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How Children Fail – John Holt

24th November 2022
how children fail book cover


How Children Fail is the author’s partial record of his not very successful attempt to find out why children fail. This revised edition was published 20 years after the first edition when the author thought he knew much more about why. I would like to learn the reasons children fail and try to avoid them so that I would not fail my child.


John Holt was an American author and educator. He wrote a total of 11 books on the subject of schooling, as well as starting the newsletter Growing Without Schooling (GWS).


How Children Fail contains a foreword, and 5 chapters.

The chapters are Strategy, Fear and Failure, Real Learning, How Schools Fail, and To Summarize.


How Children Fail first shares some shocking statistics. Close to 40% of high-schoolers drop out while one third of college students fail to finish their courses. The reasons of failure are fear, boredom, and confusion. Above all else, children are afraid of failing, of disappointing or displeasing many anxious adults around them. The sharp line between success and failure appears when pleasing adults become important.

The author gives an honest assessment about school. It is a place where they make you go and where they tell you to do things and where they try to make your life unpleasant if you do not do them or do not do them right. The big mistake with school is that we take the word “normal,” meaning usual, what happens most of the time, and turn it into proper, correct, desirable, what ought to happen all of the time.

What makes a good student? The author has given this definition. Good student often says he does not understand because he keeps a constant check on his understanding. So, we need to make students aware of the difference between what they know and what they do not.

To know what a child does in class, we have to watch him for long stretches of time without his knowing it, not only by looking at him when he is called on. I think the same applies to knowing a person’s true colour in life.

No matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. Real learning happens when we make a mental model of the knowledge, and when there is at least a rough correspondence between the model and reality.

Knowing, learning, understanding are not linear. It is the difference between knowing the names of all the streets in a city and being able to get from any place, by any desired route, to any other place. Though we can use Global Positioning System (GPS) now, his message is clear. What I learned in university are mostly unused and forgotten when I am working.

The true purpose of school should be turning out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned. We should adopt a growth mentality which means our capabilities are not fixed, but can be trained to be better. Teachers’ job is to answer questions when learners ask them, or to try to help learners understand better when they ask for that help.

This book is a collection of memos written to the author’s colleague, Bill Hull. This revised edition adds on his understanding after 20 years. The ideas in the book were written 60+ years ago and 30+ years ago but the education system remains almost the same, thus I think they are still relevant.

He says that education and economics are human activities in which there is almost no connection between theory and experience, in which people rarely test theories to see if they work and reject or change them if they do not. I do agree with this but I wonder if the author did any experiment when he was teaching.

How Children Fail is about the failure of education system, mainly the schools. But I still gain something on how to educate my child in order to facilitate real learning. Real learning happens when we are able to apply the knowledge in life. Without this, all knowledge learned are just useless.


  1. Success implies overcoming an obstacle, including, perhaps, the thought in our minds that we might not succeed. It is turning “I can’t” into “I can, and I did.”
  2. The poor thinker dashes madly after an answer, the good thinker takes his time and looks at the problem.
  3. We don’t have to make human being smart. They are born smart. All we have to do is stop doing the things that make them stupid.
  4. The best rules are still the ones that learners make out of their own experience.
  5. The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.


3 out of 3 stars

Interested in How Children Fail?

I borrow this book and could not find a place that sells it in Malaysia. If you know where to get it, do share with us in the comments section below.

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