Ever tried. Ever failed. 

Why failure is so important.

“I dont want to fail”, said a teacher in the audience. That reply to a proposal i made during a lecture today sparked a great conversation.

I had the opportunity of again speaking on the topic of games and learning for a group of teachers. Mostly the discussions are quite similar after these lectures, and I have them fairly often. But today I had the opportunity of diving deep into another, more relevant and for me important discussion. But before the new and exciting conversation, as is the case most of times I speak on games and learning, some time had to be spent on the top three issues that pop up.

  1. Games and violence. Luckily the trend is weakening and I reckon not having to discuss this in some years. But there's still someone in an audience that wants to discuss it.
  2. The state of ICT in education. Again, the trend is going in the right direction, but all too slow. Teachers still lack basic technology in many places, they get too little continual teacher training, and there is a general lack of support from the broader educational system.
  3. Games, play and time. The debate on how much time a game takes to play, how this works out in a school context and what to do if you want to use games but don't have time. Now this is still a good and engaging topic, so here I might stay for some minutes with an audience.

Having left these topics behind during the lecture, I engaged the audience on the topic of using Scratch to teach children to program and design games. I extended the conversation into a broader discussion of making, creating and designing in schools, and the benefits thereof. After some time, a teacher raised her voice and said:

I would so much like to start using games in school. I would want to learn my students programming. But it will only take a lesson or two before the majority of the class have surpassed me in skill and knowledge. So I feel afraid and I feel that I will fail at it.

So I told about an adventure I had together with my colleagues and 25 8-12 year old children in the newly found Hacker Club. The principle was simple. Using Raspberry Pi and Scratch, together with a bit of Makey Makey, Arduino and 3D-printing, we let the participants of the Hacker Club explore digital design, game design and rapid prototyping in a fun and engaging way.

In the preparations of the Hacker Club, my colleagues and I quickly came to the same realization as the teacher in the audience had said to me. It would only take a short time before the newly recruited members of the Hacker Club would be better than us, if not using Scratch and programming, at least better at their own projects, designs and concepts. So what to do?

My take on this, and what we did, was to throw away the concept of the expert teacher and the novice students. We designed an educational approach within the Hacker Club based on notions of co-creation and participatory design. A text by Samuel Beckett became the backbone of our educational design:

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

At the start of the Hacker Club, we told the children that it is of the utmost importance to fail, and fail fast. In fact, it is a privilege to fail, as it is a moment of learning. So we asked of all children to tell their fellow Hacker Club members when they failed at something and needed help. We asked of all children to ask at least five other members of the Club before asking one of us organizers. We asked them to start their newly received computers and get going and create a game in three days. Most of them had never used a Raspberry Pi or Scratch. Some had little experience. We gave little or no advice on how to go about, but instead focused on the process at hand.

It took an hour or two to set the culture of failing fast and asking for help. But once in place, the group turned into a self learning, self organizing organism of co-creation and learning. As organizers we handled larger issues such as a complete computer breakdown, network issues, food, and such things. We introduced new themes or knowledge briefly at regular intervals, but kept to the original structure of failing fast and helping eachother much.

Did it work? Yes. All children created their own games. They were demoed during a Culture Festival in Göteborg in August this year and the public got to play the games.

Did we fail? Of course we did. A lot. All the time. All of us. And it was such a joy. We all learned a lot from the whole experience. And best of all, we as organizers got to see a group of cool children grow and experience the sense of creating and making. A great reward after some awesome days, filled of failure.

I do not know what the teacher who asked the question of failure will do with my story of the Hacker Club, but I would hope that she has a go at failing, and thereafter tries not to view what happened as something negative, but instead as a gift to be opened and examined.