“I’m building a castle,” said my three-year-old. There he was, holding one bottle with one hand trying to stack them as they continued to fall repeatedly. I could see his wonder. He had seen many other things stack so easily: Legos, boxes, cups. But in his repetitive efforts, I watched as he contemplated why the science was failing him. Why did those plastic bottles refuse to stack and stay? Why did they crumble so quickly, so easily try after try? Why did his outstretched arms seem just short of reach, not able to corral those bottles into submission? I watched and did not have the answers, but also did not intervene in his playful matters. I watched as he kept trying…
That moment made me wonder how young children know when to keep trying and at what point in their lives does that persistence, that resilience slip away? Failure is a graceful, and inevitable thing. Yet, I work regularly with students who have become more and more afraid of that failing grace, afraid to let go, do something wrong, redo, or revise.
Failure is a part of the learning process I remind students, but I have to often remind myself that so much of Education lacks that process. To take Education as it stands, there are series of tasks students are asked to complete at the same time, in the same way, in pursuit of the same result. All that sameness doesn’t allow much room for process: curiosity, questions, trial and error, mistakes, wonder, thinking.
Process seems far too messy for Education (as it stands now) to entertain. But it is in that messy, unpredictable process where questions are asked, methods are explored, and resolution may or may not present itself as an outcome. Education in its search for new methods must explore failure, and the varied and appropriate responses to not “getting it right” the first time. What if we all failed and just couldn’t bring ourselves to “try, try again”? What would that look like? If Education and schools are reinforcing a culture where kids fear anything less than perfection, how will young people learn to think, problem solve with resilience, strategy, patience, critically and creatively. If Education trades “thinking” (critical and creative) for task-based learning, students will never learn to build and keep building on their ideas, create jobs, new technologies, a kinder gentler world, a future for us all. Education is a “big work” (Montessori).
Now back to the play of my three-year-old. After many tries, I’m not sure how many, I lost count. He finally figured out how to wrap his hands around those bottles, bend and steady his arms to encourage balance, build until those bottles stood steady, towering over him. “A castle,” he said, as he did it without my help, but with the full weight of my hope. “Yes honey, a castle.”