Why children fail

Cover of "How Children Fail (Classics in ...
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I received a letter today from the University of Brighton. It reminded me that thirty-two and a half years ago I went to the (then) Brighton Polytechnic to do a one-year postgraduate teaching qualification (the P.G.C.E.).

I remember only too well the sunny day in June  that I arrived at the Poly for my interview. I entered  the two floor building and went upstairs to wait for my interview. Outside of the room that I was to be interviewed in was an exhibition of children’s artwork. I gazed at this and marvelled at the road that lay ahead of me. I saw really wonderful creations by children expressing their views of the world.

I went inside and tried to convince two perceptive (and as I later discovered really excellent) teacher educators that I was worth giving a chance as a trainee teacher. I had no real experience of working with children and had never ever taught anybody. I knew that I wanted to teach and I was excited by the challenge of working every day with young people and helping them to learn.

I was told that, if I were accepted (and the course was nearly full and there were only two places left on it) I would be sent some summertime reading to give me a chance to get my mind into what education was all about. The books were (1) My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell (2) Hard Times by Charles Dickens and (3) How Children Fail by John Holt.

This last book was , I thought, an interesting choice. I had vaguely heard of the book and knew that it was an attack on conventional education by John Holt. I remember reading the book almost at one sitting. It was excellently written and contained many case histories that were from Holt’s own experience.

Holt made the argument that many  children in school failed because they were afraid, bored or confused. He felt that the school system that he taught in created a situation which killed children’s innate desire to learn.

Holt said  that children learn how to conform to a school system that tests facts and they become adept at reading the teacher’s mind and giving back to the teacher just what they want to hear. They are bored by the lack of creativity and know that their ideas are often not elicited and , if they do not conform to the expected norm of answer, may be ridiculed.

I read this book and decided that I was not going to become a teacher who ridicules children, that I would encourage children’s creativity and would listen to their ideas. In my first teaching practice in an old Primary school in Brighton I found out that my aspirations and “the system” were at odds. I was left to teach a class of 4th Year Junior Children (Year 6 now, Grade 5) and soon realised that they expected me to be the “sage on the stage”. In just a few years at school these children had become fully paid up members of the “bored, confused and compliant” brigade. They did not understand my attempts to elicit their ideas. They wanted their “topic work” (as we called it) to be to the teacher’s expectations. They wanted to get good marks in their exercise books and to avoid the red X’s (which is what we thought of as assessment in those days!)

Getting that letter from Brighton today made me reflect back on the way that our initial hopes and ideals can be suffocated by the “system”. It also made me reflect back on John Holt’s wonderful book. I wonder what he would make of the test-obsessed education system that we see in his native U.S.A. or in so many other parts of the world.

“Real learning” according to Holt, is about children being able to develop their own interests and talents. He spoke about the way that children were born as learning machines and somehow they lost it along the way,  as soon as they “learnt” to fit into the factory system that we call school.

Nearing the end of my career I look back on all this with the feeling that he was right all along…. then and now.