This past Sunday the New York Times magazine section was devoted to education, and especially to education and technology. I was especially intrigued by the article on a middle school where game design is part of the curriculum—not so much because of the curriculum itself as one of the rationales behind it, which is the concept of “failure-based learning.” According to Will Wright, creator of the Sims franchise and of Spore (both games that actually do live in my house), “failure-based learning” takes place in games (and, presumably, other venues) “in which failure is brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary.”
That makes sense to me. My own failure-based learning has been in the kitchen, most often, but it also takes place in knitting. I make a lot of mistakes when I cook, bake, or knit, but they are mistakes that usually aren’t insurmountable and that I can learn from. Unknitting, adding more spices, or scrapping the burnt dish and starting over are all relatively easy—and not at all scary—ways to surmount my frequent failures of domesticity. Recently, for example, I baked a really bad cake. I’m not kidding. I’m generally a pretty good baker, and this cake looked as if it would work, but something somewhere really didn’t. My daughter gamely ate a piece, calling it “interesting,” but my son — lover of all sweet things — flatly refused after one bite. And I sympathized with him.
It was a chocolate cake in which a central ingredient was beets. (I know, I know, you’re all wondering why I even made it! But bear with me…) I know beets aren’t typically thought of as a dessert item, but it seemed as if the beets would operate in this cake much as the carrots in carrot cake or the zucchini in zucchini bread — a source of both nutrients and moisture that would innocuously fade into the background of a flavorful cake. But I used too many beets, and (in an ill-fated attempt to up the nutritional profile of the cake) I also subbed in some buckwheat flour where I should have just stuck with all-purpose.
The cake wasn’t inedible, it was just — odd. Distinctly beet-y, and awfully dense.
I could have just chalked it up to experience and let it go, but I was determined to make this cake work. So I tried again last night with several new recipes, some cooked beets (the first ones were raw), and plenty of all-purpose flour. I experimented with proportions that were slightly different than any of the recipes I had found, and I came out with a great, rich, moist chocolate cake. Lesson learned.
So how can I translate this kind of “failure-based learning” to the classroom? I want my students to take risks, to experiment without fear of a failure that will somehow jeopardize their final grade. Too often I think our students “play it safe,” doing what’s expected, what falls within the norm, rather than take a risk that, while it could succeed spectacularly, could also fail miserably. But what if I don’t grade their writing until the very end? That would mean they could try out all kinds of new techniques all the way along and not be punished—but they also wouldn’t be rewarded for their good work in those assignments if they just happen to have a bad day right at the end. And there might be problems with motivation—would they even do the work if it wasn’t being graded? Or could I design a game to “test” their knowledge of the material, but have them keep working at it until they “beat” the game? I’m not sure how that would work with a writing-intensive class, but I’m certainly more than willing to give them ample opportunity to rewrite papers, if that counts. And it’s not just the low-risk failure that we need to build in here, I think: there’s also the sense of play. Baking, after all, is fun for me even if the product isn’t the best; I like being in my kitchen, stirring ingredients together, tasting along the way — so even if I “fail,” I really don’t. Can classroom time be playful and meaningful at the same time? Can it if you know you’re receiving a grade for participation?
I don’t have answers right now, just questions. But I think the game designers are on to something here, and I want to figure out how to tap into it — and still cover the material. Too bad I’m not teaching home ec—I’ve got plenty of experience with failure there, and I’d be happy to share it.