Fun Failure: How to Make Learning Irresistible

Failure is a positive act of creativity,” Katie Salen said. Scientists, artists, engineers, and even entrepreneurs know this as adults. But in schools, the notion of failure is complicated.

Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play and founder of Quest to Learn, the first public school based on the principles of game design in the U.S., explained how failure can be a motivating agent for learning in her presentation at SXSW.

Any practice – athletic, artistic, even social – involves repeatedly failing till one gets the experience or activity right. We need to “keep the challenge constant so players are able to fail and try again,” she said. “It’s hard and it leads to something rewarding.”

Game designer Jane McGonigal makes a similar point. She dedicates an entire chapter in her book Reality Is Broken to “fun failure” and why it makes us happy. When we’re playing a well-designed game, failure doesn’t disappoint us. It makes us happy in a very particular way; excited, interested, and most of all optimistic, Salen said. “Fun failure” even makes us more resilient, which keeps us emotionally safe.

But the opposite is true in school, Salen said. School usually gives students one chance to get something right; failing grades work against practice, mastery, and creativity. To keep kids motivated, learning needs to be irresistible, Salen said.

Over the past year, Salen went on a “listening tour,” interviewing game designers at Media Molecule, Valve, and Blizzard Entertainment. Here’s what she learned in terms of gaming principles that can be applied to education:

•Don’t shoot the player while she’s learning. Too much drama, too nerve-wracking or scary an environment makes it hard for participants to learn. Students need space to think, look around, process, and reflect.

•Learning is social. Problem-solving is increasingly collaborative. Salen heard a Media Molecule designer explain how much players’ own interactions, often more than the design, adds to the experience. Players, like students, can bring ideas to the process that designers don’t even think of. Will Wright, designer of The Sims and Spore, says he designs communities, not games. “We need to design a classroom as a community in which the participants’ knowledge is valued and the exchange of their own expertise is valued,” Salen said. “Most challenges in school today only deal with individual problem-solving. Tests don’t reward collaborative problem-solving. Sharing is often seen as cheating,” while collaborating in cross-functional teams is what’s needed more and more in a complex world.

•A strong sense of community creates safety. Open up space for students (players) to interact with one another, a space for which you’ve created 1) a need to know, 2) a need to share what they know, and 3) the infrastructure for that sharing. “Sharing should feel like a gift,” Salen said. Let players/students participate in the designing too. In participatory learning, like open-source code writing, the design keeps getting better.

•Learning that empowers the learner helps make it irresistible. Mark Healey at Little Big Planets told Salen that empowering a player to do something feels like a “force flows through your veins like you can change the world around you.” When we can design learning experiences that feel like that, we make learning irresistible.

Learning in the internet era

Future of Learning

If examinations challenge learners to solve problems the way they are solved in real life today, the educational system will change forever. It is a small policy change that is required. Allow the use of the internet and collaboration during an examination.

If we did that to exams, the curriculum would have to be different. We would not need to emphasise facts or figures or dates. The curriculum would have to become questions that have strange and interesting answers. “Where did language come from?,” “Why were the pyramids built?,” “Is life on Earth sustainable?,” “What is the purpose of theatre?”  Questions that engage learners in a world of unknowns. Questions that will occupy their minds through their waking hours and sometimes their dreams.

Teaching in an environment where the internet and discussion are allowed in exams would be different. The ability to find things out quickly and accurately would become the predominant skill. The ability to discriminate between alternatives, then put facts together to solve problems would be critical. That’s a skill that future employers would admire immensely.

In this kind of self-organised learning, we don’t need the same teachers all the time. Any teacher can cause any kind of learning to emerge. …

We don’t need to improve schools. We need to reinvent them for our times, our requirements and our future. We don’t need efficient clerks to fuel an administrative machine that is no longer needed. Machines will do that for us. We need people who can think divergently, across outdated “disciplines,” connecting ideas across the entire mass of humanity. We need people who can think like children.

