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How Children Fail

(Classics in Child Development)

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  1,688 ratings  ·  147 reviews
First published in the mid 1960s, How Children Fail began an education reform movement that continues today. In his 1982 edition, John Holt added new insights into how children investigate the world, into the perennial problems of classroom learning, grading, testing, and into the role of the trust and authority in every learning situation. His understanding of children, t ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 4th 1995 by Da Capo Lifelong Books (first published 1964)
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Mar 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Holt has a way of cutting through the bullshit when it comes to how children learn (or more realistically, as the book contends: how they do NOT learn) in schools. He approaches the subject almost as a scientist, eschewing fancy, obfuscating academic language as well as cleverness and finger-pointing. It is a remarkably gimmick-free book that attempts to put aside the supply-side notion of "how can we as teachers discover clever methods for imparting knowledge to our captive charges?" in favor o ...more
May 02, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So, after all these years of homeschooling I finally read John Holt. And, believe it or not, I whole-heartedly agree with a lot of what he has to say. He so eloquently puts into words many things I have thought about education and learning. I don't know if I could've understood so much of this before experiencing it through learning with my own children. One of my many favorite quotes: "But a child who is learning naturally, following his curiosity where it leads him, adding to his mental model ...more
May 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
John Holt summarizes perfectly the problem with contemporary education: it emphasizes right answers rather than learning, production rather than thinking. Read this book to understand this problem and its results, as seen through his experience as a collaborative teacher and thoughtful observer. The rewards for "right answers" over thinking even persists at higher education levels. "What would happen at Harvard or Yale if a prof gave a surprise test in March on work covered in October? Everyone ...more
Aug 31, 2015 rated it really liked it
Excellent! Definitely a book worth rereading. I can't wait to read some of his other books.

A few of my favorite quotes

A few good principles to keep in mind:
1 - Children do not need to be "taught" in order to learn; they will learn a great deal, and probably learn best, without being taught.
2 - Children are enormously interested in our adult world and what we do there.
3 - Children learn best when the things they learn are embedded in a context of real life, are part of what George Dennison, i
Apr 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
There is a special place in heaven where angels sing dirges for children herded off to school each day. Lamenting the destruction of their infinitely creative capacities as fear of authority, fear of being made fun of, is inculcated deep within their minds. And which drives them towards the hunt for right answers to please countless adults around them and very far away from truly discovering life and their own selves. This, in a nutshell, is what John Holt's book is about. Its immensely sad to r ...more
Pretty intense. I have decided not to rate this book with gold stars (John wouldn't have approved).
It definitely wasn't perfect, there were certain points where the spelling and grammar made it difficult to understand what was going on. Another aspect that I wasn't crazy about was the product placement. I can tell that John was just trying to be helpful and give pointers to other teaching personnel and share what he was interested in, but it's clear in revision notes that John wished he hadn't
Jan Martinek
Jun 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A great insight into learning (& somehow also a view into some adult behaviors). Just some quotes in place of a review. The book is rich in its specificity.

“The very natural mistake that Bill and I made was to think that the differences between the children in our class had to do with techniques of thinking, that the successful kids had good techniques of thinking while the unsuccessful, the "producers," had bad, and therefore that our task was to teach better techniques. But the unsuccessful k
Dec 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing
As a student, I schooled the educational system. I was the teacher's pet, the A student, the girl with all the answers. Yet, when I finished it all (including grad school), I knew hardly anything, and I was frustrated that I could remember so little. Nineteen years and thousands of dollars, and not much to show for it.

As a teacher, I started asking questions. Am I actually helping my students learn? Why are kids graduating from college with absolutely no idea about what they're good at or even i
Sep 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I would recommend a different title: How Children are Failed.

