More on John Holt: How Children Fail

More on John Holt: How Children Fail

I’m about a third of the way through; but have found much to comment on so far. I figured I’d go ahead and write a blog post.

I’m not finding this book quite as engaging as How Children Learn. I suppose I’m more interested in the process of education and exploring how young minds work than in the process of diagnosing why things go wrong. And that’s what this book seems to be, observations of children who fail and, if it progresses the way I expect it to, some attempts at discerning what’s going wrong.

One thing I’m not seeing, though, is how Holt became the poster child of the “feel good” self-esteem movement, as Bill Cork suggested he was. Or, rather, I can see how a misreading of his ideas might have been a step on that path, but it seems from this book like the schools were already in a crisis state and that his attempt to figure out why might have shifted the direction of the slide a bit but did not stem the tide.

One thing Holt clearly is not, though, is an advocate of fostering a false sense of self worth. I was particularly struck by this passage:

We agree that all children need to succeed; but do we mean the same thing? My own feeling is that success should not be quick or easy, and should not come all the time. Success implies overcoming an obstacle, including, perhaps, the thought in our minds that we might not succeed. It is turning, “I can’t” into “I can and I did.”

We ought also to learn, beginning early, that we don’t always succeed…. Life holds many more defeats than victories for all of us. Shouldn’t we get used to this early? We should learn, too, to aim higher than we think we can hit. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” What we fail to do today, we, or someone, may do tomorrow. Or failure may pave the way for someone else’s success.

Of course, we should protect a child, if we can, from a diet of unbroken failure. More to the point, perhaps, we should see that failure is honorable and constructive, rather than humiliating. . . .

It is tempting to think we can arrange the work of unsuccessful students so that they think they are succeeding most of the time. But how can we keep secret from a child what other children of his own age, in his own or other schools, are doing? What these kids need is the experience of doing something really well—so well that they know themselves, without having to be told, that they have done it well.

It seems to me that this credo, that children need to have the experience of success and should be protected from a diet of unbroken failure, has been taken up by those whose understanding of success is different than Holt’s, by those who do not understand the need for success to be real and not false platitudes that praise effort rather than achievement.

In fact, Holt seems to think that children are being praised too much:

If children worry so much about failure, might it not be because they rate success too highly and depend on it too much? May there not be altogether too much praise for good work in the lower grades? If, when Johnny does good work, we make him feel “good,” may we not, without intending it, be making him feel “bad” when he does bad work?

Do children really need so much praise? When a child, after a long struggle, finally does the cube puzzle, does he need to be told that he has done well? Doesn’t he know, without being told, that he has accomplished something? in fact, when we praise him, are we not perhaps horning in on his accomplishment, stealing a little of his glory, edging our way into the limelight, praising ourselves for having helped to turn out such a smart child?

If Holt thinks that children in his day are getting too much praise, I fail to see how he could be “the guy who gave us “feel good” education, in which children’s self esteem is the most important value. ” To see self-esteem as the most important thing, is to misread Holt entirely. He thinks children should have real successes and real failures, understand the value of failure and not be beaten down by it. This might bear a superficial resemblance to the classroom culture in which students are told that their feeble attempts are good work, but it is not the same thing at all.

In Holt’s ideal world, the child’s sense of self worth comes from real struggles and real successes. He doesn’t need someone else boosting his self esteem because he isn’t failing at everything he sets his hand to. But what we see too often today is children being praised for mediocre work or work that is downright bad. Their feeling of self-esteem comes not from an honest self-evaluation and pride in hard work and a task well-done but in shallow reassurances that they’re ok even when they fail to work hard or to accomplish anything.

This passage from Holt made me think of Charlotte Mason:

We must set a limit to the tension that we put children under. If we don’t, they will set their own limits by not paying attention, by fooling around, by saying unnecessarily, “I don’t get it.” We should let them know in advance that they will not have to be under tension for an entire period, and that, if need be, they have the means to bring it to a stop.

In fact, it seems that Charlotte Mason’s method addresses many of the problems Holt identifies. CM says that lessons be kept very short, say 15 minutes for little ones, and that children should be required to focus for the duration of the lesson. She says that periods should be varied, a period of physical activity following a period of reading and narration, for example, so that the child is not under the same kind of tension for too long. Both educators suggest that we should have realistic expectations for how long a child can pay attention. We should not require of him more than he is able to give. To do so is to put him under unnecessary strain and to create, unnecessarily, an experience of failure rather than success.

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1 comment
  • I read the article with a certain degree of trepidation, since I often come away from homeschooling articles feeling less than adequate and unable to emulate the picture-book atmosphere presented.  But as soon as I saw “Eeeeeewwww,” I felt comforted.  Mrs. Thomas does a really nice job of explaining the hows and whys of Catholic homeschooling!