Productive Failure?

For most of my life I have been involved in some form of schooling.  At this point, it is beginning to seem as though I will forever be a student.  It was with this framework that, as I read Jordan and McDaniel’s (2014) study this week, I began to think about the idea of failure and how since I was in kindergarten, I have been conditioned to think that failure is not an option.  There was no use for failure in terms of my education.  Though I acknowledge that my parents’ strong work ethics had a role to play in helping me to form this opinion, I think that much credit is due to my own self-motivation and being conditioned in the United States education system where competition seemed to start at such a young age.  Therefore, I paused when I read the following passage in Jordan and McDaniel’s study,

“However, research by Kapur and colleagues has shown that, properly managed, involving students in active struggle can be productive for learning.  Both failure and uncertainty create opportunities for argumentation, for the pursuit of different lines of logic, for knowledge construction, and for the movement of ideas from tacit to explicit…achieving productive failure is no easy task and requires careful attention to the entire process of the educational endeavor” (p. 34).

Productive failure.  As the product of nearly 20 years of conditioning myself to believe that anything less than an ‘A’ is unacceptable, this phrase seems highly oxymoronic.  Yet, when I consider the intersection of this aspect of the study with my line of research in education abroad, I immediately see the logic in this line of reasoning.  Some of the moments where the most powerful learning happened to me while studying abroad occurred when I was engaged in a process of productive failure (only I certainly did not think of it in this way at the time!).  I can remember a time when I was trying to communicate with a crêpe-maker on the streets in Paris after a long day of class and all I wanted was a ”crêpe au sucre,” only thanks to my poor American accent, the crêpe-maker could not understand what I was asking for.  Baffled at why I could not succeed in communicating when, in my mind, I was saying exactly what I wanted, I then proceeded to practice the nefarious French ‘R’ sound with my newly-made French friends later that evening for hours on end.  After failing to succeed in this most basic of tasks, I was determined to figure out what the issue was so I could fix it.  The rest of my summer seemed to be spent over-correcting my French R’s, much to the amusement of my Parisian friends.

Study abroad seems like a perfect environment in which to build upon Jordan and McDaniel’s intriguing research on how uncertainty is managed, in particular with relation to peer influence. On short-term programs where students are studying abroad with fellow U.S. students, group dynamics are very intriguing to watch as it seems relationships form and deconstruct very quickly as peers navigate the foreign and highly uncertain contexts in which they find themselves.  To be sure there are many opportunities for productive failure.

However, with productive being the operative word, success with this model all depends upon a methodical intervention.  I believe that left unsupervised, or without a student who is intrinsically motivated, these opportunities may do more damage then good.  Consider moments where students fail to understand why a host culture does something a particular way.  That student might interpret the host culture as worse than their own simply because of a misunderstanding that had gone unchecked.  As Perry, Stoner, and Tarrant (2012) argue in their article, “Within study abroad experiences, exposure to new places, cultures, and learning environments where a students’ preconceived and established notions and beliefs are tested, may act as the catalyst or impetus for bringing forth a transformative experience.  Of particular importance is the creation of moments of critical reflection and discussion.  In these types of environments, exposed to realities that are outside their previous understanding, the learner may discover a need to acquire new perspectives in order to gain a more complete understanding” (p. 682).  Though international educators laud the experience as a transformative one, the reality is that this cannot be the case without intentional opportunities for critical reflection.  Moments for productive failure will remain failure if we do not seek to engage students in this process of thoughtful reflection.


Jordan, M., & McDaniel, R. (2014). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 00, 1-47.

Perry, L., Stoner, L., & Tarrant, M. (2012).
More than a vacation: Short-term study abroad as a critically reflective, transformative learning experience  Creative Education, 3(5), 679-683.

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