Cultivating a willingness to try, fail, and try again in youth

bigstock_Overjoyed_1702by Junlei Li  (The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media)

I am anxious and frustrated.  My palm is sweating, my face red with indignation.  Next to me sits my bemused family pal, less than half my age, watching me stumble on the way to inevitable demise.  We are playing his game, and he is killing me.

This is the basic problem with our popular belief that game-playing is the chief culprit in children’s diminishing “attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks.”  Games are not easy – to succeed you need focus, attention, and especially perseverance.

Consider two games created three decades apart.  The highest grossing arcade game since 1980 was Pac-Man.  In 2010, the most downloaded game app was Angry Birds.  What these two games share, despite the fancier technology of late, is that players can learn the basic moves in seconds, but using these moves to tackle every successive challenge can take hours, days, even weeks to perfect.  Play consists of striving for small and incremental successes in the face of repeated failures.  The farther you advanced, the more often you failed in conquering each level.  Without perseverance, you cannot succeed and earn bragging rights in front of your friends.  The process reminds me of my college freshman year physics course – I could explain Newton’s three laws of motion in minutes, but applying them to the endless array of problem scenarios was a perpetual struggle.  Unlike the millions of kids who persevered against Pac-Man and Angry Birds, more than a third of my freshman engineering class switched majors before the semester ended.

Of course, dogged determination seldom transfers from digital games to everyday life.  In fact, many children escape to games precisely because they experience so little success elsewhere.

So, what can we learn from games like Pac-Man and Angry Birds that apply to everyday learning?  Here are two basic ideas that work best hand in hand.

Failure is required for everyone.  A typical K-12 classroom environment is a place where a few kids always succeed, most manage to keep up, and some constantly struggle.  It would not take long for the advanced or the struggling students to conclude that mastery depended on the talent you already have, not the effort you put forth.  This is what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck called “the fixed mindset.”  Alternatively, we can try to introduce “desirable difficulties” in the classroom, with tasks, puzzles, and projects that are easy to engage but difficult to master.  Failure is hardest to bear when you feel like the only one failing – and mistakes are de-stigmatized when even the brightest is required to learn through setbacks.

Small progress is recognized often, immediately after failure, and long before success is ultimately achieved.  Most children and parents have no opportunity to discuss learning progress until the quarterly report cards come home for signatures.  Like the height marker outside roller coaster entrances, letter grades and proficiency levels are rigid and blunt measures that say very little about how far one has grown or how to develop further.  In a digital game, a child learns that small incremental progress matters – if to no one else, at least to the game console.  Even after the inevitable “game over,” it keeps track and shows the player what he or she has already accomplished (here’s an example of how Angry Birds identifies a player’s past performances with stars and levels.) The game seems to be as invested in a player’s developmental process as it is in the outcome.  This type of interaction is not only possible but also richer in everyday life. 

In the video below, Melissa Butler, a kindergarten teacher at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5, engages one of her students in adding dialogue to a hand-drawn picture book.  Her practices alternate among patient observation, interested participation, scaffolding and fading, specific feedback, and honest recognition for small incremental progress.  Trying something new and difficult does not come easily to any child, but Melissa helped to make it worthwhile.

Cultivating the willingness to try, fail, and try again was an important part of “growing on the inside” on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Today, the same theme still reverberates, like Pixar Studios’ rule #1 for storytelling: “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”  I don’t know if Mister Rogers ever played Pac-Man or watched Toy Story.  But he could just as well have summed up their enduring lessons when he wrote, “Life is marked by failures and setbacks … We need to help children understand that for us, as for them, life is made up of striving much more than attaining.”  


Photo/ Sean Dreilinger

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Junlei Li

Junlei Li, Ph.D., is the Co-Director of the Fred Rogers Center and Professor for Early Learning and Children’s Media. He directs the center’s research and development lab “Incubator 143” where undergraduate students engage with the Fred Rogers Archive, collaborate with community partners, and serve children, families, and professionals. Junlei develops and facilitates multiple partnerships to create professional development and learning experiences based on actual “simple interactions” in everyday contexts, across child care, classroom, out-of-school time, and orphanage settings.