Understanding the role of productive failure in the learning process

By Henrietta Carbonel, for Understanding Learning in an Online Environment, 2019

As teachers, we want our students to succeed. Much of our work goes into thinking about how we can help them better understand, we scaffold their learning, structure the problems, model solutions, offer practice exercises, plan hands-on experiments, etc. We want them to do well and avoid failure so that they don’t loose confidence in themselves or motivation to continue learning. However, learning implies going beyond what we can currently do, risk taking, and therefore often initial failure. If we do not want to limit our students’ learning, we need to make failure acceptable and possibly even an integral part of the learning process. In the first part, I look at how teaching theory and practice have often led to minimizing failure and structuring for success. We will show that, while these are important considerations to keep in mind when designing for learning, they do not necessarily exclude the experience of failure. In the second section, we consider the research on productive failure and how failure can support learning. Although the research on productive failure is substantial, the theoretical explanations are often partial. I attempt to give a more complete view of the cognitive effect of productive failure.