Walter S. Mallory: Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?
Thomas Edison: Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.
For many students, the word failure is the stuff of nightmares. It connotes defeat and deficiency and invokes feelings of shame and inadequacy. Recently, however, there’s been a push to reclaim the concept of failure, to recognise it not as a negative but as a positive – not a setback, but a detour in the right direction.
At Da Vinci Science High School in California, students are encouraged to figure out their own approaches to difficult concepts, embrace failure and learn from it. Tests are not passed or failed; instead detailed feedback is provided by teachers on the students’ mastery of certain skills or concepts. If a student wishes to improve a particular grade, they are free to submit an analysis of the thought process behind their original incorrect answer and reschedule the test.
The results speak for themselves. In 2013, 99% of students graduated from the high school, significantly higher than the average state graduation rate.
This model is based on research out of Singapore suggesting that struggling – and failing – to figure out a concept activates certain parts of the brain associated with deeper learning. A study in which 7th Grade students were given mathematical problems they’d never encountered before found that students who were left to solve problems without instructional support demonstrated greater flexibility and understanding than those given direct instruction by the teacher.
Manu Kapur, the researcher behind the study, hypothesizes that by providing direct instruction teachers essentially close off other avenues to a problem’s solution that students might explore. Even if these experimental approaches lead to a dead end, there is still great educational value in taking them – sometimes they will lead to unexpected discoveries.
The concept – known as productive failure – is novel in modern society. We are wired to respond to failure with panic and defensiveness rather than reflection and adoption. But research demonstrates that if we embrace failure as a necessary and important part of the learning process, students can get far greater value out of their education in a much shorter time.
Productive failure has other benefits too. For example, it’s been argued that it helps develop a “growth mindset”, wherein people believe that skills and abilities can be developed through hard work and perseverance rather than innate talent. This is especially important for developing students, who often fear failure and, therefore, lack the confidence to attempt solutions to complex problems. By promoting the value of failure – and thereby removing the stigma – productive failure removes many of the obstacles preventing students from engaging.
It’s crucial to bear in mind that while self-directed learning and failure can be excellent educational tools, the process must still be guided by a switched-on teacher. Students shouldn’t be left to struggle on their own; they must be nudged and directed, solutions provided and explained, and errors balanced by successes. Within the right framework, failure can be one of the most important lessons your students learn – if you’ll allow them.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.