Editor’s Notebook: Learning How to Fail

Jeff TophamThe robot has miscalculated the trajectory of its jump. It hits the wall and slides into a pool of goo, fizzling quietly as it dissolves. It’s the second jump to end in failure, but no one seems to mind.

This scene played out a while back as I watched my daughters play the video game Portal 2. In the Portal games, players use motion, trajectory, and strategically placed portals to progress through a series of increasingly complicated puzzle rooms. My daughters were playing in coop mode, which means they had to work together to complete each room. In the later stages of the game, when the puzzles started getting really hard, both players ‘died.’ A lot.

The thing that interested me was that these repeated failures didn’t seem to bother my kids at all. Each failed attempt taught them something new about the puzzle and brought them closer to a solution. In some of the later puzzle rooms, there wasn’t even a clear objective, meaning that a series of failed experiments was the only way to understand the puzzle and its solution.

There’s no consequence for failure in the Portal games other than having to start over, and I was struck by how my kids seemed to take failure as a natural part of playing the game. All that seemed to go out the window, however, when it was time for homework, and failure to immediately grasp a concept or solve a math problem seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

The problem is that failure gets a bad rap in our culture, even though it’s an essential part of both science and the creative arts. Scientists know that failed experiments are often just as instructive as successful ones, and nearly every product or creative design process builds on a series of initial failures.

It’s easy to forget that Henry Ford’s first two companies failed; that Steve Jobs was fired by Apple in 1985; that J. K. Rowling was unemployed and on welfare when she started writing Harry Potter. These people are remarkable not only for their achievements, but also for their ability to persist and persevere in the face of failure.

Encouraging that kind of persistence and perseverance is a key part of what schools can do for kids. A school should be a place where students can challenge themselves and take risks, which inevitably entails the possibility of failure. As educators, it’s our job to teach kids to be successful by teaching them how to fail—to help them develop the persistence and resiliency to get back up and try again. It’s our job to help our students see failure as a natural part of the learning process instead of a disastrous dead end.

The third time, the robot hits the jump just right. It sails through the portal on the wall and is on its way, moving onward to the next challenge.