Saturday, October 11, 2014

Robot Turtles and the Importance of Failure

As I mentioned in this post about Candy Land, playing board games with a three year old is not exactly the most mentally engaging activity of my day. But (as was the topic of that post), I recognize that playing these games helps little minds not only learn basic concepts about rules but also to learn how to trust the adults playing with them to enforce those rules fairly, so I think it's important to move through the Gumdrop Pass even when the game of bright primary colors and sheer luck bores me out of my mind.

That grin and those glazed eyes tell it all; the inanity has taken over. 
I wondered, though, if my daughter (who is almost four) might possibly be ready for something a little more advanced, so I took her to Target today and ended up buying a game called Robot Turtles. It boasts on the box that it is "The Game for Little Programmers" and "Introduces Basic Coding Concepts to Preschoolers" and is "The most backed board game in Kickstarter history!" 

I wasn't necessarily looking for a game that will turn my daughter into a "little programmer," but the concept sounded interesting enough, so I gave it a chance. We brought it home and played it, and I have to say that I loved it. 


While I suppose that I knew this already, the games's focus on "coding" skills is really just focus on basic problem solving skills. Since players have to lay out a series of cards to figure out what order their turtle should move to get to a gem, they are essentially creating a line of code that is then "run" when the adult navigating the board game moves the pieces according to the player's card choices. It definitely does what it says it does: teaches a complex skill without making it feel like it's teaching a complex skill. My daughter picked it up quickly and was excited once she realized she could start planning her next moves to get her turtle in the right position. 

"Coding" skills aren't just useful for computer programming. They're really tapping into a much more basic set of life skills that can benefit anyone. As the creators discuss in this Wired article (which outlines the fascinating history of Robot Turtles), the game is really a tool for critical thinking:
“This is about building what’s called the ‘executive function’—the ability to stay on task, set planning, understand what your objective is, and staying focused,” Ritchie says. “Coding is about organizing your thinking, visualizing from the beginning through to the end, working through all the details.”
Organizing your thinking. Visualizing something from beginning to end. Working through details.

Those are basically the exact same skills that I'm trying to teach my students when I teach them to write, and it's a connection to the writing process and my classroom that really made me fall in love with this game as I played it this evening.

The key component is the "Bug" token.

Play goes around the table with each player placing a single card into her individual line of code at a time. Once the card is placed, the adult in charge of running the code moves the turtle correspondingly. Since my daughter is only three, we played with just the three simple commands: straight, left, and right. She could lay down a card to turn right, and I'd turn her turtle. Occasionally, this would clearly be the wrong choice, and the turtle would now be facing away from the gem that represents a win.

All she has to do is yell "Bug" and tap her ladybug piece. She can then pick that card up, I put the turtle back, and she gets to go again. She can do this as many times as she'd like until she figures out which card she wants to play.

In other words, this game teaches her that it's okay to fail. It's okay to make a mistake. It's okay to pick the wrong card.

None of the other board games we've played do that, and it's such an important lesson.

James Dyson created 5,126 versions of a vacuum cleaner before he succeeded in making the one that launched his business to success. He explains that the failure was part of the success because "I got to a place I never could have imagined because I learned what worked and didn't work."

In this Inside Higher Ed essay, Edward Burger discusses the way that he incorporates failure into the classes he teaches. He goes so far as to make failure a necessary component if a student wants to receive an A:
I now tell students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their final grade is based on their "quality of failure." Would such a scheme provoke a change in attitude? Absolutely — with this grading practice in place, students gleefully take more risks and energetically engage in discussions.
As a college instructor who teaches developmental students, I am used to having students familiar with failure. Most of them have failed a class in the past and (by their own admission) many of them expect to fail mine when they start. My challenge is not getting my students to accept that failure happens; it's getting them to understand that it's not the end of the game.

When they learn that failure is just a step in the process (by, say, revising and resubmitting their essays), they are learning how to learn. They are looking at the work they've done, reflecting on it, and making changes accordingly. They are learning how to solve complex problems and build on their own experiences.

It's a lesson that I have a hard time getting my adult students to accept and it's probably the one that I spend the most time trying to implement throughout a semester.

Perhaps if they'd had a game with a "Bug" button in it when they were preschoolers, it wouldn't be such  challenge. I'm really excited that I have the opportunity to share that experience with my daughter now when the stakes aren't nearly as high.

Photo: Tiffany Weisberg 

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