When, And How, To Let Learners Struggle

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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.

Brilliant readers, have you seen the struggle to learn pay off for yourself or for other people? Please share your thoughts below.

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19 Responses to “When, And How, To Let Learners Struggle”

  1. I’ve long since raised the issue of ‘over-modelling’ and recognising that point where teachers need to zip up their lips.

    It perhaps takes an innate skill and/or lots of experience and training, however, to be truly wise at this as a teacher.

    It is also part and parcel of being able to evaluate and compare programmes and guidance – including visualising the recommendations for the form and amount of learners’ practice – and that is also a rare ability it seems.

  2. Nina says:

    This is excellent, thank you! It also adds one more essential item to the already very long list of “effective teacher” competencies: the ability to tell apart the positive failures form the negative ones!
    Furthermore, the line between beneficial and detrimental failures is individual, so this also presents stronger need to personalized learning experiences for students. This post also beautifully emphasizes the importance of enhancing the learning process, instead of just looking for getting the perfect “learning products” (correctly completed problems). http://wp.me/p25vY5-2E


  3. cathy says:

    Agreed – struggle is not a bad thing! But like Nina points out, even the struggle shouldn’t be one size fits all. I think that some kids can push through a lot of struggle and get a positive learning experience out of it. Others, however, will shut down with too much struggle, which defeats the purpose. The struggle should be productive so that it enhances the learning experience for the individual learner.

  4. Good piece.

    Research on the ‘exploitation v exploration’ trade off in reinforcement learning parallels and supports this piece. http://www.tomstafford.staff.shef.ac.uk/?p=48

    On the other hand, it’s a very delicate balance. Chronic difficulty can lead to “Mind-Shame” and diminished capacity for learning. http://www.learningstewards.org/mind-shame/

  5. Reggie says:

    Educators need to tread lightly, here. There’s a fine line between frustration and effective learning outcomes; and college professors, particularly in an era when tenure is giving way to more and more part-time adjunct faculty we cannot forget that student evaluation scores are very tightly correlated with expected grades, and students who are struggling, even those who are not doing the work, tend to rationalize their problems as faculty problems — threatening livelihoods. Adjuncts, even very good ones, often resort to intense coaching as a defense against job-threatening complaints. In a professional, well-run department, that should not be a problem, but all department chairs are not created equal.

  6. Gail Post says:

    Great article. Such important advice about the importance of letting children learn through struggling. It is so important that children stop being afraid of failure and see it as a springboard to developing resilience. I wrote a blog post about this a while back: http://giftedchallenges.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-life-lesson-for-gifted-children.html

  7. Perhaps change the word ‘struggle’ for sufficient, fit-for-purpose ‘practice’ as this may often be all that is missing.

    I suggest that if learners received the amount of practice they needed (in whatever lessons), we simply would not have the current levels of failure or weakness in our education systems.

  8. anniempaul says:

    Reader Andrew McDuffee sent me this comment by email:

    I had a math teacher like this in middle school. He taught us all sorts of really advanced math concepts that I “re-learned” in calculus. He would present a problem on the board with no explanation, and then have us wrestle with it and not explain it until the beginning of the next class, meanwhile offering lots of tutoring outside of normal class hours. It was indeed frustrating, but it turned me into a math wiz, and it took 6 years of conventional math instruction to make me hate math again. :)

  9. anniempaul says:

    On Twitter, reader Darren E. Draper writes:

    [Teacher Dan Meyer] @ddmeyer called this “being less helpful.” I like @anniemurphypaul’s attempt to define when.

  10. Gregg Gullickson says:

    My dad joined the Navy in 1939, coming from a farm in North Dakota. He was mechanically inclined and was self taught, working on farm equipment and Model Ts. His first assignment was in the USS Mississippi in the pump room. There he mastered the equipment in the space but did not gain an overall understanding of how the engineering system as a whole worked. Early in 1942 he was reassigned to the new destroyer, USS Corry (later lost on D-day). Promotions came fast when the war began and he was now a 2nd class machinist mate. He was assigned to the after engine room but he did not have any experience on the machinery in this space. He was highly motivated to learn all that he could but the pieces of the engineering system were not coming together in a logical order for him. He’s told me the story many times of how a first class machinist picked up on this and sat next to him and drew the steam cycle (the system) on a discarded paper bag one of the shipyard workers had left behind. In an instant the light went on and he could see how the system worked, and he could now attach all his new learning to the system. He was quickly made a chief at 23, became an officer after the war and served as chief engineer on four ships, the last one being USS Forrestal – still using his understanding of the system gained many years earlier thanks to a perceptive petty officer. Helping learners see/see for themselves how the pieces of knowledge fit into a system is one of the keys to great teaching and learning. Thanks for reading.

