Fabulous formative failure

A stack of frosted, chocolate cake and cupcakes with a fruit and whipped cream topping that have fallen over but still look delicious.

Michael Collins  ~ Senior Learning Designer

Last July I had the privilege of attending the Playful Learning 2023 conference for the second time, once more bearing a bulging bag of microphones and a question. Previously Dr Mark Childs and I asked attendees about their favourite games, what they loved about them – and how that love influenced their teaching practice. This time, we wanted to go to a place oft visited, but rarely discussed – failure. Specifically, fabulous formative failure. 

Coaxing attendees to record at our booth we asked: 

        • What (specific example) has been your most fabulous formative failure?  
        • What did you learn from it? 
        • Where do you think failure sits in learning through play, and learning in general? 

Throughout the conference, we were joined by a host of amazing educators and professionals, who bravely took the plunge and candidly shared a host of intimidating, hilarious and cautionary fluffs, muck-ups and gaffes. 

You can find the whole miniseries on the Pedagodzilla on Tour feed, which includes daily recaps and reflections of the conference itself, and our alternative interview question on the Danish movement, Pissedårlig undervisning. 

Ironically, I failed in getting the recordings edited and published in a timely manner, but now that they are out in the world I thought it would be a good time to take stock, and see what lessons we learned about failure, and how we can apply them in our own teaching practice. 

Make space for failure: In our theme’s opening episode, Nic Whitton acquainted us with ‘The Magic Circle’, a safe, socially constructed space where individuals can play, experiment, and fail without fear. Within this circle, failure is recast in a positive light as a facet of play, cultivating an environment conducive to learning from failures. By establishing a secure space for play and experimentation and welcoming individuals into it, we nurture this dynamic. 

Develop resilience and reflection: Even when cast in a positive light, failure can be a bitter pill to swallow. It demands resilience to surmount and progress to the ensuing, crucial phase – reflecting on the failure and distilling its lessons. Assisting learners in honing their metacognitive skills through reflective practices and frameworks, and bolstering their resilience, are essential steps in this journey. 

Balancing failure with positive reinforcement: If failure is met with punishment rather than positive reinforcement, it nudges learners towards a path of caution. Scrutinise the incentives within your teaching environment and ponder how they might direct behaviour if you were a student. 

Failure is transient: Even when given a safe space and the right incentives, failing doesn’t feel great – infact it can often feel pretty horrible and exposing. Something to remind yourself and your learners of is that failure is transient. Linking to the next point…   

Empathy: Fostering a culture where we are more forgiving of each other’s failures can facilitate being kinder to ourselves. By cultivating an open, empathetic culture within our own ‘magic circles’, we exemplify this ethos. 

Failure is both inevitable and essential in playful learning and practice: The common theme in the conversations was the acknowledgment that failure is a cornerstone of playful learning and practice, and has been a positive stepping stone for some of the UK’s top education professionals.  

The experiential learning cycle

Folk familiar with Kolb’s experiential learning cycle will know the importance of having (concrete) experiences to start with. It doesn’t matter if they’re successes or failures – only that you reflect, learn and experiment with them afterwards. 

It often feels like the education landscape we find ourselves in, where a failed exam can curtail a study journey and show up as a red mark against an institution, is incompatible with a playful approach to failure. Perhaps the first step to moving to a place where we can accept failure at scale is to start discussing it more within individual practice.  

Personally, moving forwards in my practice I’ll be looking for ways to be more open and accepting of failures, and that of those around me. In the first instance, I forgive myself for taking so darned long to get the episodes edited. Reflecting back, I know that if I promise to get 16 hours of recordings edited and published, and an associated blog post written, I need to be more realistic with my time – and reach out for help sooner (thanks so much Mark Childs for doing the editing on those episodes, you saved my bacon). Next time, an adjustment to the recording format and a bit more earmarked time for editing should smooth that over nicely.  Lesson learned.

Next time, I reckon I’ll do better. And if I don’t, that’s fine – as long as I learn as I go.


If you’d like to know more, get in touch with the OU Learning Design team at ouldsocial@open.ac.uk.


Banner image: via Canva / stacey_newman