The Learning Paradox

The more you struggle to master new information, the better you’ll understand and apply it later.

The learning paradox is at the heart of “productive failure,” a phenomenon identified by Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore. Kapur points out 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 may not be the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let the neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start

Earlier this year, in a paper published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, Kapur applied the principle of productive failure to mathematical problem solving.

With one group of students, the teacher provided strong “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 apparent struggles of the floundering 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.

Kapur argues we need to “design for productive failure” by building it into the learning process. In the process of his work he’s identified three conditions that promote a beneficial struggle:

1. Choose problems that “challenge but do not frustrate.”
2. Allow students to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. (also see)
3. Compare and contrast both good and bad solutions to the problems.

Still curious? A simple technique to learn anything better and faster.

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