“Teach a kid to embrace and overcome failure, and they will be prepared to face the kinds of challenges kids really face in life – especially if they intend to take on the biggest issues of our time – issues they will have to take on, and will have to fail many times to get right.” – Erik N. Martin, USA

If you want to know what’s truly happening in the world of education, it’s pretty simple: ask a student.  With students, there is very little sugarcoating. They will tell you exactly what is working, and what isn’t. I find this to be not only refreshing, but extremely helpful. Only when we face the truth of our challenges can we move forward.

Such is the case with Erik Martin, a self-professed “student/game-designer/fictional world maker/education activist/epic nerd.”  As a younger student, Martin was, “always deeply dissatisfied with education, far past the ‘homework sucks’ kind of dissatisfied,” says Martin. “I blame this squarely on the fact that I had Montessori education first when I was young, and going into traditional education afterwards was basically soul-crushing.”

And while Martin did very well in traditional education, he found that after a few years of “hating it and feeling like I had no agency in my life or education,” he was fighting severe anorexia nervosa.  Martin points out that the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has recorded that depressive disorders are at an all-time historical high, with about 11 percent of our youth experiencing a disorder by the time they turn 18.  “And of course on this scale, one of the greatest common denominators is school. That is a lot of damage a generation is sustaining, and very few school reforms are addressing issues like these. They might even be perpetuating them through rigid reform that eschews many of the best educational philosophies that have developed over the last few centuries (indeed, like Montessori).”

After leaving the hospital, Martin turned to World of Warcraft – a massively multi-player online video game – where he became a leader, and he felt valued and encouraged. “I realized just how broken school really is,” adds Martin. “Over the following years, I started to realize that education is so, so much more than the typical, traditional school-box we try to shove it in.”

Martin soon found his voice, gained confidence, and found his footing in game development. Says Martin, “Jane McGonigal, another epic game designer, has noted that students play an average of 10,000 hours of video games by the time they graduate – not to waste their lives away, but because these games give them everything school does not (agency, personalized challenge, epic wins, the ability to overcome failure). We can learn a great deal from games far past the superficial elements of points and badges.”  

I am so excited to share today’s Daily Edventure with Erik Martin. I hope you learn as much from listening to his experience – not only as a student, but as an innovator – as I have.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

Education is really the foundation of every single freaking thing human kind ever has or ever will do.  It’s the most important part of society – it’s the investment our society makes to move forward.  And despite that, we do a really poor job of thinking before we jump, so to speak – our education system reflects a lot of short-sighted, often misguided ideals in education.  I’m still a student, and I’m still deeply dissatisfied with education, so now I’m working to do something about it.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

I have had a number of really, really amazing teachers.  The three that stand out are my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Metcalf, who caught onto the anorexia thing sorta-kinda, and might have saved my life.  My 9th grade Biology teacher, Ms. Baker, who opened up a world of opportunity for me outside the classroom.  And my 12th grade music teacher, Ms. Combs, who was kind, caring, supportive, and just made everyone around her a better, braver person.  It’s too hard to cut it down past that.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

To be honest, it is hard to say.  To a degree, I think I’m too young to really say, I’ve tried a lot of different strategies and projects, failed at my fair share of them, succeed at a fair few so far.   Myself, my former Biology teacher Ms. Baker, and a few other students ran an “unconference” for students last spring, which was a space to let students — not adults — talk about what they liked and disliked in their education, and how it might be fixed.  That was a very, very awesome moment, since many students not only contributed meaningfully to the education discussion, but also found that they were capable of doing so – which I hope resonates with them in the future.  I have also worked on a number of gaming initiatives, but those are somewhat harder to measure as far as outcomes are concerned, more because of funding than anything else.  Still, even being able to help budge the gaming-for-good movement forward a little is exciting, since I believe very deeply in the power of games and hope to see games helping more people in all sorts of ways in the future. 


How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I think creating games (a lot of what I’ve done so far) is a very innovative approach to pedagogy, which I am all about.  That said, it can be done really, really badly, and still be called innovative, and to ensure we’re having a productive conversation here, I’ve been part of some not-so-stellar games!  It’s not bad really, it’s necessary to figure out what doesn’t work before you can nail it on the head.  But I think there are a lot of people in the ed-tech realm who think games can be sort of enslaved to do their dirty work of cramming knowledge into heads – and it won’t work.  Kids don’t like chocolate covered broccoli. You especially see this with the term “gamification” tossed around so much now, such that it’s kind of lost its meaning.  Games are fun first; everything else must be woven into that core experience thoughtfully and selectively.  Good design first.  Go from there.  That’s how I try and apply an “innovative” approach to my work.  

