Throw ‘em in the deep end … for a while

by on September 12, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Rapid Learning Insights

Here’s an option for introducing new material: Ask workers to figure out a tough problem, even if they don’t yet have the knowledge or skills to solve it.

It’s called “productive failure” and yields long-term learning benefits.

Researchers asked one group of students to figure out answers to complex math problems – without teaching the students how. They taught a control group a typical math lesson – that is, they provided step-by-step instructions on how to solve the problems.

The sink-or-swim group struggled and ultimately failed to solve the problems on their own. After they’d failed, the trainers taught them the same math lesson as the control group.

Afterwards, both groups were tested. The sink-or-swim group did better. Not only that, they did better in subsequent math lessons.

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Take home: Consider incorporating productive failure when you introduce material. For example, start a session by asking trainees how they would solve a specific problem.

Then discuss their answers before you introduce the approaches you recommend. That initial struggle, though unsuccessful, will prime their minds to better absorb what you’re teaching.

Source: Kapur, M., et al. (2008). Productive Failure in Mathematical Problem Solving. Cognitive Science Journal conference proceedings, p. 1717.

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  1. Ersh
    August 15, 2012 - 3:16 pm

    One thing I learned a long while ago was that, after a few volleys (just in case you COULD actually answer their concern and move on,) I could just say something as simple as “Hmm…”  and nothing more.  This would allow them to know that I’m hearing them while also allowing them to continue.  This way, if I did have an answer to their full concern, I could give it later.  Amazing how it works.

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