The Future of Education

From the cell phone alarm that wakes them to the tablets used to chat with friends and complete homework, today’s students are surrounded by computer technology. It is ubiquitous, and critical to daily routines. Yet few understand how technology works, even as it becomes ever more intrinsic to how we solve business and community challenges.

Today, computer science helps retailers determine how to grow sales, and it ensures that law enforcement officers are in the right places to maintain public safety. It is the foundation for the smart grid, and it fuels personalized medicine initiatives that optimize outcomes and minimize treatment side effects. Computing algorithms help organizations in all industries solve problems in new and more effective ways.

Inseparable From The Future of Education

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs. However, between current professionals and university students, we will only have 400,000 computer scientists trained to fill those roles.

Since it can take as many as 25 years to create a computer scientist, and since computer science skills are becoming increasingly integral for jobs in all industries, this skills gap is on track to emerge as a formidable economic, security, and social justice challenge in the next few years. Teachers, schools, parents, and industry must act on multiple fronts to address student readiness, expand access to computer science curriculum and opportunities, and help foster interest in computer science to ensure that it becomes a core component of every child’s education.

Tackling The Challenges

Even though computer science skills are becoming increasingly important in the competitive global economy, there are some significant roadblocks that prevent schools from incorporating computer science into the curriculum and exposing more students to the subject.

Currently, very few schools make computer science available to students. This lack of course offerings is compounded by the fact that there is a significant lack of teachers who are qualified to engage students in computer science — those who have a deep knowledge of the topic often take jobs in industry — and a lack of student interest in taking these advanced courses, at least partly due to a misconception that computing experts are boring, male, and always in front of their computers.

Overall student engagement numbers are low even relative to other STEM fields, and female and minority students in particular are vastly under-represented in existing computer science courses.

This stunts the expansion of computer science, and prevent students from gaining the basic technology literacy that will be imperative for future workers in all fields. Communities, schools, and industry must work together to integrate computer science in schools from a young age to help both encourage diversity in technology-related fields and ensure that students of all ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds have the opportunity to learn these skills.

5 Steps To Take Action Now

While a comprehensive, long-term plan is needed to incorporate computer science education in all schools and to ensure that students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, there are five simple steps that teachers, schools, parents, and industry can take today to integrate computer science into classrooms and begin to overcome the above-mentioned challenges:

1. Professional Development

Teachers can register for online or in-person teacher training courses to learn how to teach a computer science curriculum or integrate basic computer science principles into existing lesson plans.

2. Career Education

Parents, teachers, and schools can educate students about the career opportunities available to those who get computer science degrees. While it could mean working for technology giants like Apple and Oracle, students can also use computer science skills to advance healthcare research or help a non-profit build a case for government funding.

3. Student Incentives

Teachers can offer students extra credit for using free online learning tools to develop basic computer science skills and create a project.

4. Mentor Programs

Industry and schools can formalize a mentorship program that will encourage and support students to learn more about computer science and develop their skills inside and outside the classroom — via after-school programs or co-taught lessons.

5. Coding for Kids

Parents can help kids develop confidence in their problem-solving abilities and explore computer science in action in their lives and communities with age-appropriate coding apps such as Scratch for younger children or MakeGamesWithUs for high school students.

Inseparable From The Future of Our Society

Students, parents, educators, and industry all have a vested interest in better integrating computer science into the K-12 experience. Our economic stability and national security depend on a population with solid computer science skills and coding literacy. As such, the future of education must focus on making computer science an integral part of every child’s education to ensure that students of all genders and backgrounds have a chance to pursue these opportunities.

Relaxation is Good For Your Mind

Find yourself flooded by to-do lists that never end? Too busy to even indulge in your hobbies? Maybe it is time to take a step back and have a look at your life. Is it all work and no play?

Life is not all about work and not having time to relax. In fact, overworking can cause undue stress, which can result in physical and health problems such as heart disease and depression.

Relaxation rejuvenates your mind and body, so set aside time to do something that you like and enjoy. Making time to relax energises your mind and body.

Furthermore, after a fun and rejuvenating break, you will feel refreshed and be ready to take on any challenges at work. So it does pay to have fun!

