The Value of Losing

Originally published October, 2013 on Dusty World.

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 failure 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 on this team that I’m finding impossible to overcome.

The grade nines, while tackling Arduino 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 learning.

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 kids in the last ten years will see a lot of truth in these observations.

One of the reasons gamification has connected with education so comfortably is that the two things deal in artificialities.  Both focus on engagement and subvert realism in order to ensure continued attention.  Being in a classroom is much like being in a 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.

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 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 don’t develop meaningful meta-cognition or resiliency.  When you’ve 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.  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.

One of the reasons gamers migrate to multi-player versus games is because you can test your ability against someone who isn’t a benign agent of the game’s mediocrity engine.  As in sports you are able to test yourself 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, or getting pwned online.  It’s in these extremes that gamer culture and sports seem most alien to educators.  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 they would find this impossible and when one would ask for help while simultaneously looking at their smartphone or with an error I’d already helped them with once I’d walk away.  Circuit building wouldn’t bell-curve for the class, it wouldn’t simplify things to make it easier if students didn’t get it.  They had to respond to reality and reality wasn’t interested in making it easier.

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.

If you’re excited about gamification then you’re excited about what is simply a new layer of artificiality around an already artificial situation.  Not everyone should see success in every endeavor.  It’s good for you to fail every once in a while, it makes you more compassionate, humble, creative 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 mainly to keep you engaged.  Whenever what you’re doing has engagement at its heart you’ll find the victory to be false because it was designed to ensure it for you in order to keep you playing.

Meet Your Maker

I’m working my way through my second semester with grade nines in computer studies. I’ve tried to bring as much ‘shop’ as I can into computer studies.  My background was in I.T., so getting into the nitty gritty of electronics has been an expansion of my craft which I’ve enjoyed as much as the students seem to.

Using Arduino microcontrollers we bridge the gap between hardware and software and get students comfortable with the idea of building circuits as well as controlling it with code.  This year I’ve also gotten a Raspberry Pi up and running as well as building dozens of desktops. A resurgent maker culture has made electronics much more accessible and customizable; it’s a good time to be teaching computers.

Maker Culture

This semester we’ve been pulling apart broken electronics and reusing digital displays, microphones and other components in our Arduino Frankenstein creations.  Some of it will work, some of it won’t, but the process will make Makers of many of the students.

The real fear in using technology is that many users don’t have the faintest idea how things work.  When it breaks there isn’t a frame of reference of where to begin, fixing anything seems impossible.  After breaking apart their first digital clock, or radio, or electronic game, students begin to recognize the components because they’re already familiar with the bits and pieces having used them to assemble a dozen Arduino projects already.  With the mystery gone, they begin to grasp the power their minds and hands have.

I’m re-reading Matthew Crawford’s Shopclass as Soulcraft.  It’s such a complex read, with so many ideas packed into each page, a second run through will do me good.  If you’re an educator, and you can take some well intended criticism, reading the first couple of chapters will challenge many of the assumptions we wrongly found current educational theory on.   I imagine most educators won’t find the criticism comfortable, no matter how well intentioned.

I’m about to get my first motorcycle and I’ve found myself casting about, trying to figure out who I can get to maintain it for me.  A chapter in and this ex-mechanic is getting his hands on a shop manual and doing it himself.  One of the reasons I want to begin riding is to develop a closer relationship with the machinery I use.  The plastic covered, warrantied cars I drive don’t do that.  The nakedness of a motorcycle begs for it; I’m looking forward to that quiet, focused mind driving busy hands.

There is something inherently valuable in being able to fix what you use.  I’ve never had to argue for the value of what we do in computer studies, the learning has inherent worth, is immediately useful, and applicable in a surprisingly wide range of situations.  From the insides of an operating system to the flow of electrons around a circuit, these students develop a familiarity and comfort level with something that most people are more than happy to use in blissful ignorance (until it breaks).  The tactile nature of the work also draws in even the most reticent.  Working with your hands, making something real work through trial and error, offers an experience missing from much of academia.  Crawford’s philosophical attack on the globalized knowledge economy happens every day in my classroom.

