldn’t. His movements became more rapid and anxious. Suddenly he turned away from the puzzle, crawled to his blanket, a few feet behind him, grabbed it, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and sat down on the floor, looking at us as if to say, “I know what to do at a time like this.” We all laughed delightedly. In a moment or so he had recharged his battery enough so that he could go back to the puzzle, put in some other pieces, and soon finished it, including the piece that had caused the trouble.

Though Holt does not have a theory of learning guiding his observations, he does have an image of “the child” which informs them. For all the openness and naturalness of the diaries in How Children Learn one senses in Holt’s remarks a romanticism which places the highest trust and hope in the possibilities of the uncorrupted child. It is, however, a romanticism made bitter by Holt’s view of experience. He is not a Rousseauean, for he does not find the natural state of the child pure. Rather his romanticism lies in a belief that the growth of the child, if uncorrupted by civilization in the form of manipulating elders, will lead him to an honest and productive manhood. For Holt “infancy is not a blessed state…but something to be grown out of and escaped from as quickly as possible.” A natural impulse makes the child want to move from his initial state of dependency to greater and greater independence and autonomy. Holt’s central idea is quite simple: the child wants and needs to learn of the world and, moreover, enjoys doing so; he wants to emerge as an individual in precarious balance with the world rather than to remain in a stagnant state of equilibrium. To be alive is to grow, and to be a child for Holt is to be able still to enjoy that fact.

The child wants to discover his place in the world of things and people, and in order to do so gathers as much data as possible. This was vividly illustrated when Holt brought his cello to class:

It doesn’t take a child long…to grasp the basic idea of the cello, the relationship of the bow, the string, and the left hand. But while he has been figuring this out, he has been ceaselessly active. One could say that he is having too much fun—a weak word, really—playing the cello to want to take time to figure it out. A scientist might say that, along with his useful data, the child has collected an enormous quantity of random, useless data. A trained scientist wants to cut all irrelevant data out of his experiment. He is asking nature a question, and he wants to cut down the noise, the static, the random information, to a minimum, so that he can hear the answer. But a child doesn’t work that way. He is used to getting his answers out of the noise. He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where he can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of what he experiences. His way of attacking the cello problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, to use his hands and the bow in as many ways as possible. Then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns. He begins to ask questions—that is, to make deliberate experiments. But it is vital to note that until he has a great deal of data, he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.

Experience is enjoyable in and of itself, and at the same time is stored in the child’s mind. At a future time things may come together, often quite unconsciously. According to Holt much of what the child learns he is not aware of learning: “Children are good at gathering and storing…vague information—too vague to be useful to most adults—and waiting patiently until some day they find they know what it means.”

THERE IS no set order of learing nor any rigid series of steps the child must pass through to achieve mastery of one mode of thought or another. Many things occur simultaneously, and there is a great deal of sorting that occurs in the child’s mind without his being able to talk about it. Children learn to use with mastery the rules of language, for example, without knowing what those rules are. They also master them at different rates and in different ways. According to Holt, there is no one way to learn and it is therefore a foolish intellectual game to look for principles of learning instead of looking at how children learn.

In this he differs from Piaget, Bruner, and other developmental theorists who hold that the child learns in an orderly way and must pass through a set of preordained stages to reach any given point of mental development. Because the theorists look at children in different ways from those of Holt, they therefore see different things. Bruner leans heavily on the “experimental” situation, as do other developmental theorists such as Benjamin Bloom and the Ausubels. Piaget and his followers ask children what they know. Holt is unique in that he watches them during the natural course of their lives and plays with them in settings that are not artificial and in ways that are not contrived. There is no question in my mind that he is open to see what the more “scientific” observers of children exclude by the very nature of the circumstances they use for their observations. Holt’s conclusions are, of course, more subjective and less verifiable than those of the developmental theorists, but one cannot help feeling that he is right in looking at children rather than setting up laboratory circumstances in which to study them. How Children Learn provides sufficient insight to justify his procedure, all theoretical considerations aside.

The young children Holt observes are patient and not easily frustrated. They work at the problems confronting them with ingenuity and energy. They do not have to be compelled to learn, but welcome the challenge of what they do not know, and move voluntarily from the simple to the complex. Children do not avoid difficult practical and intellectual problems and are bored with what is easy or irrelevant. I found this to be true of my pupils, who constantly used the materials in the classroom in ingenious and unexpected ways. For example, there were bells, lights, and batteries available in the room, and the children quickly mastered ringing the bells or lighting the lights. Then they began to set up series of bells and lights and ended up developing elaborate burglar alarms.

