Fast Failure for Learning

Educators say failure is part of the learning process. So how come schools always expect success the first time around?

A land of tiny elves or a world of postapocalyptic robots might not resemble a classroom, but the problem-solving happening in a video game player’s mind often mirrors the same process of tackling a tricky puzzle on a test. But unlike a test, when a player runs out of lives in a game, he or she just heads back to the menu screen, determined to figure it out the next time around.

Experiencing failure is an integral part of any learning process. From carpentry to robotics, failure is responsible for many of the innovations of modern life.  But what’s unique about video games and digital technologies—or just play for that matter—is that they provide a unique way for students to fail while learning without major repercussions, and usually while having some fun. Play, whether with technology or not, requires kids to problem solve, experiment, and sometimes flat-out fail in a safe environment where being wrong isn’t judged.

Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play and founder of Quest2Learn, spoke about the benefits of failure at SXSW in 2012. An expert in game design for learning, Salen believes schools miss a huge teaching opportunity when they view failure as exclusively negative.

“I think that’s a way of reframing failure for the design of learning that looks very different than the current narrative around failure in most schools, which is failure is a thing you want to avoid at all costs. In fact, when you fail, you’re often only given one try. So you get an F on a test and you sort of move on,” Salen said. “So what we’re starting to think about is how we can design environments of learning that support this notion of repeated failure?”

John Seely Brown talks about play as an essential route to making sense of an ever-changing world, and that play will be important throughout our lives, not just in childhood. In order to make sense of this changing world, he says, we need the freedom to explore, mess up, reflect, and try again. “Where imaginations play, learning happens,” he has said.

As much as flops, mess-ups and do-overs help students learn, encouraging both failures and game-use in classrooms requires a new way of thinking. Drew Davidson, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, believes the entire idea of what it means to fail while learning should be reimagined in education.

“I think it’s the idea of recontextualizing what we mean by failure. So it’s not in the context of what schools normally think of which is failure means you failed the test, or failure means you’re not making the grade, but getting more of a design perspective in it, where failure means you’re working towards the right idea,” Davidson said in a video at Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning.  He said at a college level, experimentation in design and development processes is more encouraged, but at younger levels it’s less common to allow students to fail.

“It’s almost a truism that people say you can learn from your mistakes. But in schools, it seems they want the antithesis: Success, success, success,” Davidson said in another post about how failing helps kids learn faster.

Sometimes, just letting students know some failure is expected can help them learn more quickly. In one study, children performed better on reading comprehension and difficult anagrams if they were told failure is a normal part of learning than if they weren’t given that message at all.

Diana Laufenberg, a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, speaking at a  TEDxMidAtlantic talk, explained that with the benefits of the one-to-one laptop program in her classroom comes the possibility that students won’t always collect the right answers the first time.

“You have to have to get comfortable with this idea of allowing kids to fail as part of the learning process.  We deal right now with in the educational landscape with an infatuation with a culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled in on the average multiple choice test,” Laufenberg said.  “To tell kids to never be wrong, to ask them to always have the right answer, doesn’t allow them to learn.”

Of course, this is not a problem confined to schools. Adults in general have forgotten how to play and fail. Adulthood has a tendency to squelch the play right out of us. As Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Published June 13, 2013