Hard lessons without the angst

A great article was recently published in the New York Times entitled “What if the secret to success is failure?“. It’s well worth reading, providing an insight into the New York school system and what some inspiring educators are doing to nurture the character of their students in an attempt to increase the likelihood of success and happiness in later life.

There are valuable lessons like “Work Hard” and “There Are No Shortcuts” but these are difficult virtues to teach within the confines of school let alone anywhere else. There have been countless studies on delayed gratification, trying to teach children that waiting a little longer can result in a better reward later but there will always those who just want to eat their candy now. How do you teach the value of studying hard, putting extra hours into piano practice and sticking to difficult tasks when the rewards are not realised until much, much later? In the article, Assistant Professor Angela Duckworth notes that “Learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging…”. These negative feelings often come about when one fails at the task at hand.

Next time you meet your friendly neighbourhood gamer ask them about when they failed while gaming. They will inevitably respond with “every time I play, man”. That’s because unless you’ve set the game on a way too easy difficulty level, you are going to fail. It happens to everyone. No gamer believes that they will walk through a level unscathed. What’s more: its expected. Why? Because that’s how you learn. After you’ve respawned (come back to life) you dust yourself off, review your strategy and try again. And again. And again. Basically you keep trying because its the only way to get through to the next level, see what’s around the corner, or uncover the mystery. And what’s more, when you finally pass and complete the challenge, you feel awesome. All that hard work was worth it and you remember that feeling the next time you are confronted with another difficult challenge. The lure of the epic win is what entices so many gamers to keep trying in the face of adversity.

Games provide an opportunity for people to fail, learn from their mistakes and try again. Failure is not treated like a punishment or the end of days, but part of the learning process. Moreover, by giving people a chance to try repeatedly they have an opportunity to test different strategies, weigh the risks and rewards attributable to certain actions.

There’s an old quote that goes something like this: in school we learn the lesson and take the test, but in life we take the test then learn the lesson. Perhaps an updated quote could include “games allow us to take the test and learn the lesson but without the real world angst”.

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