Why We Need to Let Kids Fail

Learner Voices   19 June 2018
By Tessa Simonds, One Stone


Surrounded every day by a diverse group of learners, I am inspired by the activism and empowerment of young people.

Tessa Simonds
One Stone Learner

I’m seventeen years old, and I don’t want to be a neuroscientist or mathematician or Spanish interpreter or coding expert when I “grow up.” I know what I don’t want to be, and I still don’t know what I’d like to do. But, that’s okay because I don’t turn 18 until August, so I have some time.

This is an idea I’d like to advocate for: having the liberty to try something and decide whether or not it is for me—free from the repercussions of failing a class or losing a job. Consequences like these drive our education system, class schedules, and ultimately, the careers we decide to pursue. But, they don’t have to!

As a junior in high school, I’ve studied lots of subjects that weren’t for me. However, through this process of elimination, I also learned to love school. Something I would never have imagined a year and a half ago.

Growing up in the Boise, Idaho public school system, I was lucky to attend great schools for ten years. I knew what it felt like to get that A and that B; to be successful according to my report card. But, that didn’t always translate to my actual experience—feeling too embarrassed to ask for help when I was confused.

I remember the feeling of lying when a friend would lean over and ask what I got on a test because I was embarrassed of my score. I know the appeal of taking a class just because I knew I was already good at the subject, and I’d pass with an “easy A” to boost my GPA. I can think back to the anxiety of running through the hall to get to that one class I dreaded, fearful of receiving yet another tardy or, even, detention.

Behind the disguise of homecoming dances and football games, of that happy surprise when I crushed a test despite having been too tired to really study—underneath all of that—I didn’t really like school. There were far more downsides to my education than there were upsides. I wasn’t retaining the information, I struggled to see the relevance of what I was learning, and I felt I could never catch up when I fell behind.

While I Chased Grades, Two Adults Chased Something Far Greater

A study conducted by Microsoft found that by age 15, girls dramatically lose interest in STEM classes, with four in ten citing a lack of personal experience in the subjects as the primary explanation. And, it was at precisely that age when I started shying away from tech classes because I didn’t feel like I knew enough to be successful.

Instead, I opted to take theatre because I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of homework. This was normal for me: stick to classes that would push me but not far enough that I’d land completely outside my comfort zone.

Looking back, I see my experience as indicative of a larger flaw in an outdated structure: one where failure is not an option, learning must occur at the same exact pace as my peers, and choosing to take a class just because you “might” be interested in it is seen as risking your GPA. But, at the time, it felt like it was just me.

Fortunately, as I was chasing good grades and staying in my comfort zone, two brave adults in my hometown had a pretty radical idea: to create a nonprofit that empowered teenagers with decision-making authority. They named it One Stone.

Formed with the mission of making students better leaders and the world a better place, One Stone is solidly learner-centered. From the beginning, the founders ensured at least two-thirds of its board of directors would consist of students. Yes, that means teenagers hold the voting majority.


Instead of struggling to understand the relevance of a topic, its applicability is a prerequisite.

Tessa Simonds
One Stone Learner

When One Stone launched in 2008, the focus was experiential service. Through the initial program, called Project Good, dozens of creative community service projects were completed over the course of six years. Through these projects, high school students learned how to take on challenges facing their community, while developing power skills like leadership, collaboration, communication, and grit.

In 2014, there was another idea: to launch another student engagement platform, Two Birds. Two Birds is a full-service graphic design and marketing firm led and directed by students. This branch of the organization serves as a revenue-generating, creative outlet that helps fund some of the organization’s initiatives. Today, students working for Two Birds spend their time conducting business meetings with any of our 25 clients, storyboarding videos, or brainstorming new logo ideas.

A year later the third platform, Solution Lab, was born. Solution Lab is an entrepreneurial incubator for student-led ventures, businesses, and workshops. We take design thinking to the market in an effort to drive revenue to support our no-cost model. Students develop their innovative ideas, or those of community partners, into business startups or high-impact projects.

Then, One Stone had its craziest idea yet: start a high school rooted in One Stone’s core values of empathy, equality of voice, creative innovation, and empowered ownership within the overarching framework of all things student-led.

How One Stone Became My Next Destination

News about One Stone’s launch of a radically different school went public the summer after my freshman year—technically the last year of junior high in Idaho. I remember my mom, who volunteered for One Stone, trying to explain to it to me. Something about “no teachers, no grades, no tests.” I didn’t really believe her. I didn’t think a school could ever look like that, but the more I learned, the more it appealed to me.

It sounded intriguing, but I was conflicted. I had been excited about attending public high school. I dreamed of playing soccer, going to football games, and of course, attending dances with my best friends. I went back and forth about the idea of trying this new school model, and the more I thought about it, the harder the decision became.

The deciding factor was a bit of an epiphany. I realized that ever since elementary school, I had felt ambivalent about my learning experiences. This could have been fine; I could have continued marching down this path—enjoying the social aspects and muddling through the academics. But, here’s the thing: I knew it could be different.

One Stone was providing a unique opportunity to take control of my learning—filling me with hope that I could actually like it. I always knew I could like learning—I had witnessed it first-hand. My mom is a second grade teacher in the Boise public school system, and both my sisters loved going to school. I wanted to love school, too, so I took the plunge.

Discovering My Passion for Learning (Hint: Now I Had Control)

Let me tell you, I have never been so nervous, so conflicted about a decision, and so excited all at the same time as I was on my first day at One Stone High School. I woke up and for the first time, arrived at school fifteen minutes early. Introduction to my new coaches and fellow students filled me with immediate inspiration. By lunch, I knew I had made the right decision.

