Designing for Productive Failure

Project Number
OER 50/08 MK

Project Duration
May 2009 - September 2012


Consistent with a commonly-held belief in education and learning sciences that there is little efficacy in students solving complex, ill-structured problems without the provision of external support structures or scaffolds (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006), research invariably focuses more on what is gained from structuring learning and problem solving activities but not as much on what might be lost (Reiser, 2004). Of course, believing in the efficacy of structuring what might otherwise be a complex, divergent, and unproductive process is well-placed. However, allowing for the concomitant possibility that under certain conditions, engaging learners to persist, struggle, and even fail at tasks that are ill-structured and beyond their skills and abilities may in fact be a productive exercise in failure requires a paradigm shift. Exploring this very possibility forms the thrust of our research program on productive failure (Kapur, 2008). Hence, the purpose of our research program is to design and understand conditions under which engaging learners to persist in complex, ill-structured problem solving, which often results in failure as seen through conventional lenses of accuracy, efficiency, and performance success, is more productive than a priori structuring of the process of learning and problem solving. Over a series of studies with Indian high schools, Kapur (2008) found solid evidence for productive failure (Kapur & Kinzer, in press). More pertinent to the present proposal, further evidence for productive failure was found in LSL-funded research involving a series of design interventions in two Singapore secondary schools in the domain areas of mathematics and physics. For example, Kapur, Dickson, and Toh (2008) found out that students in the productive failure classrooms significantly outperformed their counterparts in the traditional lecture and practice classrooms in solving not only well-structured problems but also complex, ill-structured problems that are usually not targeted in the formal curriculum (also see Kapur, in press). We propose to build on these early successes through a three-year research program aimed at expanding the evidence base for productive failure across multiple curricula units, subjects, grade levels, and schools in Singapore. In this way, we move towards designing an innovative, evidence-based pedagogy for Singapore schools. To achieve this, we will carry out a series of mixed-method, quasi-experimental design studies to examine conditions under which productive failure can be realized across the content domains of secondary-school mathematics and physics that include both the use conventional classroom-based and computational modelling and visualization experiences. The first two years will largely be devoted to iterative design and implementation in the schools whereas the final year will focus largely on data analysis and dissemination. Multiple data sources together with both quantitative and qualitative analytical techniques will be used to analyse the efficacy of the design in ways that help both theory building and inform classroom practice.

Research Themes
Student-Generated Design

Funding Source

Related Links
ReEd Vol 2: Productive Failure in Math
ReEd Vol 14: Designing for a Collaborative Future
SingTeach Issue 55 (Dec 2015): Integrative Learning through Problem Finding

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