Top Three Reasons Why Children Fail


What are kids scared of in school? They are afraid to let down the anxious adults around them namely their teachers and parents. This nerve-wrecking fear hovers over their head like a dark cloud, chasing them to failure. What else is scaring the living daylights out of them? It’s the humiliation these children feel when they cannot learn well enough and are targeted by their fellow classmates, who mock them and turn them into a laughing stock. It’s the hurtful comparisons their own parents make to their other siblings or other friends cruising ahead in school.

The greatest gift a parent or teacher can give to a child is their confidence and faith in his ability to reach his potential. 

Fear is the greatest hurdle in the way of learning. A genius cannot live under the constant scare of defeat and the pressure of not disappointing others. For this very reason, inventors like Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein failed so miserably in formal schooling. Yet the minute they were pulled out of the pressure and allowed to create something of value, they rose from mediocrity to excellence.

Kids are also afraid to make mistakes because the grown-ups in their lives generally have little or zero tolerance for it. Whether it is a simple case of spilling milk on the table, a wrong answer to a math problem, or a misspelt word, children are taken to task for any error they make. It makes me wonder about the number of times Anas (rtam) must have blundered while serving our Prophet Muhammad (sa) as a child, and yet, in his own words as evidence, Anas (rtam) states: “Not once in nine years of my service was I ever rebuked by the Messenger (sa).” Muhammad (sa) understood and respected the tender nature of children, and he allowed them room to learn and make mistakes fearlessly.


John Holt states: “Except for a handful, who may or may not be good students, they fail to develop more than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding and creating with which they were born and of which they made full use during the first two or three years of their lives. Why do they fail?”

A child does not need to be a jack of all trades. He will fare better if he becomes the master of one. 

They fail because the race to finish off school curriculum is on every teacher and parent’s mind in general. The stuff kids are expected to do in classrooms is dull and boring. It does not challenge their intelligence. So they desperately try to sail along, sometimes swimming and other times drowning.


What confuses children? It’s the contradiction between what they learn in their classroom and what the real world presents to them. It makes little or no sense at all. To dodge this, kids adapt many strategies to survive school too. At times, they will mumble an answer. At other times, they will stay silent. Some will give the most outrageously incorrect answer mainly so that they are left alone. Others will try to read the teacher’s face for clues and may get lucky.

The greatest gift a parent or teacher can give to a child is their confidence and faith in his ability to reach his potential. Allah’s (swt) creation is never faulty. Every child comes with his set of skills. Unfortunately, our schools and educational system has very little room to recognize and let that talent grow. A child does not need to be a jack of all trades. He will fare better if he becomes the master of one. This means the report card may show low grades in some places and a clear winner in the area of the kid’s interest and passion. Let that be!

Adapted from “How Children Fail” by John Holt

Uninvited Teaching

Vol 6 - Issue 4 Unvited TeachingAn excerpt from John Holt’s Learning All the Time.

As far as learning goes, the one advantage we have over children – and in some ways it’s a considerable advantage – is that we have been here longer. We know a lot more. We’ve had a lot more experience. We know where things are. We have road maps of the world; not just real road maps, but various mental road maps of the world around us.

What adults can do for children is to make more and more of that world and the people in it accessible and transparent to them. The key word is ‘access’: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go – cities, countries, streets, buildings. We can also make available tools, books, records, toys and other resources. On the whole, kids are more interested in the things that adults really use than in the little things we buy, especially for them. I mean, anyone who has seen little kids in the kitchen knows that they would rather play with the pots and pans than anything made by “Lego” or name whoever you will.

We can also help children by answering their questions. However, all adults must be careful here, because we have a tendency when a child asks us a question, to answer far too much. “Aha,” we think, “now I have an opportunity to do some teaching,” and so we deliver a fifteen-minute thesis for an answer. There is a well-known story about a child in school, who was assigned to read a book on penguins and write a report on it. His book report had the usual stuff in the corner: name, grade, school, class, subject, etc., and then the title of the book and the author and finally the body of the report, which read as follows: “This book tells me more about the penguins than I want to know.”

Whenever a child asks questions, there’s a danger to, one might say, penguinize. I heard a similar story about a child, who asked her mother some question, and the mother was busy or distracted, or perhaps didn’t feel she knew enough, and said: “Why don’t you ask your father?” The child replied: “Well, I don’t want to know that much about it.” If children want more, they’ll ask for more. The best we can do is simply to answer the specific question or, if we don’t know the answer, say: “I don’t know, but maybe we can find it somewhere or so-and-so might know.”

Not only is it the case that uninvited teaching does not make learning, but – and this was even harder for me to learn – for the most part such teaching prevents learning. Now that’s a real shocker. Ninety-nine percent of the time, teaching that has not been asked for will not result in learning, but will impede learning. With a minimum observation, parents will find this confirmed all the time. Again and again, in letters and conversations, I hear from parents a story that goes as follows: “My little two-year-old (or three- or four-) was having some kind of problem with something the other day, and I went over to help her or him, and the child turned on me with rage and said: ‘Leave me alone. Don’t do it. Let me do it!’ The child got absolutely furious. What happened?” These poor, helpful, well-meaning mothers and fathers reel back from this assault and say: “Why does my child get so furious at me, when all I want to do is help?” Well, there is a reason, a very sensible reason.

Anytime, without being invited, without being asked, we try to teach something to somebody, we convey to that person, whether we know it or not, a double message. The first part of the message is: I am teaching you something important, but you’re not smart enough to see how important it is. Unless I teach you, you’d probably never bother to find out. The second message that uninvited teaching conveys to the other person is: What I’m teaching you is so difficult that, if I didn’t teach it to you, you couldn’t learn it.

This double message of distrust and contempt is very clearly understood by children, because they are extremely good at receiving emotional messages. It makes them furious. And why shouldn’t it? All uninvited teaching contains this message of distrust and contempt. Once I realized this, I found that I had to catch myself all the time. I have to catch the words right on the edge of my tongue. The problem is that we, human beings, like teaching. We have to restrain that impulse, that habit, that need to explain things to everybody… unless we are asked.