Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Value of Losing

I'm currently teaching two grade nine classes of introduction to computers and coaching the senior boys soccer team.  In both situations I'm trying to understand and develop their response to failure.  This is something we're singularly bad at in education.  Instead of developing resilience around failure we try to mitigate it entirely.

The soccer team has shown such a lack of resilience that they are essentially in tatters.  When given opportunities to recover from failure they have responded with dishonesty, poor sportsmanship and a lack of character.  Continually trying to coax them into right action has been exhausting and ultimately a failure on my part as a coach, which I find very distressing.  There is a culture of losing poorly on this team that I'm finding impossible to overcome.

The grade nines, while tackling Arduino circuit building for the first time, are also running into failure though they are handling it much better than the soccer team.  When they realize that they won't be made to suffer for failure (this involves overcoming years of training by our education system), they begin to play with the material in a meaningful and constructive way.  Removing fear of failure from the equation has been successful in both classes and the confidence that results is based on real, hands-on, experiential, mastery focused learning.

Between the soccer team's horrible sportsmanship and the grade nine's risk aversion when marks are on the line, I'm left wondering where students these days are learning competition.  I suspect it's in video games, which does a lot to explain both of the responses I'm seeing.
So much of what we do in a classroom is artificial.  Artificial challenges in an artificial environment producing artificial assessments while working on artificial timelines.  The same can be said of those epic wins players think they own in video games.

This brought me back to an article I read in WIRED a long time ago called Generation Xbox wherein they talked about the culture of gaming in such a forthright way that it stuck with me.  Anyone who has been teaching in the last ten years will see a lot of truth in these observations.  Unfortunately, the low stakes iterative game play found in video games produces people who are unable to concentrate effort because they never have to.  The result is an otherwise capable student turning away from a challenge rather than overcoming it.  It also produces people who have no concept of face to face sportsmanship, producing a whole generation of poor losers.  That this approach is infecting education should be a concern. 

One of the reasons gamification has connected with education so comfortably is that they each deal in artificialities.  Both focus on engagement and subvert realistic expectations in order to ensure continued attention.  Being in a classroom is much like being in a video game, complete with rules to follow and points to be scored.  We grade students in much the same way that a game gives out points - we award players for willingly submitting themselves to the rules of the game; submission is a prerequisite for victory and victory is given rather than taken.  Video games, like the modern classroom, teach passivity.

When you win in a video game or in a classroom you aren't experiencing success in a real way.  It is an artificial environment designed to breed success, you are in a place designed by committee to appeal to the widest range of people.  The attention and engagement of the student/player is the goal, everything else is in support of it.  Yet people develop very real senses of themselves around these false victories.  Our self image is molded around what we think we're good at and many digital natives consider themselves masters of the universe because they have played games successfully.  Many academics believe that they are masters of the universe because they were able to submit to education successfully.

If social constructs like video games or education or economics are designed to focus entirely on inclusive engagement, then the result is a population with no ability to think outside of these social constructs; they are never given the opportunity to develop meaningful meta-cognition or resiliency.  When you're aware that you have been beaten badly it shows you something about yourself.  When you've been beaten badly it knocks you out of habitual response and into a new and potentially more successful means of overcoming your failure, assuming you're not dealing with it with crude bravado (a default approach to losing in video gaming).  In that scenario even a less painful loss could be seen as an improvement, but we are doing all we can to remove pain from everything by focusing modern life on digital abstractions.

In physical sports you are able to test your skills against your peers.  You can bet that the human being on the other side won't bell-curve their play to suit your level.  That's how you end up with 9-1 soccer games.  It's in these extremes that sports seem most alien to educators and video gamers.  It's in these extremes that my soccer players have nothing in their vocabulary to respond honestly and constructively to failure.

When starting the circuit building unit in computer studies the grade nines were overwhelmed by something completely new to them.  I gave them detailed instruction and support but would not do it for them.  I did stress that if they weren't paying attention to what they were doing and following the step by step directions closely they would find this very difficult and when one would ask for help while simultaneously looking at their smartphone I'd walk away.  Concentration is something else that is foreign to the you-can-do-it-as-often-as-you-like video gamer; effort is optional.  Circuit building wouldn't bell-curve for mediocrity, it's a pass/fail situation, reality is ruthless.  It wouldn't simplify things to make it easier if students refuse to focus their attention on it.

At one point a colleague from the English department wandered in and watched them working on their circuit building for a few minutes.  He said, "it's nice to be in a classroom where the students are actually doing something."  then, after a pause he added, "you really don't have to worry about engaging them do you?  They're all right into it..."  Reality can do that to people, it's a genuine challenge.  My job as a teacher is to give them the time and materials to figure it out for themselves.  At least I got that one right, I have no idea how to solve the soccer team.

If you're excited about gamification then you're excited about what is simply a new layer of artificiality (games) around an already artificial situation (the classroom).  No one should see success in every endeavor or treat every competitive opportunity like it doesn't matter.  It's good for you to fail every once in a while, even when you're trying your hardest, it makes you more compassionate, humble and self aware; all areas I see the digital native struggle with because their virtual wins have more to do with entertainment than they do with reality.

If you've seen success in a system designed to provide it you've got to question the value of that success.  If you want to earn success look for a challenge that wasn't designed by committee to keep you engaged (all video games are designed to keep you playing).  Whenever what you're doing has engagement at its heart you'll find the victory to be false because the win condition is a design feature and has nothing to do with your ability as a player.

If I catch them early enough, I can teach resiliency in the face of failure, but there comes a point where the expectation of success that video games, and increasingly education, have taught our students has become a foundation piece of their character.  At that point we're churning out poor losers and risk averse students who refuse to engage in anything that has a chance of failure.  If for no other reason, that's why gamification and its implied win conditions shouldn't infect education.