Freedom to fail

The previous entry on this blog was about failure not being an option — and I subscribe to that. Failure in an ultimate sense is something we should never choose for ourselves: the universe or some other person may well cause us to fail but we should not elect to fail in a final sense. Nevertheless, failure, and the freedom to fail in the short run without disastrous long-term consequences, is essential to learning. I have taught students with a whole range of abilities and inclinations over the years; there have been some who have been afraid to venture on anything, lest they fail to complete it to some arbitrary standard of perfection. Others tear into the subject with giddy abandon, making mistakes freely and without compunction. Of the two groups, it is invariably the latter that gets the job done. The students in the former group are frozen by fear or reverence for some external standard of excellence or perfection, and they really cannot or will not transcend that fear.

It may seem odd that, while I consider education to be one of the more important activities one can engage in throughout life, it’s actually the model of the game that speaks most directly to what’s going on here. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in a marvelous little book called Homo Ludens, explores the notion of game and gaming in historical cultures. He identifies a number of salient features — but chief among them are two facts: first, that the universe of the game is somehow set apart, a kind of sacred precinct, and, second, that what goes on there does not effectively leave that arena. I think the same can be said of education — and, interestingly, the idea of education as a game is of long standing: the Roman word that most commonly was applied to the school was ludus, which is also the most common word for game or play.

Who doesn’t know at least one student who loves to play games, and who may be remarkably expert in them, but still has difficulty engaging the subjects he or she is nominally studying seriously? In my experience, it’s more the norm than the exception. I’ve heard people decry that fact as a sign of the sorry state into which the world has fallen — but I don’t think that’s all, or even most, of the picture. One of the things that sets games apart from other learning activities is that in a game, one is encouraged, or even required, to try things, in the relative certainty that, at first at least, one is going to make an awful mess of most of them. That’s okay. You get to do it again, and again, and again, if need be.

Within the bounds of the game, one is free to fail. Even there, one should not choose to fail: doing that subverts the game as nothing else ever could. But even if one is trying to win, failure comes easily and frequently, but without serious penalty. The consequence, though, is that students learn quickly enough how not to fail. The idea that one must get everything right the first time is nonsense. The creeping fear that one needs to score 100 on every quiz is nonsense. Even the belief that the highest grade signifies the best education is nonsense. Sure, I have had some students who got extraordinarily high grades and were very engaged with the material; I have had some students who were completely disengaged and got miserable scores. But those are the easy cases, and they are relatively few. The mixed cases are interesting and hard. I’ve had a few who operated the system in order to get good scores, but never really closed with the material. They walked away with a grade — though usually not the best grade — and little else. I wish it were possible to prevent tweaking the system this way, but it often is not. In the end, though, like the student at UCLA Christe recounted in the previous post, they achieved a real failure because they chose it: they sacrificed the substance of their education in order to win a favorable report on the education. It’s a bad trade — yet another instance of the means becoming autonomous.

I have also had other students — probably more of them than in any of the other groups — who thrashed about, and had real difficulty with the material, but kept bashing at it, and wound up making real strides, and in a meaningful sense winning the battle. Christe talked about how a baby learning to walk is taught by the unforgiving nature of gravity. That’s true enough. Gravity is exacting: its rules never waver, and so it may be unforgiving in that regard. It’s also very forgiving in another sense, however. Falling once or even a thousand times doesn’t keep you down or make you more likely to fall the next time. Every time you fall, assuming you haven’t injured yourself critically, you are free to get up again and keep on trying. And perhaps you have learned something this time. If not, give it another go.

Children learning to speak succeed with such amazing speed not in spite of but because of their abundant mistakes. They are forming concepts about the language, and testing and refining them by playing with it so recklessly. A child who learns that “I walked” is a way of putting “I walk” into the past will quite reasonably assume that “I runned” is a way of putting “I run” into the past. This may be local and small-scale setback when it comes to identifying the right verb form for the task: it most definitely is not failure in a larger sense. It’s a triumph. Sure, it’s incorrect English. It is, nevertheless, the vindication of that child’s language-forming capacity, and the ability to abstract general principles from specific instances. He or she will eventually learn about strong verbs. But such engagement with what one wants to say, and such fearlessness in expressing it, is rocket fuel for the mind. The child learns to speak the way a devoted gamer learns a game — through immersion and unquestioning involvement, untainted by the slightest fear of the failure that invariably, repeatedly attends the enterprise.

