Failing successfully – what teachers can learn from video games

Greg Toppo, education reporter and journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, and Sam Abrams, principal of the Qatar Academy for Science and Technology, say we should be encouraging students to make mistakes

Imagine a world in which students are as engaged in learning as they are when playing video games. Well, the components that make video games so engrossing are now being applied to learning. It’s called mastery learning, and here’s what you need to know about it.

What is mastery learning?

In its simplest form, mastery learning is an educational approach that relies on consistent, sustained feedback and risk analysis. The best video games do just that; they present a range of choices for the gamer to explore and examine, but importantly the gamer is encouraged to fail, reflect on their mistake and assess how they can do better next time.

This keeps the game interesting for the gamer, encourages them to keep trying and helps them to learn through action.

One of the main challenges with traditional curricula and teaching is that the vast amount of content requires teachers to move through material quickly. This can lead to some children having large gaps in subject knowledge if they don’t master the material in time.

Unlike racing through content, the mastery learning model involves spending greater time going into depth about a subject – breaking complex ideas into smaller, more granular steps. It’s designed to help students achieve a certain level of proficiency before moving onto other topics and material.

Mastery learning in practice

The concept of mastery learning dates back to the 1960s and is the work of a professor and education psychologist at The University of Chicago, Benjamin Bloom. However, it is only recently that mastery learning has started to evolve from theory to an applied approach, gaining traction in mainstream education.

The development of IT and computer science classes has played a large part in this, accelerating the adoption of mastery learning practices. As well as encouraging students to tinker with software, computing tools have the advantage of being able to track learning and clue users with immediate feedback.

Schools across the world are experimenting with mastery learning models. In the US, Flushing International High School is using mastery-based learning as an English immersion tool for first-generation immigrant students, and the Khan Lab School is bringing the method to younger students from the ages of five and above.

In the UK, the Department for Education and Ofsted have endorsed the mastery approach for the national curriculum, and over the last six years it has been slowly trialled in maths lessons across schools with promising results.

In fact, experts believe the mastery approach is largely responsible for the UK’s advancement in maths in the PISA assessments, the OECD’s international assessment of 15-year-old students.

Setting a difficult task, which students aren’t able to resolve on first try, can result in a much higher-quality learning experience, and ultimately more fulfilment for the student

At the Qatar Academy of Science and Technology (QAST), a mastery learning high school based in Qatar Foundation’s Education City campus in Doha, we are empowering students to train and test themselves.

Unlike a traditional classroom, in which the teacher is assessing the student, under the mastery-based model students are asked to understand their own learning benchmarks and failures.

This is done by focusing assessments on progressing mastery learning standards, instead of students’ ability to memorise lectures. Educators and students partner to set goals in areas of growth opportunities. The ultimate goal is to empower students to create solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing Qatar, and the rest of the world.

QAST are also taking basic mastery learning one step further, by putting students in the driving seat of their own education. Students are allowed to point themselves in the direction of their passions, with educators always on hand to steer them if they veer off track.

Behind this is a belief that each student is unique and inherently possesses immeasurable worth; instead of applying a cookie-cutter approach, students are therefore given the flexibility to show their learning through their interests.

QAST have found this to have huge benefits for both student engagement and the development of their skills and knowledge. This is evident when educators speak to parents, who note an excitement for learning amongst their children. Student test scores have also reaped the benefits, with the average student learning 18 months’ worth of maths in just a year of teaching.

University admission boards are impressed when they meet students, and according to research, employers prioritise the types of 21st-century skills developed through mastery learning, over seat-time-based diplomas.

What can educators learn from video games?

It’s clear that there are some tips and tricks that educators can take from the success of video games.

A simple change would be to start providing assessment in real time. In traditional classrooms, when students are tested, they often find out their grade days or weeks later and move onto the next subject regardless of the outcome.

In video games, if you fail, you are told immediately and encouraged to try again. This helps the gamer to identify their own mistakes, learn from these and apply new techniques to try to reach their goal.

Educators also shouldn’t fear challenging their students. Video games are hard – but that’s often what makes them captivating and spurs gamers to keep playing. There’s no reason it needs to be different in the classroom.

Setting a difficult task, which students aren’t able to resolve on first try, can result in a much higher-quality learning experience, and ultimately more fulfilment for the student. At QAST, students are challenged with real-life problems from their communities.

In fact, the professionals that are engaged in those problems are invited to pose them to the students. Students are then expected to research and design – and, of course, iterate that design – until they are satisfied with the outcome.

The students bring together what they learn in discrete subjects to create a product they are proud of. They then present their products back to the professionals, holding them accountable for their ideas.

This form of learning is done throughout the year, project after project, tracking students’ growth against the mastery platform. This gives students the opportunity to reflect on what they want to improve or focus on in their next project.

We should encourage students to make mistakes, repeatedly if necessary, until they learn from them. Rather than feared, failure should be viewed as a vehicle of progress.

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