Making mental models

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

Writer and educator, John Holt, has authored a number of best-selling books, including How Children Fail, a classic work that raises many more questions than it answers. Being a teacher himself, he has a ringside view of what schools purport to teach and what children actually learn. By working closely with children and observing their thought processes while grappling with basic arithmetic concepts, Holt is dismayed by conventional schooling and the shaky assumptions it rests on. Though this book, written as a series of memos, was first published in 1964, it contains many insights on schooling that are as relevant today as they were in the Sixties.

The book is divided into four sections. In the first, titled Strategy, Holt highlights how schools favour children who learn to play by the rules. He argues that producers or children who learn to give the answer the teacher expects tend to do better than thinkers or the children who are more interested in the meaning of the lesson or more broadly the world they live in. So, children who believe they “must please the grownups at all costs” often end up doing better than those who want to please themselves by making meaning of everything they encounter. In today’s context, I think it might be fair to say that the system awards certain types of ‘thinkers.’ However, those who question established norms like the factory model of education, as Sir Ken Robinson describes it in his brilliant TED talk on creativity, are not prized by schools, regardless of the potential they may harbour.

Next, in Fear & Failure, Holt argues that the enterprise of education is built on a foundation of fear. Compared to the sixties, that fear has only risen exponentially. From the scramble to get our children admitted into ‘good’ schools to the pressure to ace class tests to the ever-looming threat of Board exams, children, parents, and teachers are trapped in an angst-laden net. According to Holt, adults have foisted their notions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ on children, thereby fostering a climate of fear and insecurity. Feeling pressured and scared, “intelligent children act unintelligently at school.” Neuroscientific findings indicate that Holt was right. When a person is overwrought by fear, the thinking parts of the brain shut down.

The epidemic of mental health problems that schools and colleges, the world over today are facing should be a wake-up call for us to re-examine the premises on which conventional schooling rests. Is it necessary for all children of the same age to learn the same curriculum at the same pace? Should adults decide what children need to study or can children have more of a say in what they wish to learn? Are grades and marks conducive or detrimental to producing life-long learners who are intrinsically motivated to keep seeking? These are some of the questions that Holt’s book provoked in me.

Holt exhorts us to examine what children are actually learning in classrooms in Real Learning. Tests and exams are shallow indicators of real learning as most of us forget the content within weeks or even days of doing a test. Most children become answer-centred in school, avers Holt. When given a problem, they feel there must be an answer out there that they need to find. In contrast, a problem-centred person perceives a problem as a “statement about a situation” which has a missing piece. By “thinking about the situation,” or conceiving of its wholeness, the problem-centred person arrives at a solution. Through his own teaching, Holt has found that when children are given a problem without having to worry about getting it right or wrong, they exhibit “imagination, resourcefulness and common sense” in their intellectual explorations.

What sorts of mental models are children creating? Are these models an accurate reflection of reality? Are children’s models of various constructs meaningfully connected with one another? Or, do their models remain disparate, disjointed and fragmented? And, how do teachers find out what children’s models are like? Conventional assessments don’t necessarily reveal a child’s thought processes. In fact, they can actually mask a lack of complete understanding. A child who is able to perform arithmetic algorithms mechanistically may not have a true understanding of number. As Holt states, it’s not enough to be able to answer a series of questions unless children are also able to ask themselves those questions.

Real understanding, according to Holt, probably results from children being able to do a variety of tasks around a construct. Thus, children may explain a concept in their own words, provide examples of it, be able to identify it in “various guises and circumstances,” find meaningful connections with it and previous knowledge, predict ‘consequences,’ and possibly “state its opposite or converse.” These ideas are consonant with various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy that many teachers are probably familiar with.

The meta-message of Holt’s books is to see the bigger picture. “Where are you trying to get, and are you getting there?” We need to question our purpose, our motives and methods while trying to uncover our hidden assumptions about education. Holt coaxes us to see beyond “test-examination-marks business” as this only serves students and teachers alike to pretend that students know more just because they’ve passed a test. Why are students notified in advance of tests? Holt rightly states that very little of what is learned to pass tests is remembered long-term or applied meaningfully in real life. The only things we know and remember are those that we encounter repeatedly in our daily lives.

Finally, the book, written as memos, is a great example of a thoughtful teacher’s journal. It also documents his journey as he wrestles with issues, both prosaic and profound, that most teachers encounter. Reading this book might even spur you to start jotting down your thoughts on children, classrooms, and curricula. And, who knows, your entries might end up as a published book.

The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at

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