Fantastic. Cannot recommend this highly enough. Some of the references are a bit dated, but the main points are just as valid as ever. It is nothing short of criminal what is done to children "in their own good".
Oktawian Chojnacki
School is a jail of some sort. Is there a room for growth in such environment? I doubt it and so does the author.
Mar 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
As my husband is a teacher by trade, he has read several books on children and education that he recommended I read. One of these is How Children Fail by John Holt. I found it to be profound and fascinating and recommend it to anyone who cares about what their children learn or education. (Plus at under 200 pages, it's a quick read.) John Holt was a teacher and this book is a collection of memos that he shared with other teachers and his administration. His memos were based on observations in te ...more
May 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book is a highly personal rumination on why so many schoolchildren have trouble absorbing and understanding the material being taught in school. The main focus is on the difference between the passion for learning readily observed in infants and the boredom, frustration, and rebellion against learning that is already manifest in students in the earlier grades. Through a series of memos that read almost like diary entries, Mr. Holt describes his observations of his own and other teachers' cl ...more
Jun 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
This wasnt the best book on self guided pedagogy i have read recently. it does, however, seem to be one of the standards, due to its early observations (mid '50s) on the destructive nature of institutional instruction's crippling effect on learning (and happiness). It wasnt the most scintillating read due to its focus on the author's math students and their struggles with basic math. Still, it was worthwhile to read Holt's process of unraveling each student's approach to the subject until he cou ...more
Mar 20, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all teachers
Original copyright date: 1964. Holt's work rings just as true now as it did when I read it in the late 60's. As I read, I could see his warning about our current testing craze: "One ironical consequence of the drive for so-called higher standards in schools is that children are too busy to a very great degree, school is a place where children learn to be stupid...our 'tell 'em and test 'em way of teaching leaves most students aware that their academic success rests on shaky foundation ...more
Rebecca The Files of Mrs. E,
While I don't agree with all of John Holt's ideas, his book definitely made me think. I wish I had read this back when I was starting out as a teacher because it gave me a different perspective on some of my struggling students. Some of the information is dated (such as his treatment of special needs students) but the general ideas are still applicable. And I think his statement that teachers take responsibility when students learn and blame students when they don't is still true in many classro ...more
Garden Gal
Dec 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: students, parents, teachers, prospective teachers
Shelves: best-books-ever
Are you a learner? A teacher? Do you think you might like to teach?


It will teach you as much or more than any college or grad course in pedagogy and in a much more enjoyable manner with more inspiration than any pedagogy professor I've ever encountered.

It is a true today as it was when it was written.

It is an easy read, without jargon.

As a young college student, I read a library copy and as soon as I could afford to, I purchased a copy and promised myself I would read it at least once
Aug 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Pretty interesting book about Holt's experiences in the classroom. I really liked the notebook-esque format as well as the later commentary. As I was thinking about my own frustrations with work at the time, this seemed to also be a useful book about company management.

A few takeaways:
- "children fail because they are afraid, confused, and bored:" this seems like a pretty helpful framework, not only for thinking about the circumstances in which children disengage, but also for thinking about how
Jun 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I know, I know, five stars? for an educational classic? Yes, not only does it really deserve to be considered a classic in the sense that it is very thought provoking and could bear multiple readings, but unlike many classics (esp. in education!) it is a very engaging read. I find myself very drawn in by his style as much as anything and his compelling insights into the thinking and world of children. His observations are grounded in concrete examples as they happen (as all journaling will produ ...more
Dec 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This was the first book I read about homeschooling. It was recommended in my Montessori Teacher Training, and I fell in love. Despite the dreary title, John Holt has an intuitive sense of good teaching and the innate joy children can find in a good learning environment.
Feb 03, 2016 rated it it was ok
I really thought I would enjoy this book. It has been on my "to read" list for years. It just wasn't for me. I'm not sure who his target audience is, but I had zero interest in reading through decades old notes he took while observing kids who are now adults. Zero.
Aug 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: parents, teachers, students, and former students
This book, more than anything else, is what sold me on homeschooling. Anything to save my kids from this.
Jul 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: parenting
Insightful is an understatement. Written in the 50s but still very relevant today. Everyone should read it. Everyone.
Rebekah Schrepfer
May 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
John Holt understands children. If you are an educator of any kind, and that includes parents, take the time to read this book! How are we teaching? How do our students think? How can I help them think? Even with 300 pages, “How Children Fail” is a super easy read. Holt’s conversation style and simple observations kept me glued to the pages.

If you were a poor student, you will identify with this book. If you were a “troublesome” student who exasperated your teachers, you will identify with this
Mar 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education
I always enjoyed this style, anecdotal with commentary. The thoughtfulness with which Mr. Holt looks at his experiences observing the act of teaching is nothing less than amazing. He really gets into the question of why children respond to teachers and the school system the way they do. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, it is difficult to deny that he considers deeply the subject matter. The style is very engaging, interspersing his thoughts with memories. This edition is even bette ...more
Naman Bansal
Dec 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books that I have read of late. As someone who works with children myself and love them, this books tells me how my own teaching methods might not be useful for the children I am teaching. Like many Indian philosophers this book shares the basic idea about teaching and that is 'nothing worth knowing can't be taught. It needs to be discovered.'