Relaxing is not a treat, but something that you need to set aside time to do regularly!

Take that holiday escapade

It is time to put words into action, and take that vacation that you have been wanting to take, but never gotten around to doing so.

  • One day or one month, it is still a vacation

    You can take a week and set off to explore a new city, or go on a weekend getaway to a nearby island resort. Even a short Sunday picnic at the beach with friends and family will help you tremendously to unwind and relax.

  • Make sure your vacation is work-free

    Before you take off for your escapade, be sure to plan well in advance. Finish up whatever work that you can, delegate your responsibilities and arrange for colleagues to cover your duties at work. With that, you can enjoy your break in peace.

  • Force yourself to stop thinking about work while on vacation

    As long as your plans are in place, you have nothing to worry about and should be able to enjoy your vacation to the fullest!

Manage your time

A common complaint is that we just simply cannot find time outside of work to relax and have fun. More often than not, it is just a case of poor time management.

  • Do not procrastinate

    It is important to prioritise your tasks, and finish the most important things first. Do not put off doing something because more work will soon pile up.

  • Keep track of how you spend your time

    Create an activity log over several days and identify where you waste the most time. It could be time spent going through your spam e-mails or aimlessly browsing online. Rectify that, and soon you will find that you have a little more time each day for yourself.

  • Plan out your activities

    Always block out time for personal relaxation first before jotting down all other obligations and appointments in your calendar.

The little things in life

Sometimes relaxation is not just about taking that long-awaited vacation. All you need is just a few minutes a day to enjoy the little things that will brighten up your day.

You will be amazed at how much difference something as small as listening to your favourite music will help uplift your spirits and enrich your life.

Or you can start now by taking a few minutes off, sit back, let your mind wander, and relax. All you need is just that little extra rest to inject the freshness back into your life.

Motivation: Reflecting On What To Do When It’s Not There

The issue of how to motivate students is an essential one for educators and parents to explore and one that’s core to the success of our children. We all know that if students aren’t motivated, their journeys will be long and hard. As with so much, sometimes if we start with ourselves — with reflecting on our own issues with motivation — we can gain useful insights. I hope to offer some thoughts that may provoke personal reflection and suggest strategies for helping kids to gain motivation.

This blog is inspired by my own lack of motivation right now to write this. This blog is (right now) overdue and I’ve procrastinated long enough. As I lie on my deck this morning contemplating my lack of motivation and mounting guilt that it isn’t done, I start remembering how many times as a student I didn’t want to write something, or how many times as a teacher, I felt no motivation to lesson plan or grade papers. “I’m just not feeling motivated,” I kept thinking, and then a more useful thought came into my mind: “It doesn’t matter. Get it done.”

That’s Lesson Number One that I wish I knew as a student: Sometimes you aren’t going to be motivated but do it anyway — such a simple lesson that has propelled me into action. Maybe motivation is overrated. Maybe in order to be successful we don’t really need a whole lot of it.

Really it’s just a shift in perspective: I’m not feeling motivated to write right now. I’m just returning from vacation where I devoured mystery novels, (I’m halfway through one now and it’s calling to me to finish it), I hiked and hung out with my husband and son, slept a lot, and worked diligently on my “Play PD.” I’ve started a photography course and a sketchbook class and I’m honoring my commitments to myself to play and create and relax. And then there’s this blog — and other things I’ve got to do.

Here’s the shift in perspective: I’m not particularly motivated to write right now, but I am motivated to honour my commitments (such as this blog). I’m motivated to get it done. And when I say that, I feel a little jolt of energy. Let’s do it.

I learned this a long time ago (I just forget it a lot). Some might call what I think I’ve learned “time management,” or “discipline,” or something to do with motivation. I call it, “getting things done.” As a writer, and someone with a full time job and family, I learned that I might not often feel super motivated to write, the muse is often nowhere to be found and sometimes I might even hate writing. But I do it anyway. I show up, close down my Internet browsers (deadly distractions) and I put my fingers on the keys and I write. I also set a timer for 45-minute blocks and during that time I don’t allow myself to get up or do anything other than what I’m supposed to do. After the time is up, I can have a 15-minute break and then I’m on for another 45. That’s how I get things done.

