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How video games teach us to fail — and why classrooms should too

Why the ingredients that make video games engrossing apply to learning, too.

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How does a person excel at a challenging video game? Well... practice. The better question is why? What is a game doing that drives such continued engagement? According to Greg Toppo, journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, games are a living art form that utilize mastery learning, an educational approach that relies on consistent, sustained feedback and risk analysis.

As mastery learning expert Sam Abrams says, the best video games present a range of choices for the gamer to explore — and reckon with. “In the game it’s, why won’t it work? Then what do I do? I reflect, right? I self assess... and I say, I’ve got to go get that thing over there, and then I can come back to this thing. When we can empower a student to do that, can you imagine?” Abrams is the principal of Qatar Academy of Science and Technology (QAST), a mastery learning high school in Doha’s Education City. At QAST, empowering students is the goal.

At its most basic, mastery learning advocates believe students must attain a certain degree of proficiency and knowledge before moving on to learn more material. While in a “traditional” classroom a teacher assesses a student, under a mastery-based model students must understand their own learning benchmarks and failures. Mastery learning is evolving from a debated theory into an educational paradigm gaining a degree of mainstream curriculum acceptance.

The concept of mastery learning is relatively new, tracing back to the 1960s and the work of Benjamin Bloom, a University of Chicago professor and education psychologist. The rapid development of computers and electronic classroom tools have accelerated adoption of mastery learning practices; in short, a machine can track learning and clue users in with immediate feedback. Today, schools across the world are experimenting with mastery learning models. In New York City, mastery-based learning is in use as an English immersion tool for first-generation immigrant students at Flushing International High School. Schools in Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network are designing inquiry-based learning experiences for their classrooms. In California, the Khan Lab School brings mastery learning to students ages 5 to 18 and up. And Pennsylvania is home to the renowned mastery education resource Building 21, which partners with local school districts.

In Doha, the model at QAST is setting a high bar, pointing the student in the right direction, and then supporting them along the way — making a student’s education their own journey. As Abrams says, the students at QAST get to be the drivers of their own learning, diving deeper into what they value and less so for what they don’t. Of course, a mastery learning model has its critics, and it requires patience, coordination, and... more patience.

So why are video games a good analogue for the mastery learning approach? In a regular classroom, you finish a test, wait, and find out if you failed or passed. In video games — and in a mastery-based classroom — your assessment ideally occurs in real time. If you fail at an objective, you know about said failure immediately, you know what mistakes to avoid, and, hopefully, you are not discouraged from trying again. In a good game (or classroom), you want to make repeated attempts at a benchmark until you achieve success. Put another way, the urge to learn through mistakes is vital — and it’s stronger in a mastery learning model than in a standard test-driven educational approach.

Qatar Foundation is a nonprofit that’s been unlocking human potential for over 25 years. Its flagship initiative, Education City, is an educational model unlike any other and offers a truly international learning experience for all. The 3,000-acre campus has innovative K12 schools and universities (including branches of Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A&M, VCUarts, and Northwestern), all living alongside a science and technology park, global innovation forums, a modern art museum, startup incubators, and so much more.

Learn more about Qatar Foundation at