The book tells about various strategies that children adopt to manage their fears and to satisfy the idea of being a 'good' student for th
Nov 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 1960-to-1980-ad
It was humorous and sad to confirm what I see as a private teacher--that I'm spending all my time trying to undo all that fearfulness stuff the kids have gotten all day every day at school for a week before I see them again. I knew years ago that I didn't spend half my time teaching music, as much as I spend teaching life skills, mainly coping with stress and fear. At least parents will pay me to do that, and perhaps it saves them time taking the kids to some other kind of professional (as this ...more
May 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Mixed feelings on this one.

The author makes a basic case that children 'fail' to learn in school, because we try to 'teach', using fear as our ally. The teaching is bad enough, but we make it worse by teaching them topics which they might not be interested in, and in ways which are artificial and abstract.

I agree whole heartedly with the premise, its something I had been feeling more and more over the last two decades, and found myself really hurtling to that conclusion ever since I saw s growi
Breanna Peskleway
Jun 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education, 2019

Heavy on the math, including a few tricks and "games" for teaching children arithmetic. Holt insists children are able-bodied and able-minded if given the opportunity. For example, one story that stuck out to me was how the students in American cafeterias were not permitted to carry plates of food out to their peers until age 10, because they couldn't be trusted not to drop them. At the same time, children in Japan did this at age 5. There is no difference between the children, but we set li
May 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education
This book is a perfect introduction into how schools negatively affect children. Not only do they make them dumber, they kill their creativity and their will for learning.

I started reading this because I am a teacher and although I already knew most ideas and principles Holt states in this book, I enjoyed reading the book because Holt's stories with children actually show us how schools affect children negatively.

When I was reading the conclusion, I recognized myself as a "dull kid". I'm in my t
Sep 21, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: parenting
I wouldn't say that it was a great book, but it had some ideas that I really liked and impressed me and with which I resonated. The main idea that will stay with me for a long time after having read this book is the following: "Schools should be a place where children learn what they most want to know, instead of what we think they ought to know. The child who wants to know something remembers it and uses it once he has it; the child who learns something to please or appease someone else forgets ...more
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After teaching in private schools for many years John Caldwell Holt wrote his first two books, How Children Fail, and How Children Learn. He became a vocal advocate for school reforms, and wrote several more books about education theory and practice, including alternative forms and many social issues relating to the education system. Eventually he decided school reform was impossible, and changed ...more

Other books in the series

Classics in Child Development (10 books)
  • Babies and Their Mothers (Classics in Child Development)
  • The Child, the Family, and the Outside World
  • Talking To Parents
  • The Biography Of A Baby
  • The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School
  • Children's Secrets
  • The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost
  • The Self-respecting Child: Development Through Spontaneous Play
  • How Children Learn

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“This idea that children won't learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, "positive and negative reinforcements," usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, "If we didn't make children do things, they wouldn't do anything." Even worse, they say, "If I weren't made to do things, I wouldn't do anything."

It is the creed of a slave.”
“For many years I have been asking myself why intelligent children act unintelligently at school. The simple answer is, "Because they're scared." I used to suspect that children's defeatism had something to do with their bad work in school, but I thought I could clear it away with hearty cries of "Onward! You can do it!" What I now see for the first time is the mechanism by which fear destroys intelligence, the way it affects a child's whole way of looking at, thinking about, and dealing with life. So we have two problems, not one: to stop children from being afraid, and then to break them of the bad thinking habits into which their fears have driven them.

What is most surprising of all is how much fear there is in school. Why is so little said about it. Perhaps most people do not recognize fear in children when they see it. They can read the grossest signs of fear; they know what the trouble is when a child clings howling to his mother; but the subtler signs of fear escaping them. It is these signs, in children's faces, voices, and gestures, in their movements and ways of working, that tell me plainly that most children in school are scared most of the time, many of them very scared. Like good soldiers, they control their fears, live with them, and adjust themselves to them. But the trouble is, and here is a vital difference between school and war, that the adjustments children make to their fears are almost wholly bad, destructive of their intelligence and capacity. The scared fighter may be the best fighter, but the scared learner is always a poor learner.”
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