Posted in education, Games

On creating space to fail

Last week I wrote about how we need failure to learn, and how fewer experiences of what I would deem safe failure is resulting in lower resilience and higher levels of anxiety.

It’s all very well for me to say this stuff, but there is the small issue of what we do about it…

Hence this blog – an attempt to share a few ideas about what we might do about it.

Where possible, I try to embed opportunities for my students to get things wrong.  Please understand, this is not some diabolical plan to trip them up only to then swoop in and prove my superior intelligence…

One: I do not have superior intelligence.  Ask my friends.  And if you don’t believe them, look at this picture of me:

As you can see, here I am wearing a tea cosy on my head.  Yep.  A tea cosy.  A tea cosy in the shape of a hedgehog.  Behold my MIGHTY BRAIN!

Two: Creating opportunities for failure is not about tripping your students up, it’s about letting them figure stuff out by having a go.

So… how might you embed failure into learning?  I think the best way to try and break this down, is to give a couple of examples from my practise.  All of this comes with the disclaimer that I do not hold the definitive answers… this is just the way that I’ve tried to work stuff out…

Example One: writing an essay

Look – a pen on some paper!

I had a group of students who struggled to get their heads around essay writing.  They never gave themselves enough time to think, read and plan.  They would put it off because they were afraid of not understanding the reading and of failing.

So I made a five-stage essay development ‘game’.

Participation was voluntary.  Those students that decided to play, received a weekly quest card relating to the essay title that they were working towards.

The quests started small: find two definitions of [insert here]; and got more challenging: find a theorist that disagrees with all the things you’ve previously written…

They had to write up their findings in a weekly blog, which I would read and comment upon.

This approach meant that they could explore the ideas and really unpack the essay title.  They could go off on tangents and it was fine, because this wasn’t the essay – it was the work towards the essay.  In other words, they could make mistakes without these costing them marks.  There is something about flow and levelling up in this approach too – but that might be the next blog…

I found that students following this approach did better in their essays than usual.  And this is not down to my bias – I have always been careful to moderate these assignments (meaning that one of my colleagues also reads the work to ensure objectivity and fairness).

Example Two: playing an Alternate Reality Game

(c) ZenFilms

Alternate Reality Games are great; I’ve used them a fair bit now, which you can see in this previous post.

But for this example I am thinking of a different game – one that I made for students studying the digital world.

In it, the students are tasked with developing work for a digital timeline that I built.  (The phrase ‘digital timeline’ sounds fancy but it’s really easy to make.  I use the excellent Knightlab.)

Having contributed to the timeline, an A.I character steals their work and shuts the timeline down.  The students have to engage with A.I. through:

  • researching more to satisfy A.I.’s criticisms;
  • engaging in online debate;
  • preparing further materials to supplement the earlier work.

In essence, they end up having done more work than entailed in the average essay, but it’s spread over a few weeks and presented as a series of conversations.  Taking on the A.I. character allows me to be more critical without the students feeling threatened.  They are free to, effectively, get more ‘wrong’ before they get a lot right.

It is not necessary to build an ARG to embed opportunity to get things wrong – but if you’re interested in ARGs in education then check out what I’ve said about them in the past, and watch this space for an upcoming blog about making ARGs…

In Summation

Making space for failure means making space for play.  If you’re playing, then it’s ok to get things wrong.  And if you’re playing then you are getting to deeply know in a way that feels safe.  Play is fun.  But interestingly, play is not easy.

Contrary to popular opinion, games are fun because they’re difficult.  Not because they’re easy.  In fact, easy games are boring.  We do not need to make education easy.  We need to find where it’s hard, and celebrate that.  Games do not shy away from making the player work hard.  They just support the player to develop the skills they will need to succeed.

I think that this is at least some of what we need when we’re teaching: good support and structure, with space to fail and lots of challenge.

In the next blog in this series (yep, it’s becoming a series – check me), I will discuss how increasing the challenge leads to greater engagement in learning.  If I can ram it in, then I may also talk about making ARGs… or that might be a blog all of its very own…

Posted in education, Games

Fail Faster

We need to talk about failure.

Specifically, what seems to have become some kind of endemic-fear-of-failing.

Ok.  First off, what is so wrong with getting things wrong?

What is it about making a mistake – or just not getting it right yet – that seems to send us into paroxysms of frenetic confusion?

What is so wrong with failure?

Making mistakes is how we learn.

It is such an intrinsic a part of learning that I believe classrooms should be spaces for failure.  Instead they’re spaces where educators are forced to teach to the exam, and to showcase the fact that they are teaching so clearly, even an ofsted inspector can’t fail to notice.


Because these are the things by which teachers and, by extension, schools are judged.

It needs to stop.

It really needs to stop.

This system is producing generations of young people that have no idea how to fail well.  They don’t understand that you have to throw a hundred ideas at the wall before you get one that just might stick.

The moment their first idea doesn’t quite work, they are broken.

I’ve heard the word ‘resilience’* bandied about a lot in the last few years.  Resilience, it seems, is very important.  We all need to be more resilient.

I believe that in order to be resilient we need to be able to fail.  I was having this conversation with a friend and he said ‘fail faster!’  He’s a games designer, and he went on to tell me that his team gets together every month to come up with a hundred game ideas as quickly as possible.  About 90 of these will be rubbish.  8 will be sort of ok.  2 might be games.

Imagine that.  Scheduled space to get it wrong until you get it right.

And he is right.  We don’t just need the space to fail, we need active encouragement to fail faster.  We need to be so used to throwing ideas around, that we get good at recognising the gems.

Classrooms are, too often, spaces that try to prevent students from getting it wrong.  If we’re getting in the way of failure all the time, how are students meant to cope with the only educational experiences of failure left?  Exams.  We shield them and shield them… and then we wonder why, when finally faced with a space in which they might be able to get it wrong, they faint.

If we want students to succeed they have to be allowed to get it wrong.  They have to be allowed to fail.  We all have to fail faster.



* resilience is an interesting topic, and one shortly to have its very own blog.  Lucky you!

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