Holt implies that if left alone and treated with the respect persons are due, rather than with the possessiveness adults reserve for children and objects, the child will want to know and will indeed learn. The section of How Children Learn entitled “Talk” illustrates this point. Holt shows that in the classroom children are expected to address their remarks to the teacher, and generally only to a question the teacher has raised. “Talking,” in the sense of children conversing with one another in the classroom, is too often considered defiance and prohibited. Yet this is unnatural and displays a lack of respect for children as human beings who need to, and will profit by, exchange with one another. Adults impose restrictions upon children which, if they were imposed upon them, would be considered insulting and disrespectful. Holt asserts, and I feel that this is of crucial importance, that in the relations between adult and child, whether in the classroom or at home, the child should be extended every social consideration that adults give one another. This is no less than insisting that at every moment the child be treated as a human being and not as an object.

Holt’s image of the child differs from another largely unarticulated view that seems to inform the behavior of many teachers in their classrooms. According to this view the child is essentially a passive being whose natural state is one of lazy equilibrium: unless forced to work and constantly kept alert the child will never learn anything. Worse, the child is resistant to learning and has constantly to be motivated from without (either by parents or in “disadvantaged” cases by school people). He only learns what he has been taught (if that), and it is therefore necessary to teach him everything from character to calculating. If left alone he will remain lazy and will be unprepared to cope with the realities of life.

An extreme expression of this image of the child lies behind the ideology of some Headstart programs which imply that the “disadvantaged” child has learned nothing before he arrives in school and, moreover, has no motivation to learn. One often hears the words “apathetic,” “indifferent,” “uninterested” to describe children in Headstart programs. This of course poses great problems for the teachers who believe they must both “motivate” their students and compensate for what these children have never learned.

The “problem of motivation” is much discussed in education today, especially by experts in teaching the “disadvantaged.” I have been asked by many teachers, “How can we motivate them to learn?” The answer is that so long as black children remain healthily rebellious we can’t make them learn.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN of the middle class? Teachers can’t “motivate” them either, although they can make them learn. They can intimidate them into performing, because the children’s parents are allies of the teachers in the school’s war against the child. Yet one hesitates to call parroting a form of learning, and for the most part this is what most middle-class education consists of. Perhaps in essential ways adults cannot make children learn at all. I remember my last year as a student at the Bronx High School of Science. We all prepared for the four-year New York history regents exam, stuffing our heads with dates of tariffs and treaties and births and deaths. I also remember after the exam that we all threw our review books and notes into a bonfire and experienced the joy of slipping those gratuitous facts out of our heads.

I don’t think that “motivation” is really a problem. I’ve noticed that in even the most demoralized ghetto schools children arrive the first day excited and open to everything. They are ready not only to be with other children and adults, but also to learn. They look happy and often come absurdly over-equipped with books and pencils and notebooks. Somewhere in the first few weeks all this changes. The children arrive at school and hang around outside, reluctant to enter the building. They pass the day in class waiting for their liberation at 3:00, and when at last the final bell rings they grimly fall into line and march silently to the exit doors. But as soon as they hit the street they come to life: they begin to smile and run around—natural impulses after their confinement all day.

I’m not sure what happens inside classrooms the first few weeks, but it is no doubt of crucial importance how children are received in school during this time. Often teachers feel their first task of the year is to establish their authority and are therefore unnecessarily aggressive. One teacher at a school I worked in advised the new teachers to be very tough the firstweek, to “let them know who is boss,” and then to let up during the year. Such “letting up” of course isn’t letting up at all. Once an oppressive atmosphere is established, whatever freedom is later granted by the adult in charge is illusive. It can be, and usually is, taken back at the first sign of defiance.

The opposite takes place in the classroom Holt describes. The children are welcomed and the objects in the classroom put at their disposal. The teacher feels his first responsibility is to develop a trust between himself and his pupils, which enables them to function freely and autonomously in a school situation.

In authoritarian classrooms in middleclass schools as well as those in the ghetto, there are certain strategies teachers adopt in the first weeks of school. They make it clear that their pupils will have to work, that a certain amount of material must be covered, that there will be homework that must be done, tests that must be taken, rules that must be followed. Experienced teachers often use the first few days of school to establish routines for hanging up clothes, lining up, going to the toilet, etc. By these routines the teacher controls the flow of bodies in the classroom and the school. From the start it is made clear to the children that everything from going to lunch to their mental development is to be strictly controlled within the school setting.* A normal child trapped in such a system would certainly react by trying to defy or subvert it.

