Is Failure Ever Productive?


The recent issue of the Brilliant Report discussed the concept of productive failure. “Allowing learners to struggle will actually help them learn better.” This concept tends to go against the natural instincts of teachers. Typically, we want to give our students a strong sense of structure and guidance, build their knowledge base, and then set them free to master their learning.

Yet, research seems to be telling us something different. The idea of productive failure emphasizes the idea that learners need to struggle with material in the beginning, with limited assistance from teachers for a while. As students work through the learning process, without the scaffolding provided by instructors, learners dissect the problems (test questions) and can often develop a greater understanding of the structure of the problem. Once learners can recognize the structure of problems, they are able to transfer this knowledge to new problems. We are not teaching to the test, but providing students with the opportunity for real learning.

Creating an instructional experience that balances productive failure while not creating a high level of anxiety that inhibits learning is based on reflection. Students must have time to identify what they did correctly and where they made errors as well as explain how they approached solving the problem.

How do we create this learning process in an online class? One strategy is to integrate graphic organizers in the teaching / learning experience. Graphic organizers are visual learning tools that help students organize their thoughts and work through all problem-solving steps. The i-Pathways Resource Section contains several graphic organizer to help facilitate learning.

  • Use the Compare and Contrast organizer to help students map out relationships between events, people, and processes.
  • Venn Diagrams are great for identifying similarities and differences in literature, stories, or forms of government. In math, a Venn diagram can be used to help when learning how to work with sets, math processes, and geometrical shapes.
  • The Flow Chart can be used to identify a chain of events. It can be used to identify the steps used in solving problems.

There are many ways to use graphic organizers, but the key is to give students the tools they need to reflect on the problem solving process so they can experience productive failure and learn how to learn.

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