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How Children Fail How Children Fail by John Holt
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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.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“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.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“The idea of painless, nonthreatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t do what you want. You can do this in the old-fashioned way, openly and avowedly, with the threat of harsh words, infringement of liberty, or physical punishment. Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“Fear, boredom, and resistance--they all go to make
what we call stupid children.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“It is not the teacher's proper task to be constantly testing
and checking the understanding of the learner. That's the learner's task, and
only the learner can do it. The teacher's job is to answer questions when
learners ask them, or to try to help learners understand better when they ask
for that help.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“When children are very young, they have natural curiosities about the world and explore them, trying diligently to figure out what is real. As they become "producers " they fall away from exploration and start fishing for the right answers with little thought. They believe they must always be right, so they quickly forget mistakes and how these mistakes were made. They believe that the only good response from the teacher is "yes," and that a "no" is defeat.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“I doubt very much if it is possible to teach anyone to understand anything,
that is to say, to see how various parts of it relate to all the other parts, to
have a model of the structure in one's mind. We can give other people
names, and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must
build their own.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“Someone asked the other day, "Why do we go to school?" Pat, with vigor
unusual in her, said, "So when we grow up we won't be stupid." These
children equate stupidity with ignorance. Is this what they mean when they
call themselves stupid? Is this one of the reasons why they are so ashamed of
not knowing something? If so, have we, perhaps un-knowingly, taught them
to feel this way? We should clear up this distinction, show them that it is
possible to know very few facts, but make very good use of them.
Conversely, one can know many facts and still act stupidly. The learned fool
is by no means rare in this country.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“Of all I saw and learned this past half year, one thing stands out. What goes
on in the class is not what teachers think-- certainly not what I had always
thought. For years now I have worked with a picture in mind of what my
class was like. This reality, which I felt I knew, was partly physical, partly
mental or spiritual. In other words, I thought I knew, in general, what the
students were doing, and also what they were thinking and feeling. I see now
that my picture of reality was almost wholly false. Why didn’t I see this
before?”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“Not long after the book came out I found myself being driven to a meeting
by a professor of electrical engineering in the graduate school I of MIT. He said that after reading the book he realized that his graduate students were using on him, and had used for the ten years and more he had been teaching there, all the evasive strategies I described in the book — mumble, guess-and-look, take a wild guess and see what happens, get the teacher to answer his own questions, etc.

But as I later realized, these are the games that all humans play when others
are sitting in judgment on them.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“Pleasant experiences don’t make up for painful ones. No child, once painfully burned, would agree to be burned again, however enticing the reward. For all our talk and good intentions, there is much more stick than carrot in school, and while this remains so, children are going to adopt a strategy aimed above all else at staying out of trouble. How can we foster a joyous, alert, wholehearted participation in life if we build all our schooling around the holiness of getting 'right answers'?”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“We don't have to make human beings smart. They are born smart. All we have to do is stop doing the things that made them stupid.”
John Holt, How Children Fail
“Incompetence has one other advantage. Not only does it reduce what others expect and demand of you, it reduces what you expect or even hope for yourself. When you set out to fail, one thing is certain-you can't be disappointed. As the old saying goes, you can't fall out of bed when you sleep on the door.”
John Holt, How Children Fail