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The Best Lesson: Learning from Failure

Greg Toppo, USA Today reporter, and Matthew Peterson, CEO of MIND Research Institute, discuss the importance of learning from failure.

By Christine Byrd July 2, 2015


USA Today education reporter Greg Toppo wrote the book on game-based learning. (Literally.) The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter takes a deep dive into the philosophy and real-world implications of game-based learning.  Toppo interviewed MIND Research Institute CEO and co-founder Matthew Peterson while conducting research for his book, and the two sat down again after its publication to discuss the importance of learning from failure and the future of game-based assessments.
The Game Believes in You

Q. The idea of letting kids fail, or “lowering the cost of failure” for students, plays prominently in the book. Why is failure important?

MP: From my perspective, it’s about the power of mistakes, that mistakes are one of the best learning vehicles. You can learn more from a mistake, often, than from getting something right. But we fear mistakes. You get penalized for making mistakes in the normal education system. But in a game you learn tremendously from making mistakes, and you’re not worried as much about making mistakes, unless it’s toward the end of a level or something like that. But from the learning aspect, mistakes are powerful and important and you embrace them. If you can allow some of that to crossover into the rest of education, it’s going to do a lot of good.

GT: One of the things I thought about a lot is, who designed school the way we have it? The only thing I can come up with was that school was designed by the adults who had been kids who were afraid to fail. And who were the kids who were afraid to fail? The ones who had done well in school. The reason school is so deadly is because school is designed by the people for whom school is easy. We don’t give enough credence to what Matthew is saying, that failing is the best lesson.

Greg Toppo Quote.png

Q. What did you see in terms of measuring learning with video games? How do you measure the learning that takes place through video games?

GT: The big take away is that the game is the assessment. Once you’re done with the game, you don’t have to give them a test to see how well they did on the material because the game is the material. That is such a foreign concept to so many people, and yet they play games and they know that is the case.

MP: There’s a growing appreciation for the concept of embedded assessment, but no one does it well. I can’t see how you can do embedded assessment well except in some type of game-like environment.

We’ve been struggling for many years with how to do an authentic embedded assessment that’s reliable. We’ve recently made a couple breakthroughs in keeping track of what a student’s encountered and then waiting to give them a problem that they’ve never seen before, once you think they’ve mastered the concepts in it. So it’s purposefully withholding certain problems in situations until you’re ready to assess whether they can handle it or not. That gives you a pretty strong embedded assessment technique.


ST Math is a visual instructional program that builds a deep conceptual understanding of math through rigorous learning and creative problem solving to engage, motivate and challenge PreK-8 students toward higher achievement. The program uses visual animations to show students exactly why their answer to a math problem was correct or incorrect. Through this informative feedback, mistakes become powerful learning opportunities for students. 

Learn More About ST Math


Read more from Matthew Peterson's interview with Greg Toppo:


Editor's note: This blog was originally published on July 2, 2015, and updated on April 11, 2016.

Christine Byrd writes about STEM and education issues for MIND Research Institute.

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