Productive Failure in Science Learning

img_2352-768x576Has this ever happened to you? Some time ago I was putting together a bathroom cabinet kit following the Ikea instructions as carefully as I could. When I was close to completion, having struggled and cursed throughout the process, I realized that I had put one of the panels on backwards – requiring me to take apart and redo pretty much the entire process. Lo and behold, I found that this second attempt was much easier. My initial “failure” was, in fact, a great learning experience. I realized that now I really understood the process – that I had learned it much more deeply than if it had come to me more easily. This struggle, from initial failure to eventual success, was an important part of my learning and, as an added benefit, it helped me in future similar projects.

While schools pay lip service to the idea of failure as positive, students seem to be increasingly anxious about their school performance and afraid to “fail” at any level. In a recent post to Psychology Today, in discussing decreasing student resilience, Peter Gray (2015) argues that “Students are afraid to fail, they do not take risks, they need to be certain about things. Failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable”. How did we get here?

A Tale of Two Math Classes

We know that failure can lead to deeper understanding and more effective learning. In a study by M. Kapur in Instructional Science in 2010, two large grade 7 groups were given a complex mathematics problem involving speed and distance. One group was taught in a very structured traditional way directed by the teacher with all the supports necessary. The teacher worked them through and they solved the problem. The other group was given no instruction or support at all. Both had a few days to work. The unsupported group worked in teams and struggled through the week. They were mostly unsuccessful in their efforts. The teacher then helped them with the strategies they could not come up with themselves. What was interesting however was that in subsequent post-tests in which both groups were given other problems of varying degrees of difficulty to solve, the students in the initially unsupported groups performed significantly better than their well-supported peers – and this in problems of all degrees of difficulty. According to Kapur – and this part is important – students in the unstructured groups “develop structures—concepts, representations, and methods—for solving complex problems” while those given step-by-step procedures “may not understand why those concepts, representations, and methods are assembled or structured in the way that they are”.

Productive Failure

This “productive failure” method is very much in line with the constructivist approach in teaching science and technology. The implication of a constructivist-based pedagogy for science learning is that students need opportunities to think their own way through problems in order to be able to solve more. They need to explore relationships between variables, create models for scientific phenomena, and build technological objects fo
r example. They access prior knowledge, face cognitive dilemmas, cooperate with one another to struggle with real problems and construct their knowledge and understanding of the scientific world. They need to wrestle with different possible ways to come up with solutions both with each other and on their own. Following a set of detailed instructions from the teacher doesn’t necessarily give them this opportunity.

So what is a science teacher to do – faced with the task of completing a full curriculum in a limited time? Experienced teachers know that completely unguided activities are seldom productive and often leave their students frustrated and discouraged. In fact there is a lot of literature from cognitive psychologists which agrees. Kirschner (2006) for example disagrees with constructivist teaching methodology and claims that “Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.” However so many teachers I have worked with and observed have developed ways of providing opportunities for students to discover, construct and struggle with their learning and, at the appropriate time, provide the needed support to get their students on the right track.   Perhaps that’s the art of effective teaching!

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to observe a bridge construction project in Danielle Couture’s Secondary 4 Applied Science and Technology (AST) class at Heritage Regional Himg_2372-768x576igh School in Greenfield Park. Though the program calls for a rigorous design phase before the students embark on the hands-on construction, Danielle left this aspect until after the students had begun to manipulate their creation. She knew that her students were motivated by hands-on action-oriented activities and quickly got bored with theoretical discussions and lengthy pre-activity designs. That’s why they chose AST in the first place. Her approach was to have them get to work as quickly as possible. She had a brief full-class discussion with them about the problem at hand and had them begin work in their groups of two or three by drawing a rough sketch of what they intended to build. She knew that their designs would likely change frequently as they encountered unforeseen obstacles during the building process. She reasoned that a detailed drawing after the construction would be a much more accurate reflection of the reality of their project and still give them the engineering design experience required by the program. The discussions between students were often quite intense as they tried to solve the many problems that arose. Usually these discussions were about the design because they would not be working as originally expected. Students would take on different roles. Some emerged as the leaders, pushing their partners to agree with their vision and directing the construction work. Some passively accepted what the others suggested and did what they were told. This overcoming of the obstacles or “failures” they encountered continuously was an essential part of their development of a much deeper understanding of the engineering aspect of the program.   Danielle gave her students the opportunity to struggle and fail in order to redirect their thinking, deepen their understanding and ultimately experience success in a more significant way.


Gray, P. (2015). Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges. Psychology Today, September, 2015.