Sometimes I think that in schools we focus too much on building intrinsic motivation for learning, or we’re working too hard at it. Learning is rewarding and we’re all going to feel a certain amount of motivation and reward in different content areas and with different tasks. Sometimes I think it would be useful if teachers helped kids find motivation in getting something done. In balance, of course — I’m vehemently opposed to all learning being about memorization or rote learning or just getting things done. But sometimes you need your students to just write a persuasive essay and maybe it’s not something they really care much about but they could be motivated to just do it. Add it to the list of things they know how to do and that they’ve done. And if they can do it in a reasonable amount of time, and the quality is decent, then that’s fantastic.

Another thing I know about getting things done (Lesson Number Two): They don’t always have to be done really well. I am grateful that I’ve never been plagued by perfectionism. If I’m tasked with doing something for which I struggle to feel motivated then I’m quite satisfied if the outcome is satisfactory or decent. If it’s something I pour my heart and soul into, then I hope the outcome is really good. But I’m the judge of this; I evaluate my own input and product. I don’t get caught up on “Is it perfect?” I ask myself, “Is this good enough, right now, given what you’ve invested?” And usually the answer is “Yes.”  And so, if this blog isn’t amongst the best I’ve ever written, I’m okay with that. Sometimes you just got to get something done.

This is liberating, this idea. You don’t always have to feel inundated with creative juices and motivation. You just have to honour your commitments to yourself and others. Agonizing over what you have to do and how you don’t want to do it and how you just want to wait until you feel motivated is a waste of time and energy. Just do it. Set a timer, think about how great it’ll feel when you’re done, and do it.

And with that, I’m done! And I feel good! And now I can return to my mystery novel and enjoy!

The Difference Between Praise and Feedback

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Parenting these days is patrolled by the language police. Sometimes it seems like the worst thing you could ever say to a kid is “Good job!” or the dreaded, “Good girl!”  Widely popularized psychological research warns about the “inverse power of praise” and the importance of “unconditional parenting.” The incorrectly phrased, indiscriminately doled out pat on the back can, we learn, undermine a child’s inner motivation to learn and achieve, promote a “fixed mindset” that will cause her to shrink from taking on any kind of challenge or effort, and maybe even destroy her sense of self worth.

The anxiety is such that parenting blogs circulate actual word-for-word scripts for parents to use in such difficult situations as the sidelines of a swim meet, or after a music recital. There are long lists of forbidden words and phrases, too.

What are these researchers really getting at? Are the particular words we use to talk to our kids so important? And how do we convey positive feelings without negative consequences?

Process Praise

Some of the most prominent psychologists behind all of this talk about talking are Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, and Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, whose research the education author Alfie Kohn relies heavily on in his books including Unconditional Parenting. Both Dweck and Deci are theorists of human motivation, but they emphasize very different perspectives on praise.

Dweck’s studies have focused on the effects of “process praise,” which means praising effort or strategy: “You must have worked very hard on this painting!” This is opposed to “person praise,” which labels people with phrases like, “You are really good at painting!” “You must be a genius!”

The idea is that reinforcing effort contributes to children’s beliefs that they can get better at things if they try, the vaunted “growth mindset.” But praising traits feeds the belief that talent is fixed, which makes kids less willing to take on new challenges that might expose them as less naturally able.

Most of Dweck’s research has focused on process praise given by strange adults interacting with children in a research study environment. But in a recent study, her team coded videotapes of parents praising their one to three-year-old children. They found that the greater use of process praise with these very young children predicted their later desire to take on new challenges, which in turn influenced these children’s math achievement seven years later, in fourth grade.

“Kids are thrilled by the idea that they can grow their brains through their effort and strategy,” Dweck says. “Praising strategy and focus and improvement gives them actionable information and a reason to try hard.”

