• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

How Teachers Fail

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.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print