Beware Unproductive Success, Try Productive Failure

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Written by Manu Kapur

Education systems around the world are battling a challenging problem: How do we prepare children for the future of work in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA)? A future that will require students to have not only basic knowledge in their specialist domains, but also critical 21st century skills and competencies such as: critical thinking, creativity, teamwork, and resilience.

What makes this problem even more challenging is that current models of education and training remain rooted in the industrial-era mode of teaching: transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, followed by drill and practice. These models struggle to develop even basic literacies in math, sciences and languages, let alone to advance critical skills and competencies.

Even in countries that seem to do an excellent job of developing the basic knowledge and skills, as evidenced by their high rankings on international benchmark tests such as PISA, there is a growing recognition that we need to innovate and change the design of teaching and learning to meet the needs of the future.

Research on human cognition and learning suggests that part of the problem is with the current mode of instruction itself. Learning experiences that rely heavily on traditional direct instruction—where students are told exactly what to do and how to do it, followed by drill and practice—may well prepare students to pass tests and exams; however, research shows that retention is weak at best. Students are unable to apply learned knowledge to solving novel problems, let alone to use it creatively.

Said another way, the traditional model of instruction often results in unproductive success: performance on tests and exams creates the impression of deep learning, but ultimately this is just an illusion, for it is possible to do well on tests and exams without deep understanding. Students, parents, teachers, educators, and policy makers are invariably and immediately able to relate to this phenomenon.

Learning experiences that place excessive emphasis on the outcomes of exams—tests you take individually, in resource-poor environments, mostly over short periods of time, and in controlled, decontextualized settings—can hardly be expected to transfer well or develop the competencies and skillsets necessary to tackle the future of work in a VUCA world.

So, what do we do?

Enter Productive Failure: a solution that is, in many ways, simple yet paradoxical. It is simple, because it turns the traditional mode of instruction on its head. It is paradoxical, because it intentionally designs for and leverages failure in initial problem-solving as the path to longer-term success: that is, deeper learning.

Instead of starting with direct instruction on the targeted concepts, Productive Failure engages students to work in small groups to generate multiple ideas, solutions, and strategies for solving complex novel problems that target concepts they have not yet learned. These problems are designed in a principled way to admit multiple solutions, activate students’ formal as well as intuitive knowledge and ways of thinking, induce failure in problem-solving to make students aware of the limits of their own knowledge, and increase the motivation for and situational interest in learning the correct solutions.

Thus conceived, Productive Failure engages students in the creative and design processes of divergent exploration and invention, reinvention, and refinement, while working in small groups to persist through struggles and failure in problem-solving. And it is precisely this failure that prepares them to learn from subsequent consolidation and knowledge assembly orchestrated by the teacher.

To be clear, Productive Failure is not just another education fad or bandwagon. It has been vigorously tested, reproduced and independently replicated in several countries around the world, including Singapore, India, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the USA. Findings from both randomized controlled and quasi-experimental studies show that productive failure develops significantly better understanding and knowledge transfer than traditional direct instruction.

Furthermore, when implemented in the curriculum over a longer period, Productive Failure affords powerful opportunities for students to develop critical and creative dispositions, comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, intellectual playfulness, persistence amid struggle and failure, resilience, and teamwork—the very skillsets and dispositions needed in a VUCA world.

In the final analysis, Productive Failure offers a clear and compelling solution to this urgent and challenging problem. It is by no means the only solution, but it is one that is low cost, practicable in real classrooms across a range of student abilities, ages, and countries, and, most importantly, supported by robust scientific theory and evidence.

What we need now is strong political will, coupled with policy structures that create stakeholder buy-in as well as incentivize classroom innovation and teacher professional development in order to implement and scale solutions such as Productive Failure in the education system.

About the author: Manu Kapur promotes research on learning in Higher STEM Education as Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich. He is widely known for his research on Productive Failure. Previously, he worked at universities in Singapore and Hong Kong. Kapur earned a PhD in Instructional Technology and Media from Columbia University, USA.