Making “failure” productive during collaboration

Failing can be productive as shown in my new research article "What students do when encountering failure in collaborative tasks" published by npj Science of Learning

May 31, 2019
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This article "What students do when encountering failure in collaborative tasks" resulted from a research project at the National Institute of Education in Singapore with Jen-Yi Li and Michelle Io-Low, and collaborator Manu Kapur (ETH Zurich), where we examined how students respond to incidents of “failure” while engaged in a collaborative learning activity. With the recent concept of Productive Failure becoming more widely known, this study aimed to inform how students deal with knowledge failures as they are happening and how the structure of the task affects whether students use more or less successful behaviors to learn from their failures. 

My interest as a researcher has always leaned towards the idea of what can be learned simply from being engaged in conversation. Without being an expert, without having studied the topic of discussion, without planning. Spontaneous, heat-of-the-moment sorts of conversations. The experience that led to the “a-ha!” during such discussions was fascinating to me, and early in my research career I had hunches that if the conditions of a learning situation were right, we could get students to learn without needing to teach them first. They just needed to talk, so the question became how could I get them to substantively engage in talking to learn?

To make a long story short, a major piece of my first big study failed. I had hypothesized a particular result for two different collaborative learning contexts and I got a null result. At that point, I knew nothing more than I had before I started the work. I dug further, I looked deeper and I had some new ideas. I began to think about the nuances of those different contexts, what was causing students to get distracted or stuck, how the design of the learning environments was leading students to success or failure. Productive Failure (PF) came to mind. I cold-contacted Manu Kapur, PF’s creator, to see if he would chat with me at an upcoming conference. He wasn’t going, but we still chatted. Later that year, after I accepted a job in his lab, we began to incorporate some of my work in collaborative learning with his PF principles to design learning activities that would allow me to look more deeply into student conversations during learning and what contexts better prepared students to learn from failure, as well as inform the process of PF of which there were still many open questions. We designed the study from this article together, while I continued to run more studies and analyze the copious amounts of outcome and process data that we had generated with my research team. So, one way to get students to engage in discussions to learn? Create opportunities for them to fail. 

I hope this work can be translated into forms that are easily accessible to teachers for a few reasons. 1) Contexts that allow students to learn from knowledge failures can be powerful for deep understanding, motivation, and perseverance. 2) Teachers know their students better than anyone (i.e., researchers) and would benefit students best by designing the contexts directly. 3) There is still a widespread paradigm of efficiency that runs classrooms, where failing during the process of learning is either not nurtured or not acceptable. Both collaboratively learning and learning from failures are messy. But they can work really well in the right conditions and the right classroom culture. We all know that there is power in learning from our mistakes. I’d like to be a part of changing classroom culture to welcome this attitude.

Rachel Lam

Educator and Researcher, Independent

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