Where Are You Trying to Get?

In his book How Children Fail (New York: A Merloyd Lawrence Book, 1982), John Holt recounted an incident from his time as a teacher. He was making a child recopy a page until it had three mistakes or fewer, but the mistakes were getting more numerous and the handwriting worse each time the child had to recopy it. They were both becoming increasingly frustrated. He wrote:

At that point Bill Hull asked me a question, one I should have asked myself, one we ought all to keep asking ourselves: “Where are you trying to get, and are you getting there?”

The question sticks like a burr. In schools—but where isn’t it so?—we so easily fall into the same trap: the means to an end becomes an end in itself. I had on my hands this three-mistake rule meant to serve the ends of careful work and neat compositions. By applying it rigidly was I getting more careful work and neater compositions? No; I was getting a child who was so worried about having to recopy her paper that she could not concentrate on doing it, and hence did it worse and worse, and would probably do the next papers badly as well.

We need to ask more often of everything we do in school, “Where are we trying to get, and is this thing we are doing helping us to get there?” Do we do something because we want to help the children and can see that what we are doing is helping them? Or do we do it because it is inexpensive or convenient for school, teachers, administrators? Or because everyone else does it? We must beware of making a virtue of necessity, and cooking up high-sounding educational reasons for doing what is done really for reasons of administrative economy or convenience. The still greater danger is that, having started to do something for good enough reasons, we may go on doing it stubbornly and blindly, as I did that day, unable or unwilling to see that we are doing more harm than good.

— pages 229-230

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