Games & School: The Failure Argument

Failure is a concept that we are all familiar with. In school you likely passed or failed. You made the basketball or football team or you didn’t. And if you did fail, perhaps your parent or guardian was there to tell you, “don’t worry about it, we will try harder next time and you will succeed, mark my words.” Except in rare circumstances where a students intrinsic motivation, life at home and belief in oneself is in perfect harmony, the most likely result from students failing at something is that they will expect to perform similarly on similar tasks in the future. Failure engenders a feeling of incompetence or helplessness in most people.

In Perceiving the Causes of Success or Failure, Weiner states that when one thinks of success or failure, the four factors that come to mind are effort, ability, luck and difficulty. The first two factors, effort and ability are features of the student, whilst the last two are external. 

When the emphasis is on how students are performing, like it is in most schools, the perception of static intelligence is perpetrated throughout the community, usually during conversations between parents and their children, “I was never any good at math,” which in turn becomes a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy which alienates children from the subject area that their parents were no good at. This mindset is the ability mindset, and hints at the fact that no matter how much effort one puts in, they are just not that intelligent when it comes to mathematical thinking.

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve, states that,

“When kids are led to focus on how well they are performing in school, they tend to explain their performances not by how hard they tried but by how smart they are. Research demonstrates that when students who explain how well their doing on the basis of ability, tend to think less deeply and carefully about what they’re learning.”

As an aside, this is my main problem with gamification – the adding of an extrinsic layer is at odds with what makes a learning activity or a game good in the first place. What typically motivates a student/player to gain mastery over a game and spend a great deal of time with it is intrinsic. The reward mechanic of a game or learning activity (leveling up, unlocking an ability or item) is only a small part of what makes it successful. By adding a rewards layar to something in the classroom (badges, experience points – Lee Sheldon, The Mutiplayer Classroom), sometimes the focus then becomes the reward, to the detriment of what you were trying to achieve initially – mastery over content. In a ‘Gamified’ classroom, how many students are just brushing over content superficially in order to ‘level up’ as quickly as possible? Gamification assumes that a player/student isn’t especially motivated to begin with, and then provides incentives to ramp up that motivation – with games it is the opposite – students are motivated to begin with and it is the design of the game that provides motivation, namely that students are always within their zone of proximal development. A consequence of this is that gamification than has the potential to glamorize a poorly designed curriculum, or curriculum that may have been no good to begin with.

The argument or comparison about failure in games and schools is something I have been struggling with. At it’s most basic level it seems too simplistic.

Failure is discouraged at school – in school, typically the process is that students would hand in an essay, project etc. for the teacher to grade. This assessment is summative and depending on the circumstance, one could argue that the student learns very little about the process, irrespective of the depth of feedback obtained from their teacher. The student either fails or they pass. And then they move onto the next topic. Whereas with well-designed games, a culture of informal formative assessment is present, where failure is a form of progression rather than being a sorting mechanism, and the feedback gained in real-time allows the player to adapt and overcome any and all obstacles in front of them.

James Paul Gee often talks about video games creating a psychosocial moratorium – that is a learning space in which the learner can take risks where real-world consequences are lowered. The cost of failure in these environments is not prohibitive, as it is so often in schools. As Gee is one of the definitive scholars in using games for learning, most cite his work and say that school should then be more like a game. And this is where I have difficulty. Think of the most complicated game that has levelling mechanics, maybe World of Warcraft, maybe Skyrim, and apply this process of failure as a form of progression. A player grinds toward the next level up, often fails, but then gains mastery or unlocks a new skill such as the ability to cast a new spell. Relating this to the current state of education; the grind is the process of gaining mastery, whilst the level-up is the point in which one can fluently wield the destructive powers of say, Calculus.

I don’t think I like the comparison. Yes, the structure of the curriculum should allow repeated failures and allow students to go through a process of iteration in relation to their coursework. And yes, as educationalists, I believe that we have much to learn from games designers and can leverage much of what makes games so compelling in our design of engaging curriculum. But something doesn’t sit easy with me when making this comparison between games and school… 

What am I missing?

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