Should we set students up for failure?

When was the last time you succeeded at something and shared that success with your friends, family or significant other? Perhaps you got a new job or got a good grade on a paper?
Now think again: When was the last time you failed at something and shared that failure with your friends, family or significant other in the same celebratory manner as the success? Perhaps you lost a job or failed a paper?
Chances are, you’ve probably celebrated your successes more times than you celebrated your failures.
Because that’s what we do; we like to keep the good memories rather than the bad, and we like to share the best version of ourselves with the people that matter to us.
But there’s good reason to start celebrating your failures. The reason is simply that you can learn from them.
This may not come as news to you. In fact, by now it’s almost conventional wisdom that we learn as much (if not more) from failure as we do from success.
It’s an idea that’s thriving in the business world, where companies have been trying to create and shape entire cultures around failure and the acceptance of making mistakes (perhaps “move fast and break things” rings a bell?).
But there’s a difference between learning from the failed attempts that may occur, and intentionally setting someone up for failure. The latter is a whole lot less conventional.

Productive Failure

What will happen if we encourage students to fail?
Can setting a student up for failure intentionally mean that they learn faster and retain more information, compared to if we let them fail occasionally and undeliberately?
The concept of using failing to enhance learning is called Productive Failure, and it suggests that learning should be designed in a way where a person:

  1. Fails regularly
  2. Reflects on the failures (asks themselves why they failed)
  3. Changes the way they study to ultimately succeed

In the video you see below, you can experience Productive Failure first hand in our Lab Safety simulation.
In the lab simulation, you perform an experiment with acids and bases. But as you’re working with the chemicals, you accidentally mix two that cause a dangerous reaction.
The chemical cocktail explodes in your eyes (your virtual ones, just to be clear) and you have to figure out a way to wash your eyes in order to save your vision, all while running around like a headless chicken.
Once you have regained your vision, you’ll be asked to reflect on what happened, and why it went wrong.
And it’s not until this point that you actually get helpful hints on how to perform the experiment in a safer way.
In other words, you’re forced to fail.

You can try the full Lab Safety simulation for free right here.

I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

It can be argued that a part of the point of Productive Failure is that it isn’t actually real failure.
Real failure is the lack of further attempts.
Productive Failure is merely making an attempt that didn’t work for you, and then continuing to make more attempts, using what you’ve learned from those previous attempts.
The failure you experience in Productive Failure has a different purpose than bringing you down and taking away your confidence and motivation to solve the task at hand. Productive Failure is about bringing you into a reflective state, letting you absorb the new information much more effectively.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That was Thomas Edison’s view on failure. He didn’t succeed on his first try, and neither did a lot of other people who we today celebrate for their genius thoughts and brilliant inventions.
One example is the WD-40 created by three scientists who worked at the Rocket Chemical Company. They discovered plenty of ways that didn’t work, when they were trying to create a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry back in 1953. They started out with WD-1, and you can probably guess how many attempts they made before creating WD-40. But it all ended quite well, as the original formula WD-40 is still used today, more than 60 years later.
WD-40 Rocket Chemical Company

Can Productive Failure be used in science teaching?

There are quite a few people who have worked to show that failure can, in fact, be productive.
One of them is of course the man that came up with the concept of Productive Failure, Manu Kapur.
As Professor and Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, he has researched this topic for over 10 years in the field of math, and the evidence is quite clear: Students can learn Math more effectively by being exposed to Productive Failure.
Manu Kapur is now leading ETH’s Learning Sciences department and looking for new innovative ways to advance his research and bring it to other fields – including science.
For that reason, Labster has entered a collaboration with him and ETH to bring his research in Productive Failure to the science field and to 3D virtual learning.
In 3D virtual learning, it will be particularly exciting to find out how Productive Failure can be used, as the world of virtual reality inevitably brings new possibilities with it for creating and experiencing failure (like e.g. experiencing a chemical explosion in front of your very eyes).
Chemical explosion in lab safety simulation
The goal of the collaboration is to research how students can learn science more effectively by intentionally designing the simulations in a way that sets the students up for failure.
With this research, we hope to be able to shed some new light on the perception of success and failure, and to challenge the idea of how we learn.
Perhaps this could be the beginning of a whole new era of learning through intentional failure?
Stay tuned, and be the first to find out.

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