Fear and Students

Most students perform passably -- neither stellar performers nor problem students. But they are governed by fear. Their greatest hope in the classroom is to escape without being called on. In his book "How Children Fail," John Holt captures the essence of their approach to school when he describes how his class approaches playing Twenty Questions:

"Many of them are very anxious when their turn comes to ask a question. We ask them to play Twenty Questions in the hope that, wanting to find the hidden thought, they will learn to ask more informative and useful questions. They see the game quite differently: 'When my turn comes, I have to ask a question.' They are not the least interested in the object of the game, or whether their question gains useful information. The problem is simply to think of a question, any old question."

Holt describes the impact of this stifling fear:

"For many years, I have been asking myself why intelligent children act unintelligently at school. The simple answer is 'Because they're scared.' .... What I see now for the first time is the mechanism by which fear destroys intelligence, the way it affects a child's whole way of looking at, thinking about, and dealing with life."

With thirty-to-one student-teacher ratios, these students usually get what they are after. By keeping their heads down, they manage to escape attention. They get left alone. So they learn that life is fraught with risks, but if one plays it safe, one may get through without too much trouble. Of course, they don't learn much, but that is not what they are after. After a few years of school, it is the lucky student who manages to retain the eager curiosity most kids bring with them into kindergarten.

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