The Product of Failure

The gift of struggle in learning – and how getting it wrong can actually pay off.
Struggle now can pay off later - he hopes ...

Struggle now can pay off later … he hopes.

A superb article by education writer Annie Murphy Paul caught my attention this week – When, And How, To Let Learners Struggle. Murphy Paul reports on a study published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences called “Designing for Productive Failure” that shows mind-bending results.

In the study, two groups of kids were given a mathematical problem to solve – and it might surprise you to learn that the group who got the answer right scored lower when tested on “what they learned” than the kids who got the answer wrong!

How can this be? It’s in the experience the kids had – not the answer they reached. Group 1 was given extensive support by a teacher and ultimately led to the correct answer. I’ll bet they felt pretty good about it.

Group 2, on the other hand, was “… directed to solve the same problems by collaborating with one another, absent any prompts from their instructor. … in the course of trying to do so, they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like. And when the two groups were tested on what they’d learned, the second group ‘significantly outperformed’ the first.” I wonder if the kids were as surprised as I am.

Reminds me of the axiom that if you help a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, you rob it of the wall-busting strength it must develop to survive in the outside world.

I’m assuming that even though Group 2 was not given significant help from their teacher, it’s likely that their learning environment was overall supportive and healthy. If an adult had been standing by blowing a whistle and shouting insults every time Group 2 went “offtrack,” you can imagine the kind of confusion and self-mistrust those kids might have developed. Such a negative feedback environment might have pushed the “what they learned” score down significantly. So, environment must matter too.

The point of the “productive failure” observation is to point out how kids can learn confidence in their creativity and thinking skills even if the exact correct answers to questions and problems elude them. (A reflection on some Common Core methods here?)

It goes for adults too. I have a friend in business who says, “Fail fast.” In other words: We know we’re going to fail on some levels. It’s an experience we must have to get smarter and sharper and ultimately become successful. So get through the failing process as quickly as possible and get on to the success. You can’t do that unless you have a “healthy” attitude toward failure.

I struggled a lot with learning as a youth. I think that, unfortunately, I had the idea that failure was permanent. (Anyone else out there have a negative feedback environment?) As a curious and driven adult, it’s taken me years of inside work and outside experience to befriend failure and learn from it. The results: more self-trust; the ability to laugh at myself when I “fail”; the ability to work quickly through the process of grief over bad experiences; the overall sense that whatever “this” is, it’s not permanent; a sense of ultimate success through building on repeated “failures.”

I’m not happy about my childhood learning struggles, but I do see the value in the creative analysis of subjects and problems that I developed as a result. Author Simon Sinek says that the “survival” skills we develop as children to make up for our deficiencies become our greatest assets as adults. In our youthful creativity we develop personal ways of learning, working, and communicating which are unique to the individual – and much needed by the world – later in life.

I’ve always struggled to some degree with reading – but I somehow became an author! I’ve come to believe that one of the things that makes me an effective writer is the fact that I read slowly, trying not to miss any of the content, and have unconsciously picked up on a lot more information about writing style, grammar, voice, etc.

So, maybe the trade-off is worth it. The earlier we understand the true nature of “failure” and befriend it, the better off we can be throughout the rest of our lives – whenever the rest of our lives begins.

Now, here’s the cheese on this Brain Burger.

3 other ways failure makes the world better:

  1. You think those geniuses got the Twinky right on the first try? Yum!
  2. I’ve never heard someone say, “If at first you don’t succeed … ah, forget it!”
  3. We never would have had all those iPhone 1 jokes to laugh at.


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