Four big screens dominate the front of the room, and it’s a large room, packed with round tables surrounded by intense conversation. The screens hold images from the presentation by David Warlick (http://davidwarlick.com/twocents) on the middle screens, and the side screens are filled with lines of text each bulleted with a photo. The lines of text are individual comments from the participants posted on Twitter to #sd36learn during the presentation as responses to Mr. Warlick’s ideas, observations and questions. Mr. Warlick challenged our group with ideas about how the new media that surrounds us is changing us, and what these changes mean in education.
One particular idea stuck with me. David referred to the failure of plans from the previous decade to use video games as a means of teaching. But then he turned to discussing the educational mode of video games, and here’s where things got interesting. In video games, the mode of learning is failure. No one reads the manual on a game and then follows it precisely in order to get through the first time. Instead, you learn the basic controls, and then try it out. The first time through, your character usually dies quite quickly. But with each subsequent play of the game, you develop knowledge and skill in the game environment that allows you to play more successfully, until you reach the goals that the game sets. Thus, having the freedom to fail without real life consequences produces success.
So what if we turn this idea to education? School has sometimes been a place where students do not have the freedom to fail. Every assignment counts. There is pressure to succeed all the time. If you don’t know the right answer, you don’t put your hand up. The result is an environment where students don’t relax enough to learn enough. Students ask, “Will this be on the test?” because school has taught them that the test is what matters, rather than the experience of learning. Of course, as teachers this is not what we want. Most of us are teachers because we enjoy learning ourselves, and we want to share that enjoyment. So here, one of the ways to bring the joy of learning into the classroom is to design learning experiences where failure is not just accepted, it’s expected.
The assessments still matter, and excellence matters still more. We need to know definitively what the students have learned. Students need the confidence gained from succeeding on rigorous evaluations. But the process matters too. 21st century skills such as creativity and critical thinking are developed when the learning experiences allow more than one right answer and reward risk taking rather than discourage it. If we teach students that there some learning processes in school that accept failure without the risk of embarrassment or academic consequence, then students may learn to relax and enjoy learning a little more. Better still, they may actually learn more when the system accepts risk taking as well as demonstrated knowledge. After all, we can’t develop a workforce and citizenry that can take risks and think creatively unless we give them the chance to practice.