At One Stone, I’m in charge of my learning. It took time to get used to this—to unlearn the way I had been told to learn for more than ten years. It took me almost an entire semester to stop asking my coaches, “What do you want me to do?” only to get the usual response, “Well, Tessa, what do you want to do?”

It wasn’t easy learning not to raise my hand every time I had something to say or ask, getting to class without a bell system, or figuring out how to take control of my education. But eventually, I started working with my coaches on my goals, my dreams, and developing my toolkit for life. The struggles of unlearning were worth it.

Before One Stone, I used to plop in front of the TV after school and soccer practice. Now, I run up to my room and get to work on things I’m passionate about—like attacking Supreme Court cases to prepare for a mock trial where I “represented” Jesus Mesa.

At One Stone, we learn to ask “how” and to lean in to the question of “why.” This approach flips the script, working backwards from traditional models of education. Instead of struggling to understand the relevance of a topic, its applicability is a prerequisite.

In this model, I no longer feel the stigma of asking for help, I study things that interest me, and I fail forward when a subject doesn’t quite stick. From these experiences, I’ve developed grit and learned to utilize my voice, exercising agency and choice in my education and actions.

It’s these skills of collaboration and persistence that helped make me employable at the age of 17.

Taking My Passions to the Real World

Last summer, I interned with the Idaho Department of Commerce. I was interested in learning about the inner workings of a state-level department after taking an intensive Constitutional Law Course.

It was an exciting time to work in the department. An August solar eclipse was going to pass directly through the state, meaning Idaho would host up to a million visitors through the path of totality. Over the course of my six-week internship, I assisted with preparations by working on an Idaho State Tourism and Travel Guide. I sat in on meetings with officials from around the state, taking notes on how to formulate emergency response plans and other logistics I’d never even thought of before.

With each of these projects, I realized how transformative my new perspective on learning would be. Before One Stone, education was a means to an end. Learning was limited to school, and school was just something to be tolerated through college.

Now, I see education as the vehicle for my curiosity—how I can transform a vague interest into a deeper understanding. Now, I recognize that relevant learning is lifelong.

Two years ago, an assignment to argue a mock Supreme Court case would have made me miserable. But, this very project was one of the highlights of my last year. One Stone pushes me to disregard the insecurities I may have about pursuing something new. It has transformed me into an engaged student and encouraged the development of skills that will continue into my adulthood.

This is What I’ll Be Taking With Me Far into the Future

At One Stone, we believe in failing forward. There is this infrastructure for humility, for getting up and saying, “Alright, this didn’t work, but I have an idea for next time.” Being able to talk about what went wrong is just as important as knowing how to articulate when something goes right. You learn about yourself and effective collaboration. Learning to fail forward has made me a better leader. For example, I know taking everything on by myself is not effective when what I really need is to communicate with my teammates.

One Stone challenges me to try new things, it encourages my successes, but more importantly, it forces me to confront my failures and not just hide from them. While failure teaches self growth, failing forward teaches the ability to reflect. Self assessment is a fairly new practice for me, and, I’m not going to lie, it’s a rather challenging one—to recognize what I did well and what I can improve upon.

It’s hard being vulnerable enough to open up and dig for the truth. But, it’s also quite rewarding. I learn what makes me a true addition to any team, knowing not only my strengths but also my weaknesses. Reflecting on where I grew and where I still want to grow is a skill I will continue to develop and take with me for the rest of my life.

Adults warn about a loss of curiosity, about becoming complacent in the status quo or ignorant to a changing world. I think this is because our system failed them, demanding they specialize in one specific topic before they can even learn how to learn.


Young people understand the value of these connections, of working together. We may be seventeen now but give us a couple years; we’ll be collaborating on how to change the world.

Tessa Simonds
One Stone Learner

Technological advancements mean today’s employers expect creativity and persistence. Yet, instead of cultivating those individualized skills, high schools reward students who are successful at stifling those attributes. No matter how incredible a teacher or diligent a student, there is no way to comprehend deeper causes and consequences of a topic when the AP curriculum allots one class period to the entire idea.

I come from a family of public school teachers. I know the value of education, and the privilege of having a good one. I know it is the system that’s stuck on old ideas of memorization and repetition, not the hardworking individuals. But, I also know that for ten years, I struggled to retain information and never asked why, or how.

According to my report cards, 16-year-old me was successful. But, I wasn’t learning and, more critically, I didn’t really want to. It’s only been by unlearning this fixed mindset that I’ve been able to rethink my educational experience. I discovered agency in my ideas, pursuing an internship that further informed my interest in public service.

As a member of One Stone’s governance and planning committee, I’m acquiring both the interpersonal skills of an effective board member and the technical skills of organizational sustainability. I’m learning leadership and collaboration, sometimes failing, and sometimes failing forward.

I am a different person than I was a year ago. Surrounded every day by a diverse group of learners, I am inspired by the activism and empowerment of young people. We are practicing skills now that will make us employable later. We are creative, curious, and committed to our interests. We recognize success isn’t zero-sum, that different perspectives are tools for innovation.

When we force students to narrowly choose between math or science or art or humanities, we’re missing an opportunity to challenge ourselves to think differently. Young people understand the value of these connections, of working together. We may be seventeen now but give us a couple years; we’ll be collaborating on how to change the world.

So, I leave you with this question: what would you be doing now, if you could have tried anything then?

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