Many of these students will move on to other interests in other fields, but none of them will ever again be at the mercy of their ignorance while working with a computer.  I’ll have to paste rubrics and marks over all this to make it credible to the establishment, but the moment a student who has been whacking his head against his own bad wiring for half an hour realizes what he’s done and fixes it himself, he has developed a tiny bit of independence, and perhaps realized that paying attention is a powerful ally.  Learning shouldn’t be frustration free, if it were, it wouldn’t mean anything.  With minds and hands engaged in a battle with realistic demands, the rewards are hard to quantify in a mid-term mark.

Arduinos, Galileos & Edisons

Students create astonishing work with Arduino.
Instead of electronics being something that is
done to them, Arduino lets them author their
relationship with electronics.

I’m a big fan of the Arduino microcontroller.  This tiny, inexpensive board plugs into your computer via a usb cable and lets you create circuits for lights, sounds, sensors or pretty much anything else you can think of.  You then write (or paste) some simple code into a window on your computer and send it to the board to have the lights flash, or music play, or have sensors sense.

As an introduction to how circuits work it doesn’t get much better.  Because the coding you’re doing has immediate physical results, it also makes for a tangible, tactile introduction to programming too.  You can find arduino boards for about ten bucks a pop.  With another five bucks in LEDs, wiring and other bits and pieces, you’ve got a basic electronics and coding lab that suits both tactile and non-tactile learners.  You could put together a comprehensive class set for the price of a single iMac.  If your school is chucking any electronics, suddenly you find yourself recycling lasers out of cdroms and wiring out of computers to expand your collection.

Since Arduino is open source, a variety of support programs have popped up around it.  Fritzing helps students create professional looking wiring plans, and 123d Circuits lets you create virtual Arduino projects before you plug in a single wire.  If you’re wondering how tricky Arduino might be for younger students, 123d Circuits would be a great way to test feasibility for free.

My favorite part of Arduino comes after the introduction (we use Oomlout’s fantastic ARDX introduction projects.  Students work through these and get familiar with how the Arduino works and the many components it can work with.  The real magic comes when they see how easy it is to try things on Arduino.  The summative for the unit is a self directed project where students are encouraged to experiment, fail and document what they’re doing.  It’s a great introduction to the engineering process and, for many students, the first time they are rewarded for failure at school (just know why it didn’t work and find a way forward – the engineering process is intellectual resilience codified).

We’ve recently expanded our electronics ecosystem by getting a couple of super-Arduinos.  Intel has thrown its might behind the open source movement and created a couple of very interesting Arduino related products.

The unboxing of our Galileo created a big stir
amongst the senior computer technology students.

The Intel Galileo is an Arduino board on steroids.  With 
Microsoft also throwing itself behind this, you can actually have a version of Windows running on the Galileo!  We’ve already done so much with the Arduino, I can’t wait to see what we can put together with the Galileo.

The size of an SD card, the Edison is tiny & powerful

The Intel Edison is the other experimental piece of kit we just got in yesterday.  It’s the size of an SD card, but is a multi-core computer with built in wifi and bluetooth.  This tiny Edison is at the heart of the Nixie drone – an astonishing wearable/flyable drone camera that looks like magic.

Both the Galileo and the Edison are about $100 (about 10x the cost of a basic Arduino board), so we’re going to see if they are ten times as awesome.  I suspect they will both tax senior computer tech students as they try and understand what these new boards can do.

There hasn’t been an easier time to get into basic electronics.  With the open source movement creating lush ecosystems of compatible components, you’ll find it easier than ever to put tangible electronics experiences in front of students.  In a world where electronics are something being done to society, wouldn’t it be nice to teach students how to author that influence?