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work?

Well, again, as a student, a lot of my work with fellow students for our initiatives happens over text messages and social media, probably more than half!  Email is not as free flowing as a platform as Facebook, and I think some people in the ed-tech crowd have caught onto this and have tried to capitalize on it.  But they’re still figuring it out. From a game design perspective, it is very empowering to see students have such great access to mobile devices; it makes it much easier to give them content.  Not to mention the much, much more significant possibilities emerging in the developing world as smartphones become nearly ubiquitous.   In that sense, education potentially has a whole new dynamic yet to be tapped.  

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

The most exciting innovation happening in education today is, and this answer might surprise you, the recognition of the “good character” students need to succeed.  That’s not to say it is a widespread innovation yet, but I hope it will be because it is so, so vital to recognize that no matter how many tablets and standards we give kids, and certainly no matter how many tests, the thing that makes students succeed most is the person they become through school – how resilient they grow to be, how much grit they develop when they fail or face a challenge.  These things are a little more rough-and-tumble than your typical buzz-word 21st century skills, and they’re also, I think, much more critical. 

And as I said, there are a few out there who are seeing this deeper need and call in education, and are realizing that how we educate our students determines who they will become, and who they become is much more important than some test scores. 

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

Resilience.  Teach a kid to fear failure, they will internalize failure everywhere they see it ‘till they can’t handle it anymore.  Teach a kid to embrace and overcome failure, and they will be prepared to face the kinds of challenges kids really face in life – especially if they intent to take on the biggest issues of our time – issues they will have to take on, and will have to fail many times to get right.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would give every child a blank book.  Before we can learn other people’s ideas, we have to be able to reconcile our own, and keep doing so as we learn from everyone and everything else.  Reflection is the process of becoming mentally stronger and better.  Then, I would of course give every kid Internet access and laptops and smartphones and all the rest. That stuff can change and save lives, but it’s not necessarily the foundation of becoming a well-educated human being.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

According to the test scores, Maryland’s schools are some of the best in the nation.  But beneath that lid is data showing achievement gaps and racial divides like nearly everywhere else in our country.  Still, our schools have done a good job allowing students to have at least a small degree of flexibility in their education with dual enrollment options and generally great technology for students to use.  It is absolutely worth praising the investment Maryland makes in education as well – we have our priorities and resources figured out to cover the basics and then some, and that’s more than many states can say.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

I think the biggest change that needs to happen is a shift in values – and I don’t mean some warm and fuzzy kind of values, but in what it is our school systems consider most important.  My current work is around exactly this; myself and a few other students are developing a Student Bill of Rights to certify schools and school systems based on how well they uphold student rights.  More to the point, I think we need to vastly downplay the role of standardized testing – not eliminate it, but check it as only one aspect of many critical elements to a real education in the full sense of the word.  There is too much emphasis now on tests and standardization, we need to even out a bit – education ought to amplify each student’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  That goal is perhaps more faded now than it should be.  

About Erik N. Martin
Student at the University of Maryland and Game Designer at the Edvengers

Scientists Cliffs, Maryland, USA


  • Birthplace: Bethesda Maryland
  • Current residence: Scientists Cliffs, Southern Maryland.
  • Education: Halfway through college.
  • Website I check every day: reddit
  • Person who inspires me most: Maria Montessori
  • Favorite childhood memory:  Good follow up to who my hero is!  I went to Montessori school when I was little, my fondest childhood memory was hiking in the woods there trying to find arrowheads for a class project – the feeling of freedom and self-motivation in Montessori school is just pretty awesome. 
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure):  In June I’ll be heading to Las Vegas – my dad’s a nuclear engineer and he lives out there right now temporarily.  It’s not really my kind of city at all, but there’s some nature not too far away surprisingly, and I’ll work on some personal projects with that bit of downtime. 
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why?: A few minutes ago when I saw that Josh Wise, a NASCAR driver who was sponsored by the crypto-currency Dogecoin, had the actual Doge Internet meme plastered on his car, and the NASCAR commentators talked about Dogecoin for a solid minute.  For anyone unfamiliar, Dogecoin basically started as a joke on bitcoin, and now it’s become a real, legitimate thing.  Which is hilariously awesome.  It’s a niche sorta thing though so most people probably don’t know what’s going on.
  • Favorite book: Tough one!  Right now it might be an old Icelandic tale called Njáls Saga.

Favorite music: Coincidentally also Icelandic, a band called Of Monsters and Men.

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