Reimagine the Purpose of Learning

Our elementary students have the chance twice a year to plan a business and market products and services at our Entrepreneur Fair. Looking a bit like a Maker Faire crossed with a Farmer’s Market, we see everything from plant starts, personalized t-shirts and baseball caps, and homemade truffles to toilet bombs, spa services, and lamps made from wine bottles. Our children’s imaginations are their only limit.

An inherent part of what it means to be an entrepreneur is trial and error, iterating, and taking a thoughtful risk and learning from it. Learning experiences such as participating in our Entrepreneur Fair—ones that offer no grades or test scores and no right answers—are opportunities for students to strive and struggle, observe what happens, and learn from whatever outcomes are achieved. In a recent NY Times op-ed, David Brooks argues convincingly for de-emphasizing grade point average as a means of judging student and school success. He writes, “In life we want independent thinking and risk-taking, but the G.P.A. system encourages students to be deferential and risk averse, giving their teachers what they want.”

Too often, we define success by perfection—in other words—things turn out exactly as we have planned. We work for the 4.0, the correct answer, the “A,” the perfect performance. Does fear of not being right, of not being perfect, cause young people not to try, to be risk averse as David Brooks suggests? STEAM evangelist and materials scientist Dr. Ainissa Ramirez is an advocate, rather, for the value of learning from failure. She wrote recently in an article titled, “Making Friends with Failure,” that failure is something to be embraced. “‘Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call it data.’ If you learned something from the experience, you did not fail. By rebranding failure to something as harmless as data, that failure loses its sting. Whatever you did was all part of a fact-finding mission!”

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will offer an excellent opportunity to witness athletes who have achieved much from their willingness to learn from their failures. While the spotlight will surely shine on peak performances at this event, there is also great value in showing our children the many years of preparation, frustration, and learning athletes undertake in order to compete at the Olympic level. I loved the advertisement, “Thank You, Mom,” kicked off at the Sochi 2014 Olympics, that offered the audience a glimpse of the effort, trial-and-error, and grit that goes into producing an Olympian. 

How might we help young people break through the obsession with the perfect grade or the perfect performance, and to celebrate failure as a critical part of the learning process? One place to explore that idea is with Ainissa Ramirez at ieSonoma, Thursday and Friday, June 9-10, who will speak along with Boston Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Benjamin Zander, and a panel of local innovators.

Whether starting a business, mastering a sport, or becoming a maestro, learning that has real worth and meaning comes through working hard, bouncing back and learning from setbacks, and igniting passion with purpose. It is time to reimagine how we teach and how students learn with these principles as our guide.
ieSonoma is a partnership between public and private educational institutions and the larger community devoted to exploring the research, theory, and practice of 21st Century teaching and learning for the purpose of transforming the way we prepare our youth for success in this rapidly changing world.

Sonoma Country Day School

4400 Day School Place
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
phone: 707.284.3200
fax: 707.284.3254
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The premier, fully accredited, independent TK-8 college preparatory school in Sonoma County. Located in northern Santa Rosa and proud home of The Jackson Theater, SCDS offers a challenging academic program rich in fine and performing arts, music, world languages, and social and emotional learning. For more than thirty years SCDS has been the school that brings learning to life.