I just finished reading How Children Fail by John Holt last night, and it made such a tremendous impression on me that I wasn't even able to choose a few quotes I especially liked... it's just a very informative, eye-opening book, and even though the many particular examples of backward thinking in schoolchildren can be tedious to read, I would still highly recommend it to anyone who is interested to know how children learn, how they think, and how they feel.
I think I have told before that socially, I suffered much all through elementary and middle school; what saved me from being utterly miserable was that academically, I was a success. It was mostly because I was such a bookworm I couldn't resist reading even my schoolbooks, and generally knew them by heart before the school year began. So, I came to class not to learn, but to show off my knowledge, and thus to get the confidence boost I needed so badly. I was a docile child and generally did what I was told, which, combined with me always knowing the right answer, made me the teacher's pet in most classes, or the class nerd, put it however you wish.
And so, not as a student who failed, but as a "model" student, someone who had gone through all the steps successfully; as someone who scored excellently on her high school tests and got into a good university with a scholarship, and earned a degree with high grades, I say - the system doesn't work. It doesn't work for those who fail, and it doesn't work for those who succeed. Furthermore, it does a great disservice to the supposedly "good" students by making them believe they know everything because, after a long drill, they got a "perfect" exam paper. It doesn't work in first grade, or tenth grade, or even, mostly, in college. It doesn't and cannot work, because when you need to control/occupy/evaluate a lot of children at once, you need standartized papers and exams and scores, and a regular artificial environment that has little to do with the real world.
I do have to say that I had some very good teachers, who enhanced my interest in learning first and foremost by their personality, their genuine humanity, and their friendship. They did good, and above all did no harm, because they were such good people, not such good teachers. The system itself, with its classes, timetables, lines, scores, report cards, its mindless discipline or mindless lack thereof, its bullying and its peer pressure was so destructive that I can only be thankful for not coming out of it more damaged than I am.
Once, years ago, I tutored a 15-year-old girl in math; she was the eldest child in her family, and I was struck by her kindness, politeness, responsibility and patience towards her younger siblings and her duties at home. But as soon as we sat down to "study", she would become dull and listless and - I have no other word for it - stupid. I knew she wasn't truly stupid, of course, and I realized her dullness has more to do with boredom than anything else, but neither I nor she had the power to break the system. At the end of the year, she passed her exam successfully, which was celebrated by both of us, but when all was said and done all those rows of numbers and letters meant as little to her as they did in the beginning of the school year. As far as she was concerned, they were still useless, but it was required of her to go through some paces and, like a trained dog, she now could do the trick she once failed. Perhaps this made her school experience a little less miserable, but did this in any way enhance her learning? Of course not.
Do I have sureproof answers? No. But I am even more convinced of what I have proclaimed for a long time: that what we consider "normal", even good, is in reality deeply flawed, useless at best, and permanently damaging at worst. I am comforted by the thought that we human beings have an amazing ability to recover - our mental capacity among other things. Many who fail at school later become successful, intelligent adults.
I am certainly going to read more works by John Holt.