The virtues of failure

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 the subject most assiduously ignored in traditional mainstream schools. On the contrary, the motto of our schools might just as well be the maxim one of my old friends used to repeat, jokingly, every morning to his entire office crew: "Never do anything wrong; always do everything right!"

When Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, was asked to what he attributed his fabulous 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 majestic grappling with failure, like Thomas Edison, trying hundreds and hundreds of materials to use as the filament for his electric light bulb. We learn from history that most highly original people were scarcely recognized in their own lifetimes -- indeed, were usually considered odd by their contemporaries, and often deemed crazy. We have endless examples of situations where some of the most valued contributions to civilization were made by people who never knew the meaning of success. In the world of business and finance, where success is usually taken to mean survival and profitability, we find companies, from the largest to the smallest, going through periods of near bankruptcy, or Chapter 11 reorganization, only to rebound and make their mark anew.

Indeed, one of the most common aphorisms we hear bandied about is that "people should learn from their mistakes", and that mistakes are in fact the best instructors of all in the art of living.

All this sounds almost too obvious to require being said. Yet, in the one forum where you would expect to hear it resound repeatedly, it is virtually entirely absent. For it turns out that our schools, whose goal is to prepare young people for life, treat a mistake as something to be avoided at all costs, something to be ashamed of, something degrading. A "good" student is one who always gets the answers right; the very "best" student gets a grade of 100% on every exam.

Instead of allowing children to try out all sorts of solutions to problems, and reach their own conclusions as to which solutions are best, we teach them the "right" solutions, or how to arrive at the "right" solutions, and expect them to follow our instructions faithfully. Worst of all, we send a clear and consistent message to children in school that people who make mistakes are missing the mark; that the more mistakes you make, the dumber you are, and the less likely to succeed in life. Schools try to 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 absolutely well, with no hitches. But real life is a succession of hitches, and the person who can take them in stride, evaluate them, and recover from them and go on functioning -- such a person is a true survivor in the struggle for existence. Rather than avoiding failure, our schools should encourage failure, and encourage children to take failure with equanimity. We should be sure to give out clear signals that a child who tries and doesn't succeed is not doomed, or worse in any way than the child who tries and succeeds. Actually, the child who tries and doesn't succeed may well be ahead of the game, as long as s/he feels comfortable figuring out how to try again, and improve the odds of success.

At the heart of the schools' devastating misunderstanding of failure is the testing and grading system, which promotes the idolatrous worship of "success" and deals harshly with the "evil" of error. Until the entire system of grading and evaluation is thrown out, lock, stock, and barrel, there will be no significant progress in this domain. When we get rid of evaluative judgments of success by adults, we can then begin the slow, laborious process of building an educational system where children can explore freely, try out approaches to their hearts' content, and emerge as truly splendid problem solvers able to take on any challenge and to overcome any obstacle.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.