Written in the mid-to-late Fifties, but still incredibly relevant today, "How Children Fail" was originally a series of memos composed by teacher John Holt to his fellow faculty at the primary school where he taught math. Holt was bothered by certain trends he noticed in the classroom -- among both the teachers and the students -- and started analyzing what he saw over the course of several years. Eventually his notes grew to the point where his fellow teachers persuaded him to edit and publish the book, and it has since become a cornerstone of educational theory. Regrettably, its lessons are all too often mouthed rather than taken to heart.
Holt's contentions are simple: Children are born learners. This is not even a particularly controversial observation; Piaget was showing that children are inclined to learn more about their world from day one. But there was little or nothing in the current educational system -- designed for the training of factory-workers and desk jockeys, not thinkers and builders -- that supported actual learning. Obviously, Holt has plenty to say about rote learning, which to him is mostly useless when dealing with things like mathematics, where creative approaches are not only needed but urgently desired. One of the best examples of this comes when he gives his class a number of math problems to solve and says, "You've never seen problems like these before, and I don't care how you go about solving them, but try them out." The class eagerly got to work and did some real learning... until Holt was leaned on by the administration to "pick up the pace".
This is the second thing that Holt notices: the sometimes subtler ways in which children are kept from learning. One is the pace and size of modern education. The other is the endless farrago of half-baked strategies which are little more than the same old recipes in disguise. Holt takes a moment, for instance, to talk about New Math, and shows that it doesn't matter how good the New Math is when it's just the Bad Old Math in disguise: "cook-bookery," as he puts it; a mindless set of recipes for getting right answers.
Holt's contempt for the church of right answers is clear through the book. What is annoying is how his anger has since been misappropriated by people who did not understand that Holt's anger was directed at the emotional fetishism attached to right answers, not the right answers themselves. Holt very obviously wanted children to learn and use their minds -- something which modern outcome-based education, derived at least in part from books like these, does not allow. Holt should really not be blamed for the development of educational fads that would have sickened him.
On top of everything else, the book is also a grand work of classroom sociology. The way kids interact with each other and their teachers, the way they do one thing and say another (and why) is dissected and shown up. And Holt also takes the time to show how parents do stupid things like use homework as punishment (a great way to kill a kid's curiosity).
The most remarkable thing about the book is how after thirty years it is still relevant, timely, accurate, readable, and indispensible.