Pitching failure as a sure-fire path to success

Pitching failure as a sure-fire path to success

Date
Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Media Type
The Australian (Online)

A PROPHET of failure is an unlikely hero, as Manu Kapur knows.

Yet Kapur, who preaches what he calls productive failure, was among the international drawcards at this month's science of learning conference hosted by the University of Sydney. What works, or fails to work, in the classroom can be surprising, if learning is embraced as a science.

"The wrong turns that students make, the misconceptions, the reasonably good ideas -- all this information is very useful for the teacher," says Kapur, from the Learning Sciences Lab at Singapore's National Institute of Education.

Ask students to solve a problem that turns on a concept they have yet to be taught, and they will come up with all kinds of solutions, but rarely the right one. It might seem a perverse exercise, and troubling for those who fret about self-esteem in the classroom.

Kapur knows this, and quotes the objection of the Australian psychologist John Sweller: "What can conceivably be gained by leaving the learner to search for a solution when the search is usually very time-consuming, may result in a suboptimal solution, or even no solution at all?"

Kapur's answer is: greater success in learning, as long as this search, this productive failure, is followed by instruction that interweaves the teacher's correct solution with the students' not-so-correct solutions.

"The teacher actually engages the students' ideas in relation to the mathematically correct idea," Kapur says. "Those comparisons and contrasts are very important (for learning)."

That seemingly clueless search for a solution activates what students know, or think they know, about the problem.

When the true solution is offered by the teacher, students bring to bear a quality of attention that makes all the difference.

"They're interested to know, 'OK, so what is this idea, how is it so different from mine and how does it work better?"' Kapur says.

In research with 14 and 15-year-old Singaporean students who had to master the statistical concept of variance, Kapur showed that productive failure made for better learning than direct instruction. In that traditional mode, the teacher explains the new concept then unleashes the students on problem-solving tasks. It's less successful, Kapur argues, because it's less likely to bring into play the constellation of not-quite-there ideas that students bring to class.

"That's crucial information, because that's learners' thinking, isn't it? That's something that you use as a resource to design your teaching of the concept."

The field of learning sciences, which ranges from brain imaging through to more traditional qualitative psychology, is getting more attention in Australia.

The Australian Research Council is offering $16 million towards the establishment of a Science of Learning Research Centre.

This article was published by The Australian

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Source: The Australian (Online)