  11. Kate Peters says:

    In your newsletter, your quote for the week indicates that human contact is the key to making the struggle work. That makes a lot of sense to me. You are talking about struggle with support. I have seen that work over and over again; I do believe that the best learning is done through discovery, but I’ve also seen someone finally “get it” because I encouraged them to push forward till the “aha.”

  12. This seems to bolster my long held belief for musicians and in particular – bands. If you want to be a working musician or band, then get out of the garage and book a gig. Play for free in your living room, volunteer at an old folks home or set up in your garage with the door open. Sure there’s a chance that you’ll make mistakes or even grind a song to a halt, but believe me, before the Beatles recorded any songs they made a zillion mistakes. Most people never get to this stage simply because they have a fear of “what-ifs”. Allowing yourself to fail is liberating and can be a valuable lesson learned. The ‘discomfort of struggle’ can lead to the triumph of understanding – not only about the material you’re performing, but your own tendencies and limits under pressure. If you can get through that, most gigs will be a piece of cake!

  13. I feel yes, students need to learn to work independently. I guess the word struggle may sound too rough. I feel there are other areas that will make struggling or learning independently more rewarding. I feel students need lower average stress or lower layers of mental frictions (leaving more energy to think and reflect on information or learning skills). Yes, our average stress does affect our learning and reflection time. Students also need to be taught the proper dynamics of approaching new mental work more slowly at first. Students with higher average stress have the naturally bad outcome of having higher average stress funnel into improper pace and intensity when approaching newer mental work. So dynamics of approaching new work needs to be taught. Students also need to be taught how to “take more time to consider their present knowledge related to a problem” along with their ease of pace. The Scaffolding or building mental frames should be taught to students, so they will know how to have more confidence that as they learn newer mental work, their mental frames in areas will gradually become better for learning that material. So we want to produce independent learning and the tools to help them learn independently and hopefully use those tools to continue learning at home and school for years to come with “enjoyment” of the process.
    I have long since said learning and even competition is good only when there are tools to continually change and improve. We want to create long-term motivation to learn independently. I am glad the author notes the teacher is still there to help when needed.

  14. Bill Kuhl says:

    I had written a blog post about last summer’s College for Kids class and how for the first day I had given the students some general directions on how to built a simple model plane but did not draw the lines on the material for them. Well several of them either did not follow my directions or can not use a ruler because the wings and tails were built way too small. I was hoping they would be more creative with only general instructions. A fellow model builder had this reply to that, “The number one requirement in class is that every single airplane must fly successfully.

    Creativity by the ignorant is a prescription for failure.” Not sure I agree with that but his point was success was needed right away or kids get discouraged from the start. This is the article with pictures: http://scienceguyorg.blogspot.com/2013/07/creativity-following-directions-failure.html

  15. Larry says:

    Struggling is a survival response. Catapillars must struggle to get out of their cocoon to become butterflies. If you help them by cutting the cocoon a bit to help them, the right chemicals or hormones don’t kick in to make the transition.

    So with our struggles. There needs to be enough so our brain and cells are properly pushed, releasing chemicals which can help us figure it out and remember some things better. Now much is just enough struggle and what is too much – that is what we have to figure out. If things are too easy, we are not pushed and though we can accomplish, our body memory and areas that figure things out are not triggered sufficiently to help us down the road, where it may mean learning determines our survival

  16. M. Catlett says:

    This has weird overlap with my professional efforts in coaching – I read here for tips on helping my son, but for this one it perfectly mirrors my belief that, after being introduced to a technical problem (so that it’s properly understood), junior technicians must be left alone to sink or swim.

  17. A few years ago I learned Spanish as a second language (as a 27 year old) and I was met face-first in the world of the struggling learner. I would say it took me about 3 years to become a fluent Spanish speaker, but the first year I struggled with the fact that I was struggling. I didn’t want to struggle – I wanted to enjoy my experience learning a new language. But what catapulted me to become a fluent speaker was convincing myself that the struggle was a good thing… that I could enjoy the learning process and enjoy struggling. It was my choice how I saw the experience – that’s why when you referenced designing a productive failure environment I was like “yes, that’s it!”. I think that’s what I did for myself starting in year two – rather than avoiding failure at all costs, I had to design my own productive failure environment, which included a lot of failing! But it was worth it!

  18. I believe the level of struggle has to mediated carefully so frustration doesn’t get in the way of effort and progress in solving problems. I see it much too often how the “helping” drive in teachers doesn’t allow for enough struggle with open-ended problems to solve. Here is a great video on how one teacher checks herself from being an Explainaholic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukwb4cBosbk&feature=share

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