Safe to Fail

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time in WoW recently, attempting to mash it into the PLTS framework to see what comes out the other end. More on that to come. In this post I want to talk about failing and how we’re not doing it nearly as often as we should.

The thing about learning to fail is that you learn that it’s actually not so bad. You develop skills to help you manage it, to come back afterwards. But we’re scared of it. We’ve built a system where failing is a big bad thing, and we must avoid it at all costs.

Distinctly Average

The problem with that is it breeds mediocrity. The hardest part of my role is dealing with the fear of change, the unknown. It is safer to stick with what we know, maintain the status quo. You see it in individuals and in whole institutions. You can’t fail if you don’t push it too hard.

This attitude means we end up falling into a trap where we can easily do the same to our students. At the big scary end of school you must pass your exams to get to the next thing. Want to create an environment that’ll scare you about failing? Not being allowed to carry on if you do will achieve that.

I don’t have a huge problem with this though. We need goals to challenge us, targets we are motivated to achieve. Succeeding at a difficult task is such a positive experience, we can’t take that away.

My problem is that because the fail is scary rather than building confidence to think they can do it, it’s safer make the task easier.

Take the BTEC in X because it’s an easy way to 5 GCSEs rather than doing that triple science you’re not smart enough for, improve this coursework by doing Y in order to tick enough boxes on the mark scheme, your current grades mean you should do the foundation paper and get a safe C grade rather than risking the higher, and so on.


In the game world the tasks don’t get easier the more you fail. There isn’t an easy way round a hard obstacle, you just have to persevere. What we in schools need to learn from games is why people come back to them, again and again.

One reason is because it’s safe to fail. I’m happy to admit that in WoW I die fairly frequently. When you die in WoW you become a ghost, a little gravestone appears on your map and you have to head off and find your body. Once you’ve found it you carry on from where you left off, having learned from your mistake.

The quest doesn’t become any easier to accommodate my poor play, I don’t get a man over my shoulder telling me which button to press. I reflect on my own performance and adapt, all the time knowing that if I’m still not quite successful I can just have another go.

I’ll finish with a McGonigal quote:

“When we’re playing a well-designed game, failure doesn’t disappoint us. It makes us happy in a very particular way: excited, interested, and most of all optimistic”

Image source- red fail by griffithchris

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