How Children What?


John Holt and Paul Tough are a half-century apart. Both were interested in children and how they learned. One wrote a book called How Children Learn, the other a book called How Children Succeed. Their juxtaposition has a lot to tell us about how we think about and treat our young people.

In 1967, John Holt published How Children Learn. In 2013, Paul Tough published How Children Succeed.

Holt was following up on the publication of his 1964 book, How Children Fail. Beginning in 1952, Holt taught elementary and middle school—first in Colorado, then Boston. For eleven years, Holt kept a journal of his experiences. This journal grew into his first books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn. The first explored how children, “used their minds badly.” The second explored what it looked like for children to “act as bold, effective learners.” Both were grounded in Holt’s own, concrete stories and experiences. The fundamental thesis of both is that learners’ motivation is essential and that because this cannot be forced, we must trust learners, working with them and their interests if they are to grow into empowered adults. Semiotically, Holt now parses as hippie, especially given his position as father of the United States homeschooling movement.

Tough is a journalist who has covered education, child development, and poverty for the past decade. Tough has never taught. After writing about Geoffery Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in Whatever It Takes, he felt dissatisfied with his understanding of why only some children go on from such programs to succeed. Tough sought out researchers, economists, neuroscientists, psychologists, doctors, and the occasional teacher or administrator to find his answer. The fundamental thesis of How Children Succeed is that kids will be more successful in school and more secure in life if we focus on developing their ‘non-cognitive skills,’ like the ability to persevere or maintain healthy emotional hygiene. Semiotically, Tough parses as a pragmatic journalist uncovering heroic possibilities for education reform.