Thursday, April 21, 2011

“Because they’re scared”

I recently reread John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail. Later in his life, Holt became one of the most prominent advocates of “unschooling,” but he wrote this book much earlier, when he was working as a math teacher in conventional elementary schools. Parts of it are dated or off-putting or preachy, but it’s actually a great read, largely for his description of the kids' efforts at pleasing, placating, and evading their math teacher (as opposed to learning their math).

I remember the day not long ago when Ruth opened my eyes. We had been doing math, and I was pleased with myself because, instead of telling her answers and showing her how to do problems, I was “making her think” by asking her questions. It was slow work. Question after question met only silence. She said nothing, did nothing, just sat and looked at me through those glasses, and waited. Each time, I had to think of a question easier and more pointed than the last, until I finally found one so easy that she would feel safe in answering it. So we inched our way along until suddenly, looking at her as I waited for an answer to a question, I saw with a start that she was not at all puzzled by what I had asked her. In fact, she was not even thinking about it. She was coolly appraising me, weighing my patience, waiting for that next, sure-to-be-easier question. I thought, “I’ve been had!” The girl had learned how to make me do her work for her, just as she had learned to make all her previous teachers do the same thing. If I wouldn’t tell her the answers, very well, she would just let me question her right up to them.

Holt’s thesis is that kids who do well in school exhibit certain habits of thinking: they see the math problems as interesting puzzles or challenges; they’re willing to be patient, and can tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing the answer right away; they check their calculations against their own judgments about what makes sense. But a lot of kids show very different traits: they see the math problems as a threat; they can’t sit patiently with a problem but will do whatever it takes to make it go away; they cling to their calculations even when the answers are preposterously wrong.

Gradually, Holt concludes that his unsuccessful students are actually being perfectly rational. They see the math problems as a threat for good reason, given the embarrassment and shame they have experienced from their previous attempts. They’ve rationally calculated that the best bet is not to invest in finding the right answer, but to cut their losses, and they’ve developed strategies -- clever ones! -- to minimize the resulting anxiety and embarrassment. The quick answer may not be right, but it makes the problem go away, at least temporarily. “Their business was not learning, but escaping.”

In the end, Holt feels defeated by these students. He can make them work on their math, and he can reason with them and explain math principles until he’s out of breath, but he can’t make them buy into the enterprise; he can’t make them want to learn. He can’t force them not to experience school -- not to experience him -- as a threat. “We, and not math, or reading, or spelling, or history, were the problem that the children had designed their strategies to cope with.” Realizations like those led him eventually to decide that force itself is the problem -- that school, by forcing its tasks upon them, had created these “dull” children.

Make what you will of his conclusions. What leaps out of the book, when you read it today, is how unusual it now seems for someone to recognize that kids are volitional actors, as opposed to just objects to be acted upon. In this age of “Make ’em learn” and “Drill, baby, drill,” who talks anymore about the kids’ emotional responses to what schools make them do? Who recognizes that the kids might have their own feelings about our various schemes for improving them, and might react to them in ways that defy our intentions? Holt wrote:

For many years I have been asking myself why intelligent children act unintelligent at school. The simple answer is, “Because they’re scared.”

Isn’t there plainly truth in that statement? How have we ruled it out of the discussion?

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