Doomed to fail

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Doomed to fail.
A look at John Holt’s ideas on How (and Why) Children Fail.
When I first read this book during my Teacher Training in 1975, I felt that I was discovering the key to why so many children struggle in school and “fail”, and though I was never one to come lower than second or third in class, I used to feel bad for those who trailed near the bottom. I wondered how it must feel to fail constantly. However, my abysmal grasp of Maths when I reached 10th year, and the tears of agony I used to shed as I SAW my brain seizing up and refusing to function, had taught me more than I realised at the time. I remembered it when I was asked as a trainee to teach elementary Maths. The old panic returned.
Let’s see what John Holt has to say about this.

“It is true of intelligence as it has always been true of school subjects, that TEACHING (I know something you should know and I am going to make you learn it) is above all else what PREVENTS learning. We don’t have to make human beings smart. They are born smart. All we have to do is stop doing the things that make them stupid”.

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That is exactly what I became when faced with a calculus problem, totally stupid. Boredom, like fear, makes children act stupid. This is his basic premise and his book eloquently demonstrates the strategies children use to cope with what they fear and what bores them silly in the classroom.

“Nobody starts off stupid. But education seems to DESTROY most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children by the things we do to them or make them do, especially by fear( of being wrong, of failing etc)…We destroy the disinterested love of learning small children have by encouraging them to work for petty rewards or to be better than someone else. We kill their curiosity. ..Hearing nonsense shoved at them AS IF IT WERE SENSE, they come to feel the source of their confusion lies not in the material but in their OWN STUPIDITY”!

holt, nobody starts stupid
Children are most intelligent when the reality around them arouses a high degree of attention, concentration and involvement, as John Holt points out. Why do we ask children to do for a whole day what few adults can do for an hour (imagine sitting in a dull hour long lecture)? And imagine how daunting it would be if as adults we were constantly expected to come up with answers to questions to which there is a right and wrong answer?
Holt answers the question “why don’t children learn what we teach them?” with the startling answer:“ BECAUSE we teach them”! We are trying to control the content of children’s minds.

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Many people think that if we did not make children do things, they would not do ANYTHING! This sounds alarmingly like a slave driver’s creed. So we continue to feel happy when children are seen dutifully doing the assigned work, even when we suspect they are not getting a scrap of intellectual nourishment out of it and will probably have forgotten it all by next week. And it gets worse. Many children react to school in ways we cannot control, becoming gradually less intelligent and more neurotic.
We have lost sight of wisdom. According to Holt, knowledge, learning and understanding are not linear , not bits of facts neatly lined in rows or piles. Any field of knowledge, be it music, French, Science, Maths, is a TERRITORY,  and to know it is not a matter of knowing all the items in the territory but rather how they relate to, compare with and fit into one another.

The closest we can come to finding out what children really KNOW (and it isn’t very close) is to watch what they DO when they are free to do what interests them most/ We are by nature question asking, answer making, problem solving animals and we are extremely good at it especially when young”.
Most children learn far more out of school than in it. The successful ones in school are the good test takers. So what is the first step that needs to be taken? Let us stop revering the Right Answer. Secondly stop forcing children to spend chunks of time doing dull things in a dull way. Can we not make an environment that is exciting to be in?What is preventing us?

Thirdly, Holt suggests some more daring questioning needs to be done, of key underlying assumptions like: 1) Out of the vast body of human knowledge there are certain bits and pieces that can be called essential that everyone should know 2) How much of this stuff a person knows determines how qualified and educated he is considered to be and 3) it is therefore clearly the duty of schools to GET AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE OF THIS DESIRABLE KNOWLEDGE INTO THE MINDS OF CHILDREN.
These ideas are absurd and harmful nonsense”.
So called progressive schools are often just coercing children non violently or nicely, he says. For withholding approval is just as violent as caning. “Kids like to learn, they just don’t like being pushed around

make learning fun
So schools need to become places where children can learn what they most want to know, not what we think they OUGHT to want to know. This idea feels very dangerous. Won’t there be chaos? Meaningless, messy days of kids fooling around?

No, because it is not the content that is learned that matters but the spirit in which it is learned. In other words, a person who seeks and finds meaning and truth and enjoyment in all he does will be a learner all his life! “Every experience will make his mental model of reality more complete and true to life, so he will be able to deal well and constructively with ANY new experience.” We will never agree what is the best or most essential knowledge, but if we turn out people who love learning they can go on to learn whatever they want.
No more will agonised students adopt dreadful (literally full of fear) strategies for surviving, which often take the form of “if I can’t be sure to succeed I will make sure I fail totally”. Gone the stressed-out, rote-learning tense faces before tests that have fixed “right” answers. “Schools should be a great, big smorgasbord of intellectual, artistic, creative and athletic activities from which each child takes whatever he wants, as much or as little”. There’s that nervous feeling again….

Can we envisage schools that are not cut off from real life and where freedom of choice and creativity are the way in which such centers for learning function?
I think we can and many small projects are attempting it. My view is that it is a pressing need, that small is still beautiful, and that the monolith that mass produces (following national syllabuses of all things!) thousands of pages filled with thousands of right or wrong answers, is not providing any appropriate answer to the needs of the immediate future. Now is the time to act, and now may be too late, but let us teachers give it a try or perish in the attempt, as they say!

Viv Macadam
Bangalore Feb 2015

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