Embrace failure as a pathway to understanding

Embrace failure as a pathway to understanding

fail better

Note: This is Part Three in a series of posts related to a presentation I gave on what teachers can learn from video games. My entire presentation can be viewed here.

Why do gamers try so hard?

When I talked to my students about playing video games, many of them had stories of tremendous feats of gaming endurance. Some admitted to sessions lasting over 16 hours at a time. Some talked about working on one gaming objective for weeks at a time. They read guides, collaborated with friends, hypothesized and experimented,  learned, and endured.

Many teachers wonder why these students can work so hard for so long at something “meaningless” like a video game and not apply themselves in school the same way. One answer may come from another thing these students had to do in order to master their games.

They failed. They failed a lot. They failed in spectacular ways and they failed by a fraction of a second. They failed over and over again, and yet they progressed and never gave up.

Failure as opportunity instead of consequence

Mastery and failure are inseparable, but sometimes teachers forget that.

Braid is my five-year-old son’s favorite video game. It’s a game that was definitely far beyond his ability level when he began playing it last year. Heck, it even pushed my limits, originally.

I wanted to find out why he liked it so much and what made him dedicate himself to mastering its opening levels despite the obvious difficulty gap. His responses made me think.

Psychosocial Moratorium

Games create a place where failing becomes essential and the consequences of failing are reduced. Dr. James Gee calls this place a Psychosocial Moratorium. This environment encourages players to take risks without worrying about how much it will hurt them. It also has the added benefit of allowing players to consider failure completely differently than they do at school. As a result, players look at taking on and conquering the most difficult challenges as a badge of honor.

But isn’t allowing failure encouraging students to become complacent? Won’t the “Real World” eat these precious snowflakes up?

Randy Nelson, the Dean of Pixar University has an interesting perspective on the importance of failure in creating innovative people that excel in important jobs.

Nelson says the goal of creative, innovative, successful people isn’t the avoidance of failure – it’s failure recovery. When you’re doing something no one has ever done before, you can’t be afraid to take risks.

Consider the things you currently love to do: Your hobbies, your career, your passions. Becoming experts involved trying and failing over and over again. For most of us, these failures happened without penalty and lead to learning.

Depth vs Breadth

For me, and many of my students, advancing in high school and college means taking fewer risks each year. It was navigating a maze and getting to safety as soon as possible. I struggled a bit in math, so I was done with it as soon as it wasn’t required. I found science absolutely fascinating and rewarding, but I got B+’s in it instead of A-‘s, so I got through science as soon as I could. By my senior year, I took as many English classes as I could, so I could get straight A’s for the first time in my life. In college, I got even more focused on English and took no math and the easiest science class I could find.  That made me an incredibly deep person in the world of English. I was proud of my college GPA, but by getting so deeply involved in what I was already talented at, I was actually limiting myself and finding ways to apply an English education became very difficult.

Failure and the Urge to Cheat

By making failure an inexcusable consequence, teachers are not only making people less successful, they are encouraging even the most honest students to cheat. Kaelie – a student of mine who is incredible at school – made this connection after struggling in a game environment. She explains it better than I can in the video below.

For some students the urge to cheat is soon replaced with the urge to give up completely. Because failure  doesn’t lead to learning – and because teachers tolerate failure as an easy excuse to stop teaching and move on – it’s much easier to fail by not trying than try hard and fall short. The end result is the same.


I tried applying these lessons about failure in my own classroom and I’ve been thrilled with the results. The students in all of my classes are learning more, trying harder, and taking more risks. From the struggling students to the high achievers, more deep learning is happening.

I’ve realized that my job is helping all students learn – especially the ones that struggle the most. These kids can be pretty damaged by failures role in school by the time they reached me, but that shouldn’t make it easier for me to give up on them and move on. It means I have to work harder, but that’s what I get paid for.

Here are a couple of practices I’ve implemented that has helped scaffold this change:

  • Paying more attention to Formative vs Summative assessments.
    • My gradebook is now set up to be 15% formative and 85% summative. Students can make up, revise, and correct formative learning opportunities without penalty. Because of this, by the time students reach a summative activity they all have a thorough understanding of the concepts and knowledge.
    • I give more A’s and B’s than I used to, and students definitely fail less frequently, but students honestly do more A and B work than they used to.
  • Giving more descriptive feedback and allowing students to use it.
    • I don’t put letter grades on formative assignments. Rather, I give students descriptive feedback that focuses on what they do well and gives them suggestions for improvement. If students use the suggestions to improve their projects, I will give them the points. After all, grades should measure what a student is able to do.
    • Because students know how they succeed and where they fall short, they can better describe their own performance and make changes that lead to improvements.
  • I focus on understanding and application rather than points in a gradebook.
    • Even though I leave more feedback than I used to, I spend the same amount of time grading. I spend more time grading the things that matter and less time focusing smaller assignments.
    • All of my students can now answer why they are learning something and how it impacts them.
  • I celebrate risks and make failure a learning experience.

It’s amazing for me to have students ask me how they can fix a project after they get a grade they don’t like or when they fall short. Before, they took their grade and quietly checked out. Now, their feedback is a gateway to learning. They have less leeway with failure on summative pieces, so they want to take every opportunity to learn and demonstrate understanding before they reach that point.

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  • Jennifer Wykle

    I love the “Aha Moment” that the girl in the video has about the demo mode being your chance to fail. Great job capturing that on film!