Monday, June 14, 2021

An Interesting Review of John Holt's "How Children Fail"

Many of the tech-savvy, internet-native people who frequent Scott Siskind's blog are convinced that school ruins children. Someone else who thought that was John Holt, whose Why Children Fail was based on letters, essays and notes he wrote while teaching at a private school in 1958. Holt asked himself why kids who seemed so smart outside school failed so badly in the classroom.

If you live at a small school, seeing students in class, in the dorms, in their private lives, at their recreations, sports, and manual work, you can't escape the conclusion that some people are much smarter part of the time than they are at other times. Why? Why should a boy or girl, who under some circumstances is witty, observant, imaginative, analytical, in a word, intelligent, come into the class-room and, as if by magic, turn into a complete dolt?

One of the entries is Siskind's book review contest (all anonymous at this point) takes on Holt's book. Our reviewer says that he hated school so much that he convinced his parents to let him drop out at 15, then home schooled himself for three years, then went to college, where he did quite well. He, like Holt, found school a miserable impediment to learning:

Why are all children so bad at learning in school?

Seriously, they’re terrible at it, and nobody ever calls them out as a group. We call out individual children as failing. We call out individual schools and school systems as bad. But the much more dramatic contrast is between learning in school and learning in any other context.

In their first five years, kids learn to understand 25,000 words, even if nobody is actively helping them, at the same time as they’re learning most of what they’ll ever know about physics, psychology, and how to pilot a human body. They then struggle to match this vocabulary acquisition rate over their next ten years, despite expert attention, a wealth of resources, personal encouragement, and even prizes.

After weeks of trying, my teacher gave up on getting me to correctly label the countries and capitals in a map of South America. Yet I quickly learned to navigate the New York City Subway.

Through involuntary cultural osmosis, I could probably pass a test on the characters, plot, and setting of Twilight, despite having never read any of the books or watched any of the movies. Yet there are books I read in school (good books, written to be enjoyed!) where I now couldn’t tell you the main character’s name.

As an adult, when I’m in the middle of researching something, and I get hungry, I get up, go to the kitchen, get a snack, come back, and keep researching. In most classrooms, children are absolutely forbidden from leaving to go get a snack because they would always claim to get hungry and they would never come back.

Which is not to say that children don’t try, or don’t care. They sweat and cry over tests. They care so deeply that they have nightmares about missing class that last well into adulthood. But by any standard other than comparing them to other schoolchildren, they universally fail. Why?

(I'm just guessing our author is male; Siskind's readership skews heavily male, as does this attitude toward school, so I would say there's at least an 80% chance.)

One thing that especially impressed Holt as a teacher was the role of fear in his students' approach to learning. He once asked a class what they felt when they did not know the answer to a question. They told him: terror. They feared nothing so much as being seen as stupid.

Where do they learn this? Even in the kindest and gentlest of schools, children are afraid, many of them a great deal of the time, some of them almost all the time. This is a hard fact of life to deal with. What can we do about it?
Nothing, he ended up thinking:
The idea of painless, non-threatening 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. You can, as many skilled teachers do, learn to tap with a word, a gesture, a look, even a smile, the great reservoir of fear, shame, and guilt that today's children carry around inside them. Or you can simply let your own fears about what will happen to you if the children don't do what you want, reach out and infect them. Thus the children will feel more and more that life is full of dangers from which only the goodwill of adults like you can protect them, and that this goodwill is perishable and must be earned anew each day.

As my readers know, I am intensely ambivalent about all of this. I liked school and I am convinced that I personally learned much more from school than I could have on my own. Plus, my experience of trying to homeschool two of my sons has not gone very well. I suspect there are a lot more kids in the world like my sons than there are like the guys in Siskind's comment section who swear that after leaving school they taught themselves calculus in a few weeks, then mastered French or Russian. So I have no idea what should be done about any of this. I have no interest in making children afraid, but, like Holt, I think that nothing else will motivate many of them to learn, especially to learn things that repel them like algebra. As much as I dislike forcing children to suffer, I don't see how our society can survive without school.


G. Verloren said...

Learning is catalyzed by curiosity. If a child, or even an adult, has no curiosity, they will not learn unless coerced or forced.

American culture does not prize curiosity much - in fact, it frequently quashes it. People who ask "too many" questions are seen as troublemakers. Ditto for people who deviate from schedules and expectations.

A child who "interrupts" a lesson to ask questions that are related to the material, but not specifically on the itinerary, gets scolded and told to shut up and listen, even if they don't understand the lesson, simply because the schedule is inflexible and the material must be presented at a constant pre-determined rate, with no accommodation for slowdowns, diversions, etc.

What American culture actually values is "being right" - knowing something (or being able to repeat something, even if you don't actually understand it) on demand, without having to explore it and consider it, without having to exercise curiosity, without having to learn. We turn up our noses at errors, and we all but outright despise the people who make them.

Children fear being wrong in school, because our society views being wrong not as a learning opportunity, but as a judgement opportunity. Children don't raise their hands to answer questions unless they are very confident that their answer is correct, because they are shamed for being wrong. Even if it's not active shaming, they still know they will be brusquely told "No, that's wrong" and then immediately skipped over as someone else will be called on to answer, without the class ever stopping to address the wrong answer, how the child came to it, why it isn't correct, and the fact that it's okay that they made a mistake. You got your shot, you failed, now you get ignored and someone else gets a chance to be right, or to fail just like you. It's a negative experience, even if no one intentionally sets out to make it one.

Basically everything about how we structure classes contributes to this problem. Class sizes are just too large to address every individual student's thoughts and feelings as they occur. Class lengths are just too short to allow for exploring impediments to understanding, or tangentially related topics. Class syllabuses and lesson plans are too strict and rapid paced. There's simply no time for students to be wrong or curious. You just get the information dumped on you like a bucket of water, you have one shot to absorb it, and then whether you comprehend or not, it's time to move to the next topic, and the next time you come back to the lesson will be when you're given a major test to study for and fret over getting right, because your grades have consequences, and failure is unacceptable.

Now, as John points out, not all children are the same - some respond reasonably well to classes as we structure them. But many do not, and we need to have alternative ways to teach children, depending on what actually helps them learn. Because to force every student to conform to one method of learning is killing creativity and preventing learning for far too many people, both children and adults. Schools as they exist don't help everyone - what we need is other options for the ones they fail to serve.

David said...

FWIW, I share John's ambivalence. I also liked school. I also think it's clear school does work, in one way or another, for a lot of people. Perhaps not a majority, but still a significant portion--even as school makes many, many others profitlessly miserable. And I agree that the experience of the sort of persons who populate Siskind's blog is not common enough to make a useful general model.

A few subordinate observations:

--the Covid school closure has made it clear that much of our society values school largely as a giant warehouse in which to stow children while parents work.

--a factor that needs to be considered is students' relationships with each other. Some students love being surrounded by other kids they grew up with; others are miserable and want to escape as soon as possible. I suspect that's an unspoken partial reason why a lot of Siskind's folk hated grade school but, by their own description, flourished in college.

--the variability of the experience of college vs. grade school needs to be considered in general. For some, it's all just school. But there are at least some who get nothing out of grade school and blossom in college. Probably there are others with the opposite experience.

--the degree to which math is a special problem should be considered. Math is truly alien for a lot of people.