Kapur, M. (2010). Productive failure in mathematical problem solving. Instructional Science, 38 (6), 523-550.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

von Glasersfeld, E. (1996). Radical constructivism : a way of knowing and learning. London: Falmer.

Enter K – Exit Play?

play1Is Play on the Endangered List of our Kindergarten Practices?

A friend of mine, an experienced teacher, was reminiscing on her years teaching kindergarten. She regaled us with funny stories, precious moments, and some great aha! moments. One of these aha! moments happened at the beginning of her career. She had taken great pride in planning her day and had organised activities that she thought would be fun and interesting for the children. After they had danced, made puppets and done a sing-along, one child asked her: “When do we get to play?”

She was flabbergasted. The realisation that the children did not view these well planned teacher-led activities as PLAY was a revelation which, over time, changed her view of what her classroom environment should offer. Her misunderstanding is not unique. The problem is that there’s a lot of confusion around what constitutes PLAY. But in the words of a five year-old, it’s really simple: “Playing is doing what we want.”

Yet for many teachers, play remains an ambiguous concept. For some it’s what children do in the short free play periods between more structured activities; for others it’s their center time with proposed activities/challenges that may last 30 to 40 minutes; sometimes it’s viewed as being able to choose among playful activities presented by the teacher. The children can choose their activity; participation, however, is not optional. In certain cases, playtime will be used as a reward for children who have completed a mandatory activity or for those who behaved “well”. As a result, only children who do things quickly and easily get the reward.

What is play?

But there’s really no in-between with regards to play: either you’re playing or you’re not, because playing is a state of being, a way of experiencing life during a certain time. So when I speak of “play” here, I refer to activities that are freely chosen and directed by children which arise from intrinsic motivation and are sustained over a significant period of time.

These play activities have the following characteristics:

  • They involve a process with no specific objective, no required product, result or outcome;
  • Play is not predictable and you never know where it will lead the players or how it will end because neither rules, outcomes nor tasks are set by an outsider. The players are in control of all aspects of their activity;
  • The children choose to do it because they want to do it (they are intrinsically motivated);
  • They can choose who they play with, what they play with, how they play with it, and for how long;
  • It’s a sustained activity in which the children become immersed in ideas, emotions and relationships. They call upon their personal experience and knowledge while exploring, discovering, and practicing. They use their imagination; they demonstrate dexterity, problem solving abilities, perseverance, and much more.

There are mountains of research that show that “Young children learn the most important things not by being told, but by constructing knowledge for themselves in interaction with the physical world and with other children – and the way they do this is by playing”. (1)

And these “most important things” all relate one way or another to the competencies of the Quebec Preschool Education Program:

  • Psychomotor Development (Competency 1)
  • Social Development (Competency 2)
  • Emotional Development (Competency 3)
  • Language Development (Competency 4)
  • Cognitive Development (Competencies 5 and 6)

play2Where is the play?

So why don’t we find more real play time in our kindergarten classes?

There is no doubt that we bathe in the academic approach of all the other cycles around us in a school. Peers and parents don’t necessarily understand the kindergarten program, and see it as the beginning of academic life for the child, which in truth should be found in Grade 1. Most of our own learning experience is based on academic teaching models as well. No wonder it is so difficult for us to identify and name the contributions of play to learning. It entails a shift in our mind set. It requires us to look again and differently at our materials and at what could be done with them.

Taking blocks as an example, we need to think about and identify how children’s block play contributes to learning, and what conditions, materials, time and space we need to provide for that learning to happen. We have to think about what we want to learn about the children as we observe their play and their talk; we need be able to see and to “name” their behaviours, their processes, their strategies, and their attitudes in order document them.

Luckily we have a guide at our disposal which contains all that information. It tells us what to aim for and what to look for: the Québec Preschool Education Program. I like the way my friend talks about her relationship with it. For her, it’s a guide you have to see and embrace “by heart”. It’s her heartfelt understanding of it that has guided her through the years.

If we can convince ourselves that playing is not just a “recreational activity” but the core of children’s learning experience, then perhaps we could do like my friend did, and slowly but surely turn our classes into a place where the children can, first and foremost, learn the most important lessons in life … through play.


(1) Jones, E., & Reynolds, G. (1992). The play’s the thing: Teacher’s roles in children’s play, pg. 1.

Additional quick reads and references:

Why Play, Retrieved May 6, 2016 from

The Importance of Play, Retrieved May 6, 2016 from

Points to Keep in Mind about Play and Learning, Retrieved May 6, 2016 from

LEARN’s one page QEP preschool programme