How children fail

181 pages

English language

Published Jan. 4, 1964 by Pitman.

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4 stars (2 reviews)

A series of informal memos describing how typical grade-school pedagogy suppresses a child's innate desire to learn, leaving the child frustrated, confused, and fearing failure.

13 editions

Review of 'How children fail' on 'GoodReads'

4 stars

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 adults lose motivation.
- the idea of "producers" vs. "thinkers." I see "producer" behavior frequently, even among adults, where people freeze up and stop thinking when they feel pressure to give the right answer. I do think that framing it as behaviors instead of character traits might be more helpful.
- John Holt's journey from "how can I make school work for these kids?" to "School sucks, kids …

Review of 'How children fail' on Goodreads

4 stars

A light-hearted journal of observations (mostly of his 5th grade math students) and reflections about the ways that schools and students have built up defenses against each other and undermine any real learning. Holt is fascinated by the strategies students have for avoiding embarrassment, coping with fear of "the wrong answer", and confusion about why any of this matters. And he's interested in the ways teachers avoid finding out whether their students are actually understanding the material. Depressingly acute anticipation of the dangers of teach-to-the-test here in the 1960s. Argues for self-checking self-directed building of mental models by students, grounded in experiment with the real world and not interrupted by teachers' seeking control, fear of rebellion, or clever teaching ideas.


  • Education.