Productive Failure

My friend Ken Himmelman, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Bennington College, shared a reference with me recently about the concept of “productive failure”.  A researcher in Singapore coined the phrase that describes what happens when students learn by puzzling something out before seeking a teacher’s input.  In the researcher’s experiments, 7th graders were broken into two groups: one that was taught by lecture as usual and the second group that figured things out for themselves first before seeking a teacher’s help.  In the short run, the latter group of students scored lower on the exam than the former group, just as we would expect.  But over a period of months, they actually earned better grades, remembering concepts longer, since they have been learning through trial and error…through experience.

 Productive FailureIt seems that “productive failure” is an excellent way to learn.

I learn this way.  I rarely read the directions, moving first to figure things out and only when I get frustrated – or super-frustrated – do I sit down to read the instructions.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been shamed by others who felt that I was doing it all wrong.  The  Rulekeepers want everyone to do things their way because their way has been best for them.  Many teachers are Rulekeepers.  Now this researcher in Singapore has given us productive-failure-types legitimacy by proving our successful outcomes.

This begs the question, though.  Isn’t there a case to be made for all failures being productive?

The shamans say that books are “borrowed knowledge” because the only true knowledge comes from experience and experience is highly personal.   There must be a way to teach kids en masse to figure things out and get things wrong a lot in order to learn things right without handing out bad grades and thus defeating the whole point of learning.   The way I see it, children are built for skinned knees, for making mistakes, for trial and error.  Humans everywhere learn this way.  So why in the world do we force them to sit still for hours at a time, scared to be wrong, drilling and memorizing, and boring the joy right out of them?

Less Stress, More Success

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Our book group just read your book and it sparked more conversation than we’ve had in the seven years we’ve been reading together. Being successful professionals with busy lives and even busier children, we’re all trying to figure out how to find the time to just stop and enjoy our lives amidst so much pressure. Some of us find ourselves quoting you to our husbands and kids now, so you are our hero. ;-)
Sophia N. and Nancy R.

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