How we fail

John Holt’s How Children Fail is one of the many books which Arvind Gupta’s site share in MSWord format. “Educational Classic” was what site said for the book. So I (mis)used the office resources and got myself a print out of the book. To read at my leisure. It soon became the best thing I have in my collection.

This book supposedly was first of those thought-provoking books which initiated the educational reforms in 60ies in the US. A very simply written book, it is a compilation of author’s notes/letters to a friend/himself describing small day to day events of his class. John Holt is one real psychologist. Unlike any other psychologist I have ever read of. He observes kids in his class at work/at play, understands them, reads their descriptive faces and draws learnings from this exercise. His major concern is why/how children fail. It is this search which leads him to be so patient with kids, so open-minded, so creative that it makes him totally apart from a typical school teacher. I started reading this book so as to know what arguments’ Holt would have against school learning. I ended up knowing a lot more about learning techniques, how I myself fail at learning new things, and what kind of learner I am in different circumstances. In short, I learnt a lot about myself.

Holt argues that children fail primarily because they are afraid, bored and confused. This, combined with misguided teaching strategies and a school environment that is disconnected from reality and “real learning”, results in a school system that kills children’s innate desire to learn.

I couldn’t have agreed more with him. Ofcourse this is usually the case in classrooms. Even in professional studies. Reading the description of a young girl whose mind would go blank while sitting for a math sums exam, I could associate myself with her completely. I even remembered a time when sitting in a 3 hr exam in L7 I was literally crying. I wasn’t one of those who had guts or will to cheat. And the stuff didn’t make any sense to me. I knew I was going to fail. The examination sheet in front of me was a desperate effort to save that “F”. The questions the problems didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t have cared less about them. It wasn’t anything like it used to be in school. When the motto used to be to crack the problem. Screw the exam, concentrate on the question. IIT was a totally opposite experience. Classes were thoroughly boring. I was confused while going through lecture notes. And exams literally scared shit out of me. I am not saying everyone who fails in IIT have such horrible experiences. But this is true in general in any new learning situation.

Take for instance, cooking. It is an elementary skill and anyone can cook. Unlike painting. I know people who just *hates* cooking. And these are some of those people who *have to* cook nevertheless. Because, they are a mother or a wife. My mom, an expert cook and cooking-teacher, would tell you how people who fail to learn to cook are often those who are afraid. They are either afraid that they would goof up with the dish or that they would hurt themselves. Or just the simple fact that they might not learn. So the first lesson when you enter the kitchen is to know that cooking is very easy.

When I was reading Holt’s groundbreaking book, I was at that stage when you are expected to show results out of first 2-3 months of pure learning in office. I had realised that I have not really learnt any fundamental stuff. I had practiced a lot of mechanical computation on excel, SAS coding and so on, but I had not developed any analytical skills as such, not gained any business sense. Holt’s book explained to me why. Managers dump all the mechanical repeatitive work on you and you are always in an intense pressure to deliver on time. First thing that kills your curiosity or will to know/learn more. My first action when I went back to office was to stop delivering and working for my manager. I started assigning work to myself. Something poor kids can’t do. They are made to sit still in classrooms and made to memorize stuff.

Next I realised I would be happily day-dreaming in meetings (which would be innumerable in the day) because most the content didn’t make sense to me. I was too afraid to ask questions or too dishonest to accept that I didn’t understand a lot of things. Another thing I blame schooling for. We have practiced the art of lying/cheating so well all through our lives that it comes naturally to us now. The intensely listening face, the thinking face, the appropriate nodding, the concentrating look which we all carry while day-dreaming, comes from training in school. We ourselves don’t realise when we have drifted into a different world. And then we curse the mind-numbling job! I guess we make it so mind-numbling ourselves.

“When we talk about intelligence, we do not mean the ability to get a good score on a certain kind of test, or even the ability to do well in school; these are at best only indicators of something larger, deeper, and far more important. By intelligence we mean a style of life, a way of behaving in various situations and particularly in new, strange, and perplexing situations. The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how do we behave when we don’t know what to do.

This is what Holt have to say about intelligence, and how schools contribute enough to kill the inherent intelligence in kids. But the good thing is, just as intelligence is killed, it can again be grown. Because I am not as intelligent as I thought I was, but I definitely will soon be! ;-)


5 thoughts on “How we fail

  1. ” in IIT , classes were thoroughly boring” Why? May be because of your lack of interest or lack of personal attention of the teacher to you.Motivation is also one of the important factor in passing an exam.


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