20 / www.universityaffairs.ca /January 2014
n the world of education, “failure” is about as dirty a word as
you’ll find, short of four letters. Heavy with negative baggage, con-
sidered by some a motivation killer, failure is the term that gets
shushed out of the room – the thing that’s best not talked about.
Nevertheless, there are those willing to not only talk about
failure but embrace it as a positive learning tool whose time has
come. And they’re not just talking about failure as a “teachable
moment,” a situation when students have the opportunity to rise
above the humiliation of screwing up and pull themselves up by the
bootstraps. No, proponents of failure’s value say something quite different:
that working through experiences that do not result in immediate success
can unleash deeper problem-solving skills, help integrate old and new
knowledge, and engender a capacity for persistence.
Last fall, Concordia University cognitive scientist and educational
technology professor Vivek Venkatesh turned the tables on a small group
of graduate education students taking his advanced quantitative statistical methodologies class. Instead of his usual approach of lecturing and
setting problems for students to solve, Dr. Venkatesh told the four students
that they would be taking over the teaching and would be doing so with
the goal of falling flat on their academic faces.
“We freaked out,” says PhD student Jihan Rabah, recalling that first
day. “But honestly, I have never learned as much as I’ve learned from
Students were responsible for teaching three classes of three hours
each, in partnership with one other student. Those doing the teaching
had to learn what they could about a particular statistical analysis based
on information from a dense, challenging textbook, and then explain it
to their classmates, showing them how to apply the analysis to a data set
assigned by the professor. Students also had to give their classmates a
series of questions and problems appropriately related to the data set one
week prior to the class.
Just hours before the start of each class, the pair of student teachers
would meet with Dr. Venkatesh to go over their presentations.
“Often we would do a whole set of analyses that they had worked on
for a week and I would say, ‘Doesn’t work. I’m sorry, but that’s wrong,”
explains Dr. Venkatesh. The two students would then be faced with trying
to fix the problem with just an hour to go before class.
“It was really about thinking on your feet,” says Tieja Thomas, a PhD
candidate who took the course. “You had to come prepared ... It really was
a deeper form of learning.”
The class was an informal experiment by Dr. Venkatesh to try out a
teaching method known as “productive failure.” Productive failure delib-
erately puts students into problem-solving situations that are over their
heads. Wrestling with the problem in collaboration with other students
sets the brain up for deeper and more engaged subsequent learning that
sticks for the long term, proponents believe. The brainstorming also gives
instructors a chance to learn what students already know and can do.
“We’re not looking for the correct solution. We’re looking for a diversity
of solutions,” explains Manu Kapur, an associate professor of curriculum,
teaching and learning and head of the Learning Sciences Lab at Singapore’s
National Institute of Education. Dr. Kapur, a former school roommate
of Dr. Venkatesh, experimented with the practice and coined the term
The work builds on previous research on such areas as “deadlock”
and “impasse.” In one of Dr. Kapur’s many studies, Grade 7 math students
in Singapore who were asked to collaboratively solve several complex
problems beyond their knowledge level (involving the concept of speed)
performed significantly better on an end-of-unit assessment than students
who were taught using a traditional lecture-and-practice approach. Both
groups received a final lesson that consolidated the concepts before being
assessed. Dr. Kapur found similar results with other groups of students,
especially in conceptual understanding.
“By engaging students in designing solutions, students have to con-
stantly innovate,” he says. “They’re really functioning like designers.”
Dr. Kapur is now working on understanding the underlying mecha-
nisms that make productive failure work. Dr. Venkatesh, meanwhile, is
planning formal research into how productive failure can be applied
to language learning and writing, in concert with Dr. Kapur and with
Heike Neumann and Kim McDonough of Concordia.
The productive failure model can require more time for students
to muddle through challenging problems, but it is not “discovery-based
learning,” says Dr. Kapur. In discovery-based learning, students explore
and learn independently, without getting instruction in how to consolidate
the material. In productive failure, “the instruction component is merely
delayed, not eliminated.”
The F-word makes the whole concept a harder sell, concedes Dr. Kapur.
“People don’t like the term failure. They ask, ‘Why do my kids need to
fail?’ But we’re not talking about letting students fail on tests. [Productive
failure] is about failing initially and early...in a safe way.”
A safe kind of failure in a controlled environment is entirely different
from what happens when a student flunks an important test, a course or
even a semester. These large-scale flame-outs are often humiliating and,
according to some psychological research, the feelings of incompetence
that they breed can kill a person’s motivation to keep trying.
A 2003 study led by Alan King at Queen’s University, investigating
early results of Ontario’s restructured high school system, found that