The Power of Failure – Gamification Principles, Part One

In my last post about the true meaning of the term “gamification,” I wanted to make it clear that teachers do not have to use actual games to “gamify” lessons. Instead, it’s about using the methodologies of video games to motivate learners and lay groundwork for a “mastery learning” approach.

One of the most powerful methodologies of games that I identified was the importance of providing a safe space in which students can fail. In games, as in life, failure is an essential part of the “learning curve.” If we all could master something new the first time we tried it, then we wouldn’t need repetition and practice. The reality is that FAILURE is the most essential part of learning.

The Power of Failure in Science

I was a natural-born scientist. I always wanted to know what made the world around me work and was thrilled to learn about it. However, one thing I didn’t recognize during my education was how valuable the scientific perspective was to my learning process. You see, FAILURE is a critical part of the profession. The entire scientific process goes like this:

  1. Observe the world around you (data)
  2. Ask a question about how that data works (hypothesis)
  3. Design a way to test your question (experiment)
  4. Examine the results of your test (analysis)
  5. Share what you’ve learned (publication)

There is nothing in that process that says “Prove your hypothesis correct.” In fact, as a scientist you will prove your hypothesis wrong or off-target about 99% of the time. In other words, you set yourself up for FAILURE over and over again. Only the profession doesn’t view it as a failure. Instead it is setting a course toward an answer and making corrections each time that you gain new information.

What that attitude toward failure does is make one curious, persistent, and most importantly, resilient.

Implications for the Classroom

The most powerful experiences of “success” that a student can have must first derive from powerful experiences of FAILURE. What must be done to encourage students to embrace the power of their failures along the way includes:

  1. Treat the word itself like it’s a good thing – remove the stigma. This tweet shows how one organization uses “First Attempt in Learning” as their acronym for “fail.
  2. Give examples of “successes” who have failed many times first. There are literally thousands of famous people who’ve turned failure into success.
  3. Allow many opportunities for “safe” failure. Even if work turned in by a student has already been graded and critiqued, perhaps another chance can be given to the student to improve upon it or learn from it.


English Language Arts Example

If a student has turned in a paper and you’ve graded or critiqued it, you may then ask the student how she would have graded or critiqued it herself. This doesn’t mean she has to re-do the work or take all of your critiques. Instead she just has to consider how she would have graded her own work and why. This process of going back at the same goal a second time with more information and an emphasis on self-correction will allow her to better understand how grading and critique work, and to better critique her own work in the future. If she shows real insights into how she could improve, that should improve her overall critique.

This also gives her the sense that learning is not about taking one pass at a goal and mourning how badly you miss it…it’s about taking the information from the “miss” and using that to go back at the goal again.

Mathematics Example

You might say, “Well, they already engage in practice and repetition, isn’t that the same thing?” Yes and no. The important thing is that students are aware that getting things “wrong” is always a step toward getting things “right.”

For example, when a student solves an algebraic equation incorrectly, rather than simply marking it wrong and scribbling in how to do it right, a more informative response would be to ask him why he thought to do it the way he did. This helps him to examine his own thought process. Maybe he got it wrong because he was rushing and simply didn’t take care when writing down signs/variables. Maybe he got it wrong because he misunderstood the order of operations. Maybe he got it wrong because he’s never really understood the principle behind the equation. Those are VERY different reasons for an incorrect answer and each would help you and the student determine the right path to trying again.

That’s the “power” in the failure, and it’s also the “safety” in it.

If a student sees a challenging critique or incorrect answer as a BEGINNING – an impetus for more and better questions – rather than an ending, it will change his perspective on the process of learning.

And that is the reason why this is “Part One” of the “Principles of Gamification.” The reason that people play games persistently and with resilience to failure, is because they only see failure as part of the learning process that will eventually lead them to accomplish their goal within the game.

FAILURE – It’s a winning approach in games, in school and in life!

Leave a reply