In fact, they’ve already failed. Lots of times. My kids started failing the day they were born. I remember gazing down at my first born with so much adoration and so much joy, thinking “you’re so perfect and I love you so much, but come on already. It’s a nipple. This shouldn’t be so hard.” It didn’t phase her, though. She just kept on trying until she got it right. When our youngest was five months old, she would pull herself up into a sitting position, sit there for about five seconds and then topple over like a stack of blocks. Her big sister thought this was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, so we made sure to get it on video (see terrible iPhone video below.) I’m glad we caught it, because just a week or two later, she had it all figured out and was a sitting pro.
What if we graded babies and toddlers on learning the way we grade school aged children who are learning to read or write? What if not being potty trained by the last day of age two meant they got an F in Personal Hygiene? “No need to keep trying. It’s official. Your kid is just not gifted at toileting and will have to shit in his pants forever. He managed to get a C- in Eating Dinner, a B in Recognizing Colors and a B+ in Singing Lullabies, though, so we’re going to go ahead and let him move on to age three. Congrats!”
“A child learns a lot more from falling down than they ever will from hearing mom say ‘watch your step.'” – Roger Schank, Teaching Minds
Children – and adults – learn best by trying and failing over and over until they figure something out. Screwing shit up is – and always has been – the most effective and efficient form of education known to man. Babies and very small children know this instinctively. They don’t worry about being wrong or get stressed out when it’s taking them “too long” to learn something. They just keep trying. They fail more than anybody, but those failures never stop them in their tracks. It’s only later, when we send them off to school, that failure becomes permanent. Missed five out of ten questions on your science test? F. And that’s that. There’s no “try again!” Overworked teachers in packed classrooms don’t have time to sit down with each student to figure out what went wrong or to encourage them to try again until they get it right. They failed. That’s it. Maybe they’ll do better on the next one. Or maybe that F will convince them they’re just no good at science. This concept of failure as a permanent thing is breaking our children’s confidence, destroying their natural resilience and tearing away their basic human instinct to try and try again.
What if there was a school where there were no F’s? No failing. None. What if failure wasn’t an option?
In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not one of those crazy people who think there should never be winners or losers. If my kid is playing sports and her team loses, I don’t expect anybody to hand her a trophy. When I say “no failure,” I mean what if we taught our kids that failing is never the end? What if we taught them that failure is always just a temporary setback? What if we taught them never to give up until they’ve figured something out and to see all those times they messed up for what they truly are – experiences that make them stronger, smarter, tougher. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Kelly Clarkson said that. Also some guy named Friedrich Nietzsche, I think? (Sorry, I got an F in Philosophy. You’ll have to Google that.)
If this is making sense to you, good news. There actually is a school where failure isn’t an option. Some people call it crazy. Some people call it unschooling. We call it World School.
World School is letting kids learn at their own pace, about things that are interesting to them. Have a kid that’s obsessed with Minecraft? My eight year old nearly peed his pants with excitement when I told him about an online class that teaches kids how to make their own Minecraft mods. A couple of months ago, my nine year old daughter found some yarn in a closet and decided she wanted to learn how to crochet. I bought her a crochet hook and within a week she had crocheted herself a shirt, a hat, gloves, and an iPod case. How did she learn? Not with an instructor or by looking at a textbook. She learned by watching YouTube videos. Every morning when she woke up, she grabbed the laptop and headed straight for the couch to get back to work on whatever project she had started the night before. It was amazing to watch her learn, with absolutely no prodding, no stress, no expectations. It was the complete opposite of when she was in “regular” school, begging me to let her wait “just one more hour” before starting her homework. When kids are interested in learning, there’s no stopping them. So why, when there are literally millions of things to choose from, are adults deciding what kids should learn and when? Why don’t we trust them to choose for themselves and allow them to try and fail and try again, working at their own pace until they’ve mastered it, just like we do?
Ken Robinson gave a hilariously insightful TED Talk a few years back about education and creativity. In it he said “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
I’m prepared and my kids will be prepared, too. Will yours?
(Watch Ken’s video below and another talk by the awesome 13 year old Hackschooler Logan LaPlante. I promise they’ll be worth your time!)