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Why students need to fail

How falling flat on your face may be a terrific way to learn.

By MOIRA MACDONALD | DEC 04 2013
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Illustration by Shout.

In the world of education, “failure” is about as dirty a word as you’ll find, short of four letters. Heavy with negative baggage, considered 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 this class.”

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 deliberately 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 “productive failure.”

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 constantly innovate,” he says. “They’re really functioning like designers.”

Dr. Kapur is now working on understanding the underlying mechanisms 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 the key reason why a quarter of students were unlikely to graduate was because of a high failure rate in some Grade 9 and 10 courses. Low levels of achievement in hands-on, “applied level” courses in those grades (compared with the more “academic” level) were seen as a deterrent to student motivation, setting students up for more of the same as they attempted to progress through their high school program.

As a result, school system officials introduced policies and programs that put an emphasis on giving students multiple chances to complete work towards their credits, as well as flexibility in how they demonstrated their skills and knowledge. This replaced automatically failing them outright. Nevertheless, some teachers complained, and continue to do so, that programs such as “credit rescue,” an intervention to keep students from failing a course, and “credit recovery,” which allows students to redo only those parts of a course they’d failed, awarded credits to students who had not earned them.

Alan Wright, vice-provost, teaching and learning at the University of Windsor, says that failure can be useful if there is room for it to happen and for students to recover from it. At the university’s faculty of arts and social sciences, some students who would otherwise be asked to leave after a poor first year are offered a second chance through the faculty’s “Fresh Start” program. Students in the program get extra help with study skills and motivation as well as individual support and monitoring throughout the school year. Fresh Start works with 80 students, on average, each year, and since its inception in 2008 it has had a 70-percent success rate in helping them stick with their studies and eventually graduate.

“We can’t blame students all the time for their own failure,” says Dr. Wright. Along with several Quebec professors, he helped develop an online tool called SAMI-Perseverance that provides hundreds of interactive learning sessions to support postsecondary students in their first year. The tool allows students to develop skills that help them stick to their academic goals.

Part of the problem in accepting failure as a useful tool may be in the stigma that is so attached to it. In How Children Succeed, U.S. journalist Paul Tough makes the case that students should not be protected from failure but instead taught how to cope with it and manage it, so they can build the “grit” and character that, he discovered, is more common to successful people than a high IQ. The book, published in 2012, argues that young people who lack a capacity for persistence in the face of adversity may choose what’s safe rather than risk failure by pursuing goals they might find more fulfilling and which could be more valuable to society.

Even Ms. Thomas, one of the students in Dr. Venkatesh’s graduate class in statistics, says that being set up to fail for a greater good was daunting. “As much as some of us like to believe that we don’t work for the grades, after all this time, we still do,” she observes.

Keeping the focus on learning rather than on conventional markers of success like grades means accepting trial and error as an essential part of the process, says Stefan Sikora, associate professor of education and schooling at Mount Royal University.  An expert in failure, and its champion, Dr. Sikora dropped out of academia at least three times, once due to a profoundly negative academic experience, while he looked for an intellectual niche that made sense to him. Along the way, he variously worked as a professional tennis instructor, substitute teacher, playwright, ambulance crew worker, and teacher, principal and education adviser for British Columbia’s Kluskus Indian Band.

“I tell my students I’m the biggest failure I know and I’m delighted to be,” Dr. Sikora says. “The pressure not to fail interfered with my learning.”

In his 2010 paper entitled “Failure is Not Only an Option – It is, in Fact, a Necessity!” (PDF) Dr. Sikora describes what happens when he asks his students to name some skills that human beings master in one take. All they can come up with are learning to breathe at birth and sky-diving, two skills that people don’t get a second chance to try. Part of a teacher’s role is to help students accept that failure and mistakes are vital parts of their learning and show them how to use them to adjust their performance.

