Prepare students 'to fail' so they can learn, report suggests

Key finding of annual study into future pedagogical trends would mean students 'struggle' but gain deeper understanding

December 1, 2016
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Failure is an option: failure may help students to become more creative and resilient in the long term

Telling students they will have to fail in order to learn, which will involve academics making “fundamental changes to how they teach”, is one of the key findings of a new report into teaching and learning innovation.

“Productive failure”, a teaching method that gives students complex problems to solve while attempting to form their own solutions before receiving direct guidance from the teacher, has been labelled an effective way to learn by the co-author of Innovating Pedagogy 2016, the fifth annual report from the Open University on trends expected to disrupt education over the next decade.

According to the report, the method “requires students to embrace challenge and uncertainty”. It may result in their taking a knock to their confidence at first, but could “help them become more creative and resilient” in the long term.

Mike Sharples, chair in educational technology at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology, admits that while “trying to fail successfully” sounds contradictory, it allows students to gain insight into a topic before they are taught it.

“For the learners, you’ve got to say to them: you’re going to fail with this, you’re going to struggle, you’re not going to understand it in full, but try it,” Professor Sharples told Times Higher Education. “And for the teacher, they’ve got to hold back and not try to profess their subject, not try and teach the topic, but to let the learner explore first in a controlled way.”

The teacher has a strong presence in learning through this method, and the process is demanding, the paper states. It requires the teacher to understand the problem in depth in order to be able to discuss and correct students’ faulty knowledge. However, its impact can be considerable, and the approach is backed by “rigorous empirical testing of its effectiveness”.

“Despite being a relatively new pedagogy, productive failure is gaining traction. It has been implemented in over 26 Singapore schools,” the authors write. “The Ministry of Education in Singapore has incorporated this approach into the Mathematics A-levels curriculum for junior college students.”

The report also highlights “design thinking” and “formative analytics” as significant advances in pedagogy.

The former places learners in contexts that make them think like designers, creating innovative solutions that address people’s needs. Learners need to solve technical problems but they also need to understand how users will feel when employing the solutions, the report says.

Formative analytics support learners to reflect on what they have learned, what can be improved, which goals can be achieved, and how they should move forward.

Chee Kit Looi, co-author of the OU report and head of the Learning Sciences Lab at Nanyang Technological University’s National Institute of Education (NIE), said many of the pedagogies have “universal appeal” and “present great potential for motivating and engaging more educators to envision, design and redesign innovative learning environments”. 

“Adopting and appropriating these innovations some extent a risk-taking mindset,” he told THE. “These innovations need to be adapted, in certain ways, to address the diversified needs and contents of each university or place of learning.

“As practitioners try them out, a feedback loop will be constituted for localised knowledge as to what is indeed needed to make these pedagogies work well.”

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