If I had to choose one topic to place at the very core of every child's educational experience, I would have no trouble identifying it: how to deal with failure. Yet this is a subject carefully avoided in traditional mainstream schools. On the contrary, the motto of our schools might just as well be the joking maxim of one of my old friends at work. Every morning he would say to the entire office crew: Never do anything wrong! Always do everything right! When Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, was asked what accounted for his creative success, he answered without hesitation, “I simply made more mistakes than anyone else.” When we study the lives of people we admire, over and over again we read about their determined grappling with failure, like Thomas Edison testing hundreds and hundreds of materials to use as filaments for his new invention: the electric light bulb.
Some of the most valued advances have been made by people who never knew the meaning of success. Indeed, an oft-repeated aphorism is that people learn the most from their mistakes. Yet, in the one forum where you would expect to hear it all the time, it is entirely absent. Schools, which are supposed to prepare young people for a successful adult life, treat mistakes as something to be avoided at all cost, as something de-grading. A good student is one who always gets the answers right; the very best student gets 100% on every exam. Schools send a clear and consistent message: people who make mistakes are missing the mark; the more mistakes you make, the less likely you are to succeed in life. Schools link high self-esteem to correct performance, and invariably produce low self-esteem in people who perform inadequately.
In fact, the sensible thing to do would be to give the opposite message. It's no trick to handle life if everything goes well without a hitch. But real life is a succession of hitches, and the person who can take them in stride, who can evaluate them and go on functioning, such a person is a true winner in the struggle for existence.
At Sudbury Valley School, there are no judgments of success by adults. Instead, children can explore freely, and try out a variety of approaches to any problem. The result: they become splendid problem solvers, able to take on any challenge without fear.