While Dr. Sikora says learning environments should be supportive, inspirational and free from a looming sense of punishment for messing up, he also believes there “have to be consequences” for lack of effort. The case of the Edmonton high school physics teacher, Lynden Dorval, fired in 2012 after refusing to comply with a “no zero” marking policy at his school for incomplete assignments, “pisses me off. [Dorval] didn’t fail the student,” he says. “The student failed the student.”

Whether we tip-toe around the word failure and prefer to call it something else or shout its name out loud and embrace it for all it can teach, failure can prove its value only when it drives us on to something better. Proponents of productive failure believe that’s exactly what it does. Accepting failure and harnessing it may be a key to the innovation that, we’re told, success will be built upon in a globalized economy. But before that can happen, we have to let failure in the door, and give it the time and space to do its best work.

Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based reporter who specializes in writing about education at all levels and is a frequent contributor to University Affairs.

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  1. Christopher Pavsek / December 4, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    I find the arguments for permitting students to fail, or the productivity of failure, to be quite persuasive. Remember what Bertolt Brecht said in one of his stories about Herr Keuner: when Keuner was asked what he was working on, he said “I’m preparing my next mistake.”

    I hope we will be allowed to continue to let our students fail in the future. If the trend (identified in these pages in recent months) toward the adoption of Learning Outcomes and and associated assessment models continues, it will be less likely that failure will be an option: success will be measured by success, so to speak, and not failure. And when the money starts to flow only to the successful programs, what sort of pressure to succeed will we all then feel?

  2. Frederick FRANCIS / December 4, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    An intriguing and compelling article on the necessity to fail,while recognizing the “whys” and consequences.

    Very recently, I undertook a work integrated Co-op work site visit. The student in question received a “poor evaluation” from his supervisor. What was surprising was that, up until my visit, he was unaware of his “poor performance”. His “failing” at the work place was an epiphany of what can happen in “the real world”.

    Many students do not necessarily fully appreciate or “understand failure” – viz. the possibility of failing having substantial real consequences.

    Paradoxically, failing a course is equated to – “I’ll just retake it”. The perceived consequences being relatively negligible. However, when the consequences are identified as having substantial repercussions (i.e. in the case of the Co-op students – potential loss of job/failure of the work term) the lesson learnt for failure is substantial.

  3. Joan Hawkins / December 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for a well-written article that does not over-simplify a structured, resourced and supportive teaching strategy to “just let them fail – it will teach them a lesson/build character

  4. Back2basic / December 4, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    People perceive the seriousness of a failure according to the subjective level of internal and external expectation,and to their cultural and educational experience and background.

    The concept ““Failure is Not Only an Option – It is, in Fact, a Necessity!” from Dr. Sikora requires the learner with the “grit” and character as wording by U.S. journalist Paul Tough. However,a teaching method known as “productive failure.” from Dr. Venkatesh will be only valid to “very high level learning students with PhD educational background, as indicated in this article.

    “We can’t blame students all the time for their own failure,” says Dr. Wright. Along with several Quebec professors, he helped develop an online tool called SAMI-Perseverance that provides hundreds of interactive learning sessions to support post secondary students in their first year. The tool allows students to develop skills that help them stick to their academic goals.

    I agree with Dr. Wright because the particular learning requires all learners to practice with perseverance (grit), not to memorize theory. Therefore, it is necessary to provide all learners with lots and lots of interactive learning sessions.

    It is impossible to have time and money to funding this marvelous technique from educators’ perspective as well as from those first years undergraduate students who must work to pay for their expensive tuition fee.

    I have that grit and character, but time passed me by. As a result, my dream to achieve PhD education has faded along with my health and my wealth. I really appreciate this article which shows me the importance in learning – NOT in high IQ, but rather in grit and character. Back2basic

  5. Theresa Camilleri / December 4, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Maybe we should replace the word “failure” by “failure to reach a given goal after the first attempt or even after a few attempts.” I think that two necessary ingredients for success are (i) interest in the subject or problem to be solved, and (ii) knowledge of great persons who reached a given goal by intelligent trial and error. Some great “men” struggled with a problem of interest to them on their own (Andrew Wiles)while others did so as part of a group (CERN and the Higgs Boson).

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