On Reflection and Failure

I received an email from a book publisher with information about the book Teaching Writing While Standing on One Foot. An interesting title, so I read the description. Based on the description, the author combines creative writing (poetry, etc) with reflections on pedagogy and recipes.

I find this a very interesting approach to a book, especially as it probably resembles most professors thought processes. I certainly have random writing I create (oh hello blog reading audience of my random writings), and I have times when I reflect and find my ideas for writing and teaching. I certainly think and reflect and consider while baking, but also while playing with my son or watching one of his shows, and while knitting. Most importantly, I have most of my pedagogical reflection moments while playing or watching my husband play (both successfully, but mostly in failure) videogames.

Last night my son asked to play the robot game – which for his is Castle Crashers. As he was not in the mood, my husband played Battle Block Theater as a compromise (same game designers). There was a part in the level where the evil mind controlling cat launched ice blocks that froze your shape-character, and you had to time your attach to both avoid being frozen and to take out the evil cat. The problem was, the timing seemed impossible. After trying and trying my husband gave up and moved on. he was no longer having fun, failure taking over at that moment, so he put that game down and moved on to something different.

This morning, I’m grading Final Reflective Essays for a course I’m teaching and finding it interesting how much MORE students learned if they felt as he did – they were being bombarded by ice blocks and the challenge was impossible (aka they wrote a persuasive, researched essay with a draft grade and final grade). The students that discussed this impossible challenge, then discussed how they put the revision work down, left it for two days, then forced themselves to return and work through revisions discussed their improvements to understanding writing process much more effectively in this final draft. In this case, the moment of failure and giving up we see in videogames happened in the writing process, and they returned to the quest and completed it. For many players, assuming the returning to the quest and beating it a few days later, or not experiencing continuous failure for a long duration of time motivates players to continue. In the case of writing and revising, students must find motivation elsewhere.

This is where I’m at in the thought process. Individual students, similar to players, find motivation differently. What kind of messages, ideas, examples, discussions, support can I as the professor provide to inspire the return to the quest despite the feelings that come with failure, to result in the confidence building that occurs once the quest/essay is complete? Many of these students mentioned using Pinterest and the information I provided on revision that emphasized “Don’t start over” – but some didn’t mention their motivation at all. Grades can be motivating, but they don’t emphasize nor predict learning so they’re a difficult concept to use as external motivation to assist students with developing internal motivation.

So, I’ll continue to struggle with videogames to work on ways and whys of motivation to return after repeated failure. Similar to the recipe inclusion, it’s these moments of struggle when a character-shape repeatedly becomes an ice block that pedagogical reflections can be most productive.


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