Bigger Gains for Students Who Don’t Get Help Solving Problems

| February 25, 2014 | 26 Comments
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“Let them eat cake,” said Marie Antoinette. Should teachers, parents, and managers say of the learners in their charge, “Let them struggle”?

Allowing learners to struggle will actually help them learn better, according to research on “productive failure” conducted by Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore. Kapur’s investigations find that while the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge—providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own—makes intuitive sense, it’s not the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start.

In a recent study published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, Kapur and a co-author, Katerine Bielaczyc, applied the principle of productive failure to mathematical problem solving in three schools in Singapore. With one group of students, the teacher provided intensive “scaffolding”—instructional support—and feedback. With the teacher’s help, these pupils were able to find the answers to their set of problems.

Meanwhile, a second group was directed to solve the same problems by collaborating with one another, absent any prompts from their instructor. These students weren’t able to complete the problems correctly. But 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.

The struggles of the second group have what Kapur calls a “hidden efficacy”: they lead people to understand the deep structure of problems, not simply their correct solutions. When these students encounter a new problem of the same type on a test, they’re able to transfer the knowledge they’ve gathered more effectively than those who were the passive recipients of someone else’s expertise.

In the real world, problems rarely come neatly packaged, so being able to discern their deep structure is key. But, Kapur notes, none of us like to fail, no matter how often Silicon Valley entrepreneurs praise the salutary effects of an idea that flops or a start-up that crashes and burns. So, he says, we need to “design for productive failure” by intentionally managing the way learners fail.

Kapur has identified three conditions that promote a beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.

By allowing learners to experience the discomfort of struggle first, and the triumph of understanding second, we can ensure that they have their cake and eat it, too

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  • choirbebe

    How does a phrase that showed callous disregard for the feelings and needs of poor people equate to having students struggle to learn? It’s confusing and adds nothing to the article. Or, am I missing a bit of cleverness?

  • Patrick Daganaud

    « wer leben will, der kämpfe also und wer nicht kämpfen will (…) verdient das leben nicht…» Hitler propaganda…

    It’s really horrific to need to « STRUGGLE » to get knowledge when one is unable.

    This way to understand learning and problems solving eliminates students with
    disabilities who need to be helped.

    There is a great difference in inclusion in Eastern and Western practices and school systems and a systemic fracture in educational and social organization.

    • Machi4velli

      I don’t know why we should assume the researcher advocates the same approach to exceptional cases…

    • Kevin

      Hmmm…quoting Hitler is a great way to be taken seriously in a debate. A debate, mind you, reporting on the results of actual research, not random (lunatic) opinions.

      I’m unclear what your argument actually is, since you jump from the need to struggle to comparing inclusion in Eastern and Western classrooms. So to address just the sentence “It’s really horrific to need to « STRUGGLE » to get knowledge when one is unable,” you’re clearly missing the mark. To paraphrase what choirbebe said, there’s a difference between “struggle” and “floundering.” A skilled teacher (or parent) allows a child to struggle while learning, but doesn’t sit idly by while a child flounders directionless. The line between the two varies for every child, including the “students with disabilities” that you cite. And the teacher knows when to offer guidance and support to keep the struggle productive.

      It appears you conclude that if some subset of children can’t effectively learn through struggling, then the method shouldn’t be used on ANY children. Surely you’re not suggesting that a researched and tested method should be completely dismissed because it may not apply to 100% of students? Luckily, medicine (or any other research-based endeavor, for that matter) doesn’t operate that way. Besides, even students with learning difficulties can benefit from some time in “struggle,” their learning just needs to be wrapped in different kinds of supports.

  • Kevin

    To Annie Murphy Paul, the “study” link at the top of paragraph 3 in the article is wrong, I think. It takes me to a login page for Outlook Webmail. Do you have a link to the actual article? (Is it public, or behind a paywall?)

    • tbarseghian

      Apologies for that, Kevin. The link to the study has been fixed.

      • Kevin

        It’s still coming up for me as linking to mail.kqed.org/owa/…

        I’ve even cleared my cache, then tried with a different browser that wouldn’t have this page cached.

        Anyway, I think this is the correct link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10508406.2011.591717

        • tbarseghian

          So strange! Try once again, if you can. I just updated the link again.

          • Kevin

            That did it. Thanks!

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  • Miss Shields

    Educational “research” always humors and baffles me. The human mind is too complex to fully test in an experiment, yet these types of studies always propose the magic bullet for helping students learn in the best way possible. If that’s true, why are we educators forced to change our practices every few years based on the supposedly definitive results of these studies, many of which are contradictory? The experience and wisdom of veteran teachers are eschewed. Yes, using this strategy probably works quite well with some students, as does providing scaffolding, depending on the child, the subject, and many other variables. Can we just have some time to put effective strategies into practice before another study comes along and explodes everything we’re trying to do? Let’s cut back on funding for these studies and spend that money on the kids.

    • Tom MacFarlane

      I think research is important in knowing how students learn, but you are right that there is always some new flavor of learning. All of the flavors recently have been based on inquiry based learning. Direct instruction has been shunned to the corner for a time out. How about we take the good aspects of inqiry based learning and the essential need for automaticity provided for young people through direct instruction and create a best practice pedagogy for students as a whole and on an individual level.

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