There is a life within the school, however, largely unobserved by teachers, which illustrates how well children learn when they want to learn, how ingenious and energetic they are, and how “motivated.” The pre-school children Holt describes in How Children Learn are not totally destroyed nor are they transformed into the unhappy pupils described in How Children Fail. In school children quickly learn the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of their teachers, learn ways of getting around the system at every possible point of its weakness. They also develop clandestine relationships with one another, and communicate in forbidden ways before the teachers’ eyes. They pass secret notes and whisper whenever they can. Nicknames are created for their teachers, and defiant children are often made into heroes. There are even some children who develop into such jesters in the classroom that they can perform hilariously to their fellow pupils without the teacher ever being aware of it. One finds written on walls in and around schools, in notebooks or slam-and-slang books, expressions of the child’s perception of his life in school which make it clear that children are aware of themselves and actively engaged in the war between teacher and pupil that is fought in the classroom.

There is no problem of “motivation.” Think of children outside school. No one need compel them to invent games, care about music and dance, puzzle about human relationships and feelings, have serious concerns over their own futures. Children are not lazy outside school, though they may often avoid assignments connected with school. I think Holt is right in saying that children and young people have a natural impulse to learn. I would go even further and say that often they are tough enough not to let their experience in school destroy that impulse. A weakness of Holt’s romanticism is that he doesn’t perceive how much children learn about the world when they learn to fail. The knowledge they acquire of hypocrisy and deceit is useful for survival and does not necessarily make children into hypocrites and liars. Just when that transformation takes place I do not know, but I haven’t perceived it in many children under fourteen. Perhaps adolescence is the moral age when children are forced to decide how to deal with a world which until that time they have felt free to observe.

I know many black youths who failed to learn to read in school. There was nothing meaningful for them to read. Their texts were at best remote and uninteresting, at worst insulting. After ten years in the system some of them quit. Others hung on until they received attendance diplomas. But recently when books were published which some of these boys felt they had to read—The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X’s speeches, Manchild in the Promised Land—they taught themselves to read. It wasn’t easy—the best reader in the group read on a fifth-grade level. But the difficulty was nothing compared to their “motivation.” The “reading problem” in ghetto schools will be solved, if at all, on the streets—unless there is a drastic change in the schools themselves.

THERE IS A NEED to redefine the role of the teacher and end the state of warfare that exists in the classroom. It is foolish for teachers to pretend they know what every child must be taught. It is even more foolish to believe that children can be taught what adults think they must be taught. Learning, in the sense of mastering and understanding, is an individual and organic process. It comes to children because of its relevance to their lives. Why do people become psychologists, physicists, novelists, or poets? Why choose business instead of teaching or social work? Is it merely because of their schooling? As Holt says, “the things we learn because, for our own reasons, we really need to know them, we don’t forget.”

Teachers must learn not to stand in the way of children but rather to be available to them. This does not mean that the teacher becomes a passive observer in the classroom or an irrelevant being. The teacher should prepare an exciting environment in which children can learn. There should be books around for the children. The teacher should use what he knows of literature and not what the librarians recommend. There should be scientific equipment, art supplies, maps and globes available, and it is no small task choosing these, let alone finding the money for them. The teacher should become a valuable resource himself with the patience to wait until his pupils want to make use of him. Children want to spell words correctly, learn what the world looks like, how to add or figure out what happened years ago.

How Children Learn is an important book. Not the least of the reasons for this is that it shows children learning without teachers. People accustomed to functioning in institutions where what is taught is of more concern than whether or how it is learned cannot conceive of this possibility. Holt describes the use young children make of adults while they begin to learn about the world and test what they know. For example, there are times when the child needs information or wants to communicate or play with someone who is presumably more in command of experience than he is. The adult is an invaluable resource for the child, but he needn’t be the child’s master.

These ideas are not utopian. I started out as a teacher whose first concern was order and learned that this concern had more to do with my fear of losing control than any reality of the children’s lives. I learned to trust my pupils and to make it possible for them to trust me. Holt too was an authoritarian teacher at the beginning of his career. There are others who have discovered what a bitter battlefield our classrooms have become and have called a unilateral truce. We all are working toward creating a classroom that is truly democratic. Joseph Featherstone in a recent series of articles in The New Republic described schools in England that are undergoing a similar process of change. Perhaps it is not impossible to imagine the same thing happening in the United States.

  1. *

    At times teachers inadvertently reveal their attitudes when they describe their work. For example, one teacher wrote in a daily report: “11:15-11:45 Showed filmstrips The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. My major purpose in showing the filmstrips was to teach the children to take turns.”