Failure is one aspect of learning something
effectively, and not to be feared...or punished.
of the main principles behind life learning is that people learn better
when they can be active rather than passive, and when they can pursue their
own interests and questions, test their own ideas, and make their own mistakes.
Schools, of course, work in the opposite way, providing instruction based
on someone else’s opinion of what should be studied, in an environment and
on a timetable structured by someone else. There is always a “right” answer
and mistakes are frowned upon and punished.
As they try to integrate technology into the classroom, some educators
have begun to give at least lip service to the notion of interest-based
and inquiry-based learning. But bending the principles to fit into the reality
of school is another thing altogether. Perhaps someday the classroom will
be left behind in the dust of the tablets and other portable devices that
help children learn independently.
Meanwhile, one researcher – Manu Kapur at the Learning Sciences Lab at
the National Institute of Education of Singapore – has been boosting the
reputation of making mistakes. He calls it “productive failure.” Writing
about his work in a recent issue of Time magazine, Anne Murphy
Paul describes it as a learning paradox: “The more you struggle and even
fail while you’re trying to master new information, the better you’re likely
to recall and apply that information later.” (The headline of that article
includes the word “floundering,” which I think has an unfortunate negative
connotation, given that this is the way people have learned since the beginning
of time! So it may be a while before mistake making gets much support academically.)
In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of the Learning
Sciences, Kapur and co-author Katerine Bielaczyc applied the principle
of productive failure to mathematical problem solving in three schools in
Singapore. With one group of students, the teacher provided strong instructional
support and feedback. With the teacher’s help, these pupils were able to
find the answers to their set of problems. The second group worked on their
own and with one another but without help from the teacher.
Although they had difficulty completing the assigned problems correctly,
they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about
what a solution might look like. And when the two groups were tested on
the material by being asked to solve complex problems based on the earlier
simpler set, the students who hadn’t received instruction “significantly
outperformed” the first. The findings were the same, regardless of the level
of the students’ mathematical ability.
This seems to demonstrate the difference between memorization and real
learning. Kapur refers to a “hidden efficacy” that results from muddling
through a problem – i.e. making mistakes and learning from them. When we
spend time on a problem, we begin to understand the deep structure of it
on a first-hand basis. And that apparently allows us to transfer our insight
to other problems in ways that those who were passive recipients of someone
else’s knowledge can’t. That, I think, is learning that’s useful in the
I also think it’s safe to say that the learning is even more effective
if it’s based on a problem that the learner posed in the course of her own
real life. When I used to help people start small businesses, I would often
tell them not to be fearful of the process, since many successful entrepreneurs
failed a time or two before their next idea took off. Some of that eventual
success was likely thanks to luck or timing, but the learning that resulted
from the failures was most important.
Kapur goes on to suggest how productive failure can be built into the
education process in systems that seem adverse to the mere word. But it’s
already there in real life from a very young age – in a toddler who falls
a time or two while learning to walk, in a baby who doesn’t get an immediate
response to her crying and must do something different (or louder) to get
attention, and in a beginning reader who stumbles over some words. Babies
are not interested in short term rote memorization; they are focused on
deeper understanding and learning in the real world. And so are our life
learning kids; don’t worry if they fail a time or two.
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s editor, the author
of four books about self-directed education, and the mother of two adult
daughters who learned without school.