When I first started teaching Greek I and II online about fifteen years ago, I came up with what seemed to me a rather innovative plan for the final for the course. Over the years since I haven’t altered it much, because of all the things I’ve ever done as a teacher, it seems to have been one of the most successful. Though in recent years Sarah Miller Esposito has taken Greek I and II over from me, I believe that she’s still doing roughly the same thing, too. I set the final up as a huge, exhaustive survey of virtually everthing covered in the course — especially the mechanical things. All the declensions, all the conjugations, all the pronoun forms, and so on, became part of that final exam. It took many hours to complete. I eventually even gave up having other exams throughout the year. Everything (in terms of grade) could hang from the final.

Everything for a year depending on a final? For a high school student? This sounds like a nightmare. I’ve had parents balk and complain — but seldom students: not when they’ve been through it and seen the results. Here’s the trick: the student was allowed to take that exam throughout the summer, as many times as he or she wanted. It could be taken with the book in the lap, with an answer sheet propped up next to the computer; students could discuss the contents with one another, or ask me for answers (though they seldom needed to: I put the number of the relevant section in the book next to each question). The results of each pass could be reviewed, and each section could be retaken as many times as desired. The only requirement was this — the last time any given section of the exam (I think there are eighteen sections, some of them worth several hundred points each) was taken, it had to be taken under exam conditions: closed book, with no outside sources. The final version had to come in by Sept. 1. Students were free to complete it at any point prior: most of them didn’t. Why should they? They were playing the game, and improving their scores. They actually rather liked it. Especially after I was able to get these exam segments running under the Moodle, so that scoring was instantaneous and painless (frankly there’s little that’s as excruciating for a teacher to grade by hand as accented polytonic Greek), they did it a lot. They’d take each segment four, five, perhaps even ten times.

The results of this were, from a statistical point of view, probably ridiculous. It tended to produce a spread of scores ranging from a low of about 98.3 to a high of about 99.9. Nobody left without an A. “What kind of grade inflation is this?” one might ask. But the simple (and exhilarating) fact was that they all came back to class in the fall ready to perform like A students. They had the material down cold — and they hadn’t forgotten it all over the summer either. This is not just my own assessment: they went on to win national competitions, and to gain admission to some of the most prestigious universities in the country — where at least some of them tested into upper division classics courses right away. If that’s grade inflation, so be it. I like to think rather that it’s education inflation. We could use a little more of that. I don’t really take credit for it myself — it’s not that I was such a brilliant teacher. I’m not even primarily a Hellenist — I’m a Latinist. But I credit the fact that they became engaged with it as if with a game.

We live in a society with a remarkably strong gaming culture; but most historical societies have had the same thing. We have surviving games from Egypt and Greece and Rome; chess comes from ancient India and Persia, and go (probably the only game to match chess for complexity from simplicity) from ancient China and Japan. We have ancient African games, and ancient Native American games. Today the videogame industry is a multibillion dollar affair. Board games, card games, sporting equipment, and every other form of game equipment is marketed and consumed with a rare zeal. These products find buyers even in a downturn economy, because they appeal to something very fundamental about who we are. Even while the educational establishment seems to be ever more involved in protecting the fragile ego and self-image of the learner, our games don’t tell us pretty lies. They don’t tell us that we’ll win every time. They tell us we’ll fail and have to keep trying if we want to win. I really think that people savor that honesty, and that the lesson to be learned from it is enormously significant.

I know that there are a lot of things that people have had to say against games, and certainly an undue or inappropriate preoccupation with them may not be a good thing. Nevertheless, they are genuine part of our God-given nature, and they form, I would argue, one of our most robust models for learning. In games we are free to fail: and that freedom fosters the ability to learn, which is ultimately the legitimate freedom to win. If we can extract any lesson from our games, and perhaps apply it more broadly to the sphere of learning, I think we all will benefit.

3 Responses to “Freedom to fail”

  1. "The Hellenist" says:

    Thanks for the series of posts you’ve had on learning. I’ve lately been worrying about grades as the time to send in college applications comes ever closer. Being reminded by both you, Dr. C, and my parents that grades don’t necessarily reflect true learning has helped a lot. If some colleges decide that I don’t look good enough for them because my GPA isn’t 4.0, then so be it. I’ll have fun learning somewhere else.

    (Oh, and Mrs. Esposito did have that exam when I took Greek I with her four years ago. It was really fun to take. ^_^)

  2. An additional issue is that video games are usually serious as the name indicated with the key focus on understanding rather than leisure. Although, there is an entertainment part to keep your children engaged, each and every game is normally designed to develop a specific experience or course, such as instructional math or scientific discipline. Thanks for your article.

  3. [...] but really to know Latin and Greek, see here and here. On allowing the student freedom to fail, see here. On grades, see here.) Education should be — and arguably can only be — about learning, not [...]

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