Failure, Prototyping and Angry Birds

The other day I had a thought, and I tweeted it. That thought was

In learning, failure is not an option. It’s a *necessity*.

Now, that may seem somewhat trite, but it is also true. If all we ever do is succeed, we have never pushed our own limits. But I think more importantly, students are terrified of failure in any form. It is an important step – and a very liberating one – when students realize they can do poorly on something without it being the end of the world. And when they start to realize that it is a stepping stone to future success, that’s when they take off. I see this every year when my AP Physics students get back a practice exam with a raw score of 50%. After they have a good cry, they realize they have lost nothing, and gained considerable experience, and move on. But why should grade 12 be the first time they encounter this?

So I considered the idea of a small project that would require prototyping. The object of a prototype is to fail. That is,it is to test the limits of design, so it can be improved. By forcing successive failures that lead to gradual improvement, this mindset can be modeled. A bit of real world context could help too: WD40, for example, is almost as ubiquitous as duct tape, and yet the 40 means they tried – and failed – 39 times before they hit on a working formula.

But then it occurred to me that another common example of repeated failure leading to success is Angry Birds. No one ever ever uses up their birds and says “I’m a failure at this game”. Ever. Experienced players will even launch birds at specific targets in an attempt to discover weaknesses in the structure, which is intentional failure with a purpose.

I don’t know where I will go with this idea yet, but I think it is a powerful one, and worth mulling over.

4 thoughts on “Failure, Prototyping and Angry Birds

  1. John

    I was thinking about many of the very same things last night, when I blogged about how to teach failure. I’m going to try to start writing more about this, but I think one thing we need to do is show our students that small scale failure (answering a question incorrectly in class) doesn’t lead to or isn’t a symptom of large scale failure (getting a bad grade in the class, not getting into the college of their dreams, or any of the other horrors they fear). In fact, if we can connect them to the idea that the road to success is actually paved with lessons learned from many small scale failures (and angry birds or just about any other video game is a perfect example of this), then I think it will go a long way toward freeing out students from a fear of being wrong. The problem is that many of them still think there’s a mythical path to success out there that never involves failure or being wrong, and this is something that students often find confirmed by society’s praise of genius, and that one kid in class wo always seems to get every answer right (but really isn’t being pushed hard enough to make the mistakes that will lead to learning). Thanks for a great thought provoking post.

  2. @the_Schroeder

    “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” – Rowling

    I used to manage college students in starting and running their own painting business. The ones that are successful are the ones that I effectively taught to value their failures as much as their successes.

  3. Andrew

    I have been using the Angry Birds example when discussing prototyping with my software development colleagues and clients. As a user experience and usability practitioner, I find that using the simple example of Angry Birds instantly registers with even the skeptics.


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