Praise and Personhood

Simple, right? Not so fast. Writers such as Kohn have condemned all praise, including Dweck’s “process praise,” as little more than “sugar-coated control.”

The idea is that parental praise is manipulative, intrusive, and undermines both children’s intrinsic enjoyment of what they’re doing and their own internal sense of whether they are, in fact, doing a good job or trying hard.

Kohn cites Deci and Richard Ryan, and their colleagues including Guy Roth and Avi Assor at the University of the Negev in Israel. All of them have found in a series of studies that when parents express any kind of “conditional regard,” it harms young people’s developing autonomy, causing them to feel pressured to achieve, to feel shame if they don’t, and to suppress negative emotions and experiences. Conditional regard includes positive reinforcement, the practice of offering praise in exchange for desired behavior.

“If you tell your kids, ‘You’re a good boy for taking out the trash,’” they may feel that if they don’t take out the trash, they’re not worthy of your love,” says Deci. “You need to express that you love them and approve of them no matter what they do.”

Verbal rewards are a pretty central weapon in the parenting arsenal, especially when it comes to academic achievement. Deci and his colleagues found that offering your warmth and approval in exchange for academic achievement does work, in the sense that it causes young people to be more invested in trying to do well in school. But it’s a devil’s bargain that backfires emotionally in the form of “maladaptive self feelings.”

The controversial recent book The Triple Package, coauthored by “tiger mom” Amy Chua, purported to explain why certain ethnic groups tend to outperform others in education, occupational status and earnings. Two of the three traits the authors describe are a superiority complex accompanied by insecurity—a pretty good description of what researchers say can be the outcome of too much conditional parental positive regard.

Praise VS Feedback

Parents are not perfectly controlled Siri-like bots but human beings with positive and negative emotions that are going to arise in response to specific actions by children. So is there any way to channel and communicate your sincere feelings to your kids without doing lasting harm? Surprisingly, despite their differing views on praise, Dweck and Deci tend to agree on the right course of action.

When I ask Dweck about the “sugar-coated control” idea, she says, “I basically agree that we overpraise.” Her intention in talking about process praise is to redirect this impulse more constructively. Instead of mindlessly kvelling over every finger painting or math test — or even just telling kids to “try hard!” — her recommendation is to get more involved with what a kid is doing. “Appreciate it. Ask questions. If we see that a child is using interesting strategies we can ask about them. Talk to them about their thought processes, how they can learn from mistakes.” Encourage your child to actively seek both positive and negative feedback in order to grow and improve.

Deci says something similar. In addition to assuring children of your continuous love and regard, “You want to understand what your child is thinking and feeling, to be respectful toward them. Asking questions is a far better idea than giving praise”—or criticism for that matter.  The idea is to support the development of a child’s autonomy by taking his perspective.

If you’re on the sidelines at a soccer game, it’s easy to pull out some pre-scripted phrase like “I love to watch you play!” or “You’re a natural!” It’s harder to watch your kid so you can tell her, “When you made that pass in the second quarter, I could see that you’ve been practicing your footwork a lot,” or to take the time to ask, “What was your favourite part of the game?” and really listen to the answer.

Providing helpful, detailed, encouraging feedback and appreciation requires paying attention to what kids are doing, and listening to what they are saying. This takes time and energy. Dweck says what she sees all too often are time-pressured parents who reach for a quick sugar fix instead. “We are a praise-addicted culture. I don’t think parents are going to stop praising.”

Raising Smart Learners Through Rich Conversations

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When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility. “However, too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility — the parenting gap.”

Given all the rolling debates about how children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. 

A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement — checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home — has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves.

A third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter — a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families.

But this research also reveals something else: that parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: Talk.

But not just any talk. Although well-known research by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley has shown that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents — a lot more, resulting in a 30 million “word gap” by the time children reach age three — more recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school.

For example, a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking.

Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference last year.

The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago—knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. Psychologist Susan Levine, who led the study on number words, has also found that the amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world—how big or small or round or sharp objects are — predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.

While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization” — setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job).

Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say.