Productive Failure

Education today is tremendously risk averse. There’s a good reason for that. The institution of the school or tertiary education is trusted with providing education and training to its most precious commodity, the children of its community. The last thing one feels comfortable about is trying out something that, heaven forfend, might fail. We’d be abdicating our duty of care.  Or would we?

One of the most common and salient characteristics of human endeavor is failure. It’s basic to our learning and intrinsic to our neurological development, our motor skills, and basic interactions with the world. Yet, in the spaces of formal education it has become more of a liability to avoid than a process to encourage.

There are, of course, kinds and degrees of failure. No one is suggesting that we watch lovingly as our kids, fascinated by the flame on the stove top, reach out and burn their fingers to follow up and say, “Fire is hot Sally.  Try to avoid doing that in the future.” Whereas we can and do push them on their two-wheeler after a period of time on training wheels and run alongside, steadying where we can, but ultimately trusting them to get the hang of balancing themselves on two spinning gyroscopes, but expecting that at least in these early stages, there will be a crash or two and bandaids need to be at the ready.

In education, failure is a part of trying. It happens even with the best of preparation when one is reaching beyond oneself. And it’s good. Whether in the sciences, humanities or the arts it is key to learning. We strive there for what Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (US) calls “productive failure”.  He spoke recently at a public high school graduation ceremony in the US to the assembled eager graduates on this topic.

Where arts education has been nurtured….however, innovation born of struggle results..

“Productive failure” — something the arts are particularly suited to teach, he said — is useful in all parts of life, from medical research to the business world. If people are doing something they enjoy, he said, failing can inspire them to try harder and produce creative alternatives.

He told the graduates to think about the times they couldn’t make a scene work, or couldn’t complete a dance combination, or couldn’t get the light right for a painting. As artists, he said, they understood the role of luck and of perseverance through failure better than almost anyone.

“You didn’t quit, you tried again, you tried harder, and you tried something new — it was productive failure,” Mr. Landesman said. “Those of you who failed often, succeeded sooner.”

@GardnerCampbell brought this article to my attention in a Tweet (thanks Prof. C) and it reminded me of how much we’ve tried to engineer learning situations to avoid failure. An early conversation with colleagues who specialise in academic staff support (aka faculty support) in Australia introduced me to how profound cultural differences can be in seemingly similar environments. Here, I was told, failure is not to be talked about in that language. It damages the persons sense of self-worth. We need to protect students from the long-lasting negative effects such language has on their developing personalities.  I was a relatively recent arrival but I was nevertheless gobsmacked.  Failure, I said, happens to all of us.  In my world the goal is to fail early and often as that’s the only way I really learn.

I’m reminded of sports analogies. There is a coach’s common encouragement to tell their athletes, if you aren’t failing you aren’t trying hard enough. Failure conditions to be avoided are those that are life-threatening.  Those that are ego-bruising are worth striving for.  What better place for learners to try and fail but in the relatively ‘safe’ environments of schools, where there is understanding, support, encouragement, and shared experience?

— pdl–

About longpd

I'm a senior scholar at Georgetown University, in CNDLS, a technologist and lapsed evolutionary biologist with an incandescent passion for new modes of seeing and learning.
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2 Responses to Productive Failure

  1. Star says:

    Do you have any video of that? I’d want to find out more details.

  2. longpd says:

    Hi Star: recently the Khan Academy put out an inspiring video in conjunction with Sal Khan’s blog in which he shared a conversation he had with his son, age 5, who is learning to read. The video is on YouTube ( It’s part of a growing recognition of Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets in learning, about the importance of rewarding process not attributes of a person making efforts to learn something. Another of the videos in the Khan Academy’s “You Can Learn Anything” movement ( … I guess you’d have to call it, is of Dweck explaining that what this means ( There are references to her work and others on the research behind this effort at that site.


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