Maybe our ancient forebears had it right all along. What if the attitudes, philosophies and practices of yesteryear really are the teachings that we should be following today? Oddly, in considering ourselves “modern,” we have frequently overlooked the wisdom of the past and have focused, instead, on new discoveries and finding the ever-elusive “better way.”
What if the “better way” is hiding in plain site? I find this to be, in general, an intriguing question. But, let’s examine a specific example. One that has its origins in the 2nd millennium BCE. I’m referring to the writings that we now call the ancient Sanskrit.
Sanskrit is regarded as the ancient language of Hinduism. For some 2000 years, it served as the language of cultural order all across Asia while serving as a means to communicate with the ancient celestial gods. The term “Sanskrit” is based on the prefix “Sam” or “samyut” which means “entirely” and “krit” or “done.” It is commonly translated to mean “entirely or perfectly done.” Interestingly, Sanskrit is still in use today. It is commonly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and in Buddhist practices. Sanskrit is also one of the languages that the government of India mandates the development of and is, even today, the primary language of a state in northern India.
This post is not intended to be a history lesson. But, I find it fascinating that something so old can remain vibrant and current centuries later. Specifically, these ancient writings, the Sanskrit, offer direction for American public education by addressing something that, in my opinion, is a central obstacle in attaining the level of educational excellence that kids deserve.
The Nine Rules of Being Human are attributed to the Sanskrit. They are, individually and collectively, brilliant. But, for purposes here I want to focus on Rule #3. It states (assuming that the translation from the ancient language to modern English is accurate): “There Are No Mistakes, Only Lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error, experimentation. The ‘failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately ‘works.’”
Pause and reflect.
Now, read it again. “There Are No Mistakes, Only Lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error, experimentation. The ‘failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately ‘works.’”
Does that even remotely resemble the prevailing expectations and practices occurring in modern American classrooms? Do we communicate to kids “there are no mistakes” and the “failed” attempts are a critical part of the process? My extensive experience, both as a teacher and a building administrator, strongly inform my opinion that this is not what we’re teaching our students. In fact, I sadly contend that it is quite the opposite.
If there were such a thing as the Nine Rules of Being a Student, as currently practiced in American schools, Rule #3 would read something like this. “There Can Be No Mistakes. Growth is a process of memorizing the standard curriculum as it is taught to you. There can be no failed experiments, as there is only one correct answer and only one way of arriving at it.”
Do you believe I am exaggerating, that this does not resemble what is actually an underlying premise of our educational system? If you doubt me, go ask some kids. Talk to some of the system’s customers about their experience and where failure fits into the calculus of their experience. You’ll be amazed.
American classrooms typically do not embrace the notion of failed attempts. I’m well aware that I have written about this before. In fact, I have posted four articles recently on this topic and others that are closely related to it. Yet, I contend it is critical that we revisit this issue repeatedly until we begin to see some forward movement. In my February 3rd post, The Dreaded Failing Grade, I cited two experts on achievement and how our perceptions of “failure” are having an adverse affect on kid’s educational experiences. I cite them again. First is Jessica Lehay, who in her 2015 book titled The Gift of Failure wrote: “If that answer at the end of the page is wrong, or if she arrives at a dead end in her research, she has failed - no matter what she has learned from her struggle.” Perhaps the person who says it best is Sir Ken Robinson, who in 2006 stated: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
I believe the writers of the ancient Sanskrit would concur with my contention that the notion of failure must be de-stigmatized in our classrooms.It’s Time to Bumble was my February 10th post where I suggested that we must come to the place where we embrace the attempt as much as we value the outcome, and that this is best accomplished by eliminating the notion of "failure" for our vocabulary and our practices.
Rule #3 lays the foundation for rule #4. We will examine it next week. Here’s a sneak peek.“A Lesson is Repeated Until It is Learned.”
Across the span of 2000 years we are having the same conversation. Unbelievable.