One of the real flaws of the public school system is that students who are interested and try don’t fail classes. I could do a whole blog post on the importance of failure and sound just like a start-up CEO but since both of those are pretentious I’m going to tell you about the time I finally got to repeat a class.
I didn’t actually fail a class, and never actually have, which is why I’ve had to wait until grad school to have the chance to repeat material, this time as a teaching assistant for the Centre for Digital Media’s Foundations of Game Design course.
The professor, Dr. Kim Voll, teaches the class fast and heavy on concepts, combining what was, for me, an introduction to the basic principles of building levels, choices, and puzzles with a survey of the cognitive and psychological effects that games create. This makes the class hugely useful for both game designers as well as UX and transmedia designers.
A lot of it also went over my head. This is a phenomenon I noticed among students when I TAed, too. The cogsci is tough stuff, but critical: the Magic Circle; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, which in games explains how challenge and reward work to create a feeling of balance in a game; motivation; and perhaps most importantly, just how bad our brains are at figuring out what a system is really doing while we engage it–in short, biases–which is useful in everything from proper gamification to creating game narrative without a single word.
Marking the papers made me feel like I was cheating. I was only figuring out some of the concepts just ahead of the students I was helping out. I decided early on in my role as TA to sit in on all the lectures. I didn’t have to, but I was glad I did. Things I had guessed at before became second nature with another run through.
It’s fairly obvious that that second pass helps understanding. It’s even grounded in the same cognitive basics I learned in the class. The brain makes connections between concepts and systems in different ways. Learning, and indeed game systems, are no different. The first time through the class I kept looking for ways to connect concepts to my own background in writing and narrative design, probably as a way to localize them to ideas I understood better than Csikszentmihalyi’s. The second time around, without the pressure of delivering content back in the form of assignments, I just listened. I’ve always known I’m an aural learner. Removed from the first-time nervous pressure, I picked up material way better and I was faster on my feet explaining it to students’, too.
I suppose in a way that means the first time I failed to get all the material. I still got an A+ in the course, losing only a single point on one small assignment. I’m adept enough at the traditional school system, having been immersed in it my whole life, to navigate outside of the course concepts and bring my own understanding to bear on the ideas presented in class. That helps me learn, but it’s not foolproof and without my repeat I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable with the cognitive concepts as I am now and I wouldn’t be as comfortable designing games using them as a guide as I am now.
Bashing the traditional school system is almost a spectator sport in some circles, so I’m not going to partake in it here. Rather I’ll speak more generally to the consequences of Failure, like I threatened to do at the top of this post (see, you’re always being manipulated…). The idea of repeating a concept is engrained as a negative, yet it’s often the best thing for even the best students. Penalizing repetition forces students to try perfection, which is both a bad life lesson and usually bad in practice. Figuring out complex ideas requires time to match patterns. It’s hard to find a pattern on the first go.
A final anecdote: I struggled in high school math. I had problems in grade 10 math and then took grade 11 advanced math because all my friends were and I was someone who consistently got good grades. I knew I would have to work at it and did, but I still got a 75 in grade 11 and was devastated enough that I didn’t take it at all in grade 12, thinking that I had plateaued. The only failure there was of my perseverance–had I repeated grade 11 math I would probably have figured most of it out. I’m not bad at math, I was just slow to find the patterns in it and that meant my performance was frowned on. That setback means I’m now doing remedial programming work because I cut off my own study of it due to the idea I’d failed math.
The other side of TAing is marking, and that’s where the demon of perfection comes out most forcefully. I spent hours trying to mediate between rewarding learning and the demands of grades (and often scholarships riding on those grades–in a program like CDM that means the difference between attending and leaving school for many students). I don’t believe grades are useless or evil as a measuring stick, but to make use of them properly a student has to understand that a grade is a standard, not a reward. Of course, they’re put in place as a reward and once that happens we want more and more, and will do whatever, even cheat if permitted, to get it. Prof. Voll often said that marks aren’t important at CDM and they’re not, but that’s hard to hear until one has actually gone through material a couple of times and noticed how listening and experimentation yields understanding and cramming offers only perfection.