I can’t play because I might lose

There is one problem with making learning into a game–you might lose.  As you were thinking about the stories and examples given in the readings for this week about getting people engaged in learning using 21st century tools or creative games, did you notice all of the failures and near-failures?

  • Douglas Thomas, who created a class around a video game, felt like he lost control of his class, that it was a waste of time and anticipated students not learning what he wanted them to learn (Book by Thomas and Brown)
  • The history game, Reacting to the Past, would have failed if the class wasn’t willing to meet earlier each day, because the game exceeded the time and plan the professor had (Article by Mark Carnes)
  • Students in Jean Lacoste’s class could have abused the flexible deadlines and freedom of choice in how to engage with the materials (Reading on canvas)
  • What if the children building computer models or patients on the diabetes discussion boards were misled by incorrect information? What if they didn’t get that one piece of critical information they needed? (Thomas and Brown)

Playing games is different from what is defined as learning now; because games involve risk and uncertainty while the standardized, model of higher education we use now has defined right and wrong answers and expected outcomes (pass or fail). When you play games there is a very real change that you will lose.

Faculty who try new things in their teaching, like games, face many real and perceived risk; many ways to lose.  The game or idea you worked on may not work or accomplish the learning objectives that you had hoped.  Then, you will have wasted precious time that could have been spent on other things, like a lecture that at least would have appeared to be a good use of teaching time or maybe finished the paper you’ve been working on forever.  Your students will respond negatively on evaluations, not be prepared with knowledge and skills they will need in the future and will leave the class with a bad taste in their mouth for your subject. And then, when it comes time for tenure evaluation, how well will you do with a failed teaching experiment, disgruntled students and 3 fewer paper than you had hoped to publish? Not to mention the subtle (or not so subtle) “I told you so” from your colleagues and supervisors, that you should have just given lectures and exams.  No, there is nothing to lose when you take a risk and try something new in your teaching.

Failure, or at least the possibility of mistake and revision, was a key component in many of the stories of learning we read this week. And it was this failure or big, unanswerable question that led to real, life-long learning and genuine enjoyment for the learners. But as a teacher, I don’t feel like I have the room for failure, reflection, revision and correction in my teaching practice, or even in my subject knowledge. I feel a large amount of pressure to make sure that everything I say in class is correct. I feel like any new ideas for how to teach need to work exactly right.  I am inspired by creative ways people have engaged their students in their classes and would love to try them myself but then worry if I would be asking too much of my students.  What would I do if they failed at the task I gave them?

This is where I should give you helpful, positive, concise answer to the questions I have raised.  I said should, because this is not where you will find it.  I don’t know what the answer is and it irritates me to leave this post with such an unresolved conclusion.  But I am embracing it, because maybe learning to “lose” is the way to start learning better…








6 thoughts on “I can’t play because I might lose”

  1. Oh my. I identify so much with your feelings in this post. I totally understand what it feels like to want to try some new idea, new method of teaching, new activity, but worry that it will be a complete flop, that the students won’t learn anything, and that they’ll think I’m a fraud of some kid. Failure is a frightening thing, and I’ve never dealt well with it.
    The topic of failure leads me to thinking about the concept of grades, the A-F system, which basically is the idea of try and succed=good for you OR try and fail=better luck next time. The system doesn’t encourage failure, and failing and retrying is a great way to learn–as we saw with Baby George in the TED Talk.

  2. For the students, gamified education is a chance for better engagement and motivation and is worth a try. For the teachers, yes, not everything feels right to me as well when I read about gaming in education. Things might get out of control, and embedding knowledge in game designs are very time-consuming. I suppose that the field of gamification in education needs more theoretical and guiding framework for the teachers and more practical studies to summarize what works and what not. Or maybe we can try with a smaller piece, i.e. to set up a game module only for 1 week and see how it goes.

  3. So many touchstones here, Bethany! I really understand the fear of failure — which actually overstates the case. As teachers we’re not just supposed to not fail, we’re supposed to be as perfect as possible. (We’re supposed to be experts, and authorities, right?) And of course that’s a) impossible and b) not even very desirable if your goal is to help students construct their own meaning from the world and the experiences you are sharing with them. If we shift the focus away from what we as teachers “should do” and “know” in favor of helping students discover and construct meaning and knowledge that is theirs (vs. something we’ve “delivered” to them”) it empowers the whole learning community. I’ve been reading the comments you’ve made on other people’s posts and they’ve been so hopeful and helpful. Now we need to get you to take your own advice – because it’s great!

  4. So I have one question (only one today) – why can’t students fail? If we give them a task and they fail…then what? I think the real question I want answered is that if they fail, will they be curious enough to look for the right answer?! In my field, we really stress not wanting to be correct, or know an absolute, or speak an absolute actually because one thing that may be true in one situation, may not be true in another…it all depends on context. So I’m taking a more birds eye view of your post and posing my curiosity to you.

    1. Exactly! This is one of the issues I thought about and didn’t explicitly write about in my post. I work in a field that is very applied, yet we do not have the same attitude, at least amount students and teachers. I would hope that my students would be curious about why they failed and that would motivate them to investigate more, but I think this is only true for a small number of students. One of the big (but not impossible) hurdles for me to introduce a game-like learning experience into my teaching is to change the student perception of failing, so that they don’t just quit when they get it wrong. What is interesting is that if you talk with faculty in my field, they would say that they believe that failure is an important part of learning but the way we structure our classes and assessments, doesn’t back up what they say.

      What ways do you, in your field, encourage students to keep trying after they fail? Is it just something that is said in class by the teachers and TAs or is it part of the class?

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