Teaching Students to Fail Their Way to Success

by Staff Writers

Failure has been a trending topic on Education Unbound recently, particularly in regards to the disconnect between educational objectives and game-based learning (GBL). The basic problem is that games depend on players failing multiple times as the primary means of learning how to overcome obstacles. Education, in contrast, is predicated on the notion that failure is bad – for the student, the teacher, and the system as a whole. Until this difference of opinion can be overcome, there is little possibility that GBL can ever become the dominant mode of education in America.

While it is impossible for any single teacher to reverse this trend, there is one thing that every educator can do that will help prepare students to benefit from their failures and pave the way for an educational system that encourages students to learn from their mistakes. Here are some suggestions for teaching your students how to be "successful failures" with examples from the gaming world.

Teach that Learning Is a Process
In a video game, you can't just jump straight to the boss level – you'll get unceremoniously whacked! There is a reason why you must reach certain levels in World of Warcraft or my favorite game, Diablo, before you can use certain weapons, armor, spells, or take on certain enemies. You have to learn how to play the game and use the precursors to those tools before you really need them in battle.

Too often, learning is focused only on the boss level – the test, not on all the fun and interaction that needs to happen to get there. Most of the actual learning happens in the process leading up to the performance assessment. Acknowledging those intermediate steps, valuing them, and validating students' work at those earlier stages encourages them and reinforces the actual learning.

The point, however is not to say "great job Suzie, you did that step right," but rather to encourage learners to reach beyond their comfort zones and help them understand why they failed to reach the next level when they do. More important, this is the teachable moment to help them develop an understanding of what they need to do the next time in order to succeed. Great teachers do this naturally, but making it an explicit part of the learning process helps students form the habit of doing it for themselves and becoming life-long, self-motivated learners.

Make Learning the Goal
No one sits down to play a new game and thinks to themselves, "I can't wait to reach the end, kill the bad guy, and be done playing!" Most of the fun in playing games is in the 40 hours leading up to the end, rather than the end itself. During that time you are engaged in what game designer Jane McGonigal calls "blissful productivity," where you are happy working on hard tasks and learning how to overcome obstacles. The point of playing the game is to play the game, not to finish it.

With a focus on testing, competencies, and teacher accountability in education, the focus is taken off of playing the game (learning) and put on finishing it (outcomes). While standards, standardized tests, or marketable skills (in higher education), are part of our educational reality, they do not need to be the focus of your teaching. Whenever possible, given the constraints of a schedule, give students the opportunity to work at their own pace towards clear learning objectives.

At the university level, supporting students in having a genuine interest in the subjects being studied. Helping them to feel empowered to learn the material will push them to gain the real skills that they need in the working world. More importantly, in a world that is constantly changing, they will be capable of pursuing new knowledge and skills in order to be successful. As author Thomas Friedman points out, in order to be successful in a hyper-connected world, an individual will need to be able to adapt to new circumstances and constantly improve themselves. If we teach learners that learning is the goal rather than passing the test, they will be better able to adapt to a technology-driven future.

Support Second Chances
In almost every game, your character gets more than one life, and in the games I have found most enjoyable, like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the player lives are basically irrelevant. If you die, the character respawns close to where you left off. In these games, there are consequence s to failure, but they are not something that discourages further play. In fact, these events often help refocus you on thinking about and learning what you need to do differently to succeed.

Tests cause a significant amount of stress for teachers and administrators, but more importantly, for students. This stress can even be debilitating to some learners, causing them to fail the test, thus increasing future stress related to exams. It is very rare for students to have the opportunity to take a test over. It simply is not practical. If they fail the test, they didn't learn the material, and thus are failures.

There are two possible solutions to this problem: 1) don't test students or 2) make the intermediate steps more important than the outcome (see "Teach that Learning Is a Process" above – Link). If the objective of education is learning, then students should either have multiple chances to demonstrate their mastery of a subject, or they should be provided with alternative assessment methods. While it may seem ridiculous to offer 20+ different assessments, technology can facilitate doing just that. In math for example, the teacher tools in Khan Academy make it possible to track individual mastery of every concept being studied by each student. In other subjects, consider portfolio-based assessment or project-based learning where the outcomes are more authentic and allow students to express their individuality and creativity in addition to demonstrating their mastery of the content.

A Change in Mindset
We live in a connected world where "knowing" something is much less important than knowing how to find information and apply it. Part of that process is understanding how to respond to failure when things don't work out. Adjusting your instructional objectives to help students understand that learning is a process of which failure is a key ingredient will help them to be successful when there are no more tests to take and failure is not an option.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /