A is for Failure—Helping Kids to Fail Faster Can Help Them Learn
6.14.10 | During the last school year, students at Quest2Learn, a New York City public charter school funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation, tried to devise some very complex solutions to simple problems. Over seven days, the kids were tasked with building machines inspired by the far-out designs of Rube Goldberg to turn the pages of a book, switch on a light and feed the class’s turtle.
“The first five days, it failed every time,” recalled Katie Salen, Q2L’s executive director of design. “The kids were in pain. Just struggling, fighting.”
For a week, the pages went unturned and the light wouldn’t turn on. Fortunately, someone had been feeding the turtle so student frustration wasn’t compounded by turtle deprivation.
Eventually, according to Salen, Q2L’s teachers began working with the kids, offering some clues and suggestions until—lightbulb!—they got the machines to work.
“It was incredible how proud they felt about doing something that they’d thought to be very hard,” Salen said. “It was very empowering to them.”
The difficulty—and the likelihood of repeated failure—was the point of the exercise.
“You have to give kids challenging, complex problems,” Salen said. “It’s actually okay if it’s hard if they’re learning and get feedback.”
Too Afraid of Failure?
Quest2Learn student working on a Rube Goldberg inspired machine.
While the kids at Quest2Learn may be at the vanguard of page-turning and turtle-feeding studies, teaching through failure isn’t entirely new. “It’s almost a truism that people say you can learn from your mistakes,” said Drew Davidson, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. “But in schools, it seems they want the antithesis: Success, success, success.”
Davidson, who like Salen has extensive experience in design, suggests that cultivating a fast fail method—that is, making mistakes early, and making them often–is just as important to developing young minds as are perfect spelling and precise times tables.
“[Designers] say you need to fail faster,” Davidson said. “Prototype towards a solution. Everything is fair game… There’s no reward for that in the school system now: It’s all about taking the test.”
Davidson and his colleagues have put these ideas into practice with “Bridges,” an interactive game presented in partnership with Chicago’s Field Museum and underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation. The game teaches kids about the environmental impact of invasive species, and throws players into the deep end of Lake Michigan as a rapacious Asian carp tips over fishing boats for fun. Few directions are given at the outset, forcing the player to literally sink or swim.
By the time the player gets a hang of the game, the perspective shifts and she’s no longer a bottom-feeding fish, but the region’s new Carp Czar, responsible for figuring out how to curtail the fish population. Here’s where it gets tricky: Can the player balance the concerns of industry, tourism, the media and advocacy groups, while maintaining an operating budget? Suddenly, being bottom feeder seems like the life.
“This is a hard issue to solve,” Davidson said of the ripped-from-the-headlines Asian carp storyline. “So it’s a hard game to win. The deck’s stacked against you a little.”
And while the issues are real, the fish, the lake and the boats in “Bridges” are all hypothetical, which allows the player to teach herself how to win even as she sometimes fails to do so.
“What digital media does so well is let you explore and make mistakes without the harm,” Davidson said. “When you hit the real world, you’ve been trained.”
Out in the real world, there’s little prestige attached to failure. In the last few years, the internet has been awash in declarations of “FAIL” used as an all-purpose putdown. In a New York Times Magazine “On Language” column, Ben Zimmer noted that “FAIL” (and its variants, “EPIC FAIL,” “MASSIVE FAIL,” etc.) is now “a derisive label to slap on a miscue that is eminently mockable in its stupidity or wrongheadedness.”
According to Know Your Meme, a site that tracks internet trends and slang, “FAIL” has become “the Internet’s word of choice for contempt.”
But maybe it’s time to reframe failure (not to mention FAIL) as iteration, a process of making one’s way to the answer through errors and corrections.
“One thing you learn as a designer is that no solution is ever finished,” Salen said. “You try a bunch of stuff out knowing you won’t get it right the first time. From a [game] player’s perspective, you live that as well. You don’t think about it as, ‘Oh, I failed!’ You think, ‘Oh, that didn’t work, that didn’t do what I thought it would do.’
Again, this is nothing new. Salen points to traditional methods for teaching writing, which are built on a foundation of rough drafts, first drafts, second drafts and so on, until a finished paper can be handed in for a final grade. Here, failure is essential: It’s through the grammar and spelling mistakes, the holes in one’s thesis and awkward examples, that powerful, persuasive writing is born. As the famous Samuel Beckett quote goes: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Salen also draws inspiration from an activity usually found as far from the classroom as possible.
“I love watching skateboarders,” she said. “There are certain sports that are all about failure in a positive way. They fail 99 out of 100 times. There are certain cultural spaces where this is a way of learning.”
“Some of the best things that happened to me were because I made mistakes,” Davidson said. “Nothing makes me more scared than when someone is absolutely 100 percent certain they’re right. Double-checking your assumptions at the door seems like a good thing to do.”
Photos courtesy of Institute of Play.
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