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If At First You Don't Succeed...


Manu Kapur

Manu Kapur

… you may be the better for it,  argues Manu Kapur

By Suzanne Guillette

Failure may be the dirtiest of all words in K-12 education, but it’s enjoying a new vogue in Singapore, a perennial world leader in international comparisons of student achievement.

There, in an exercise calculated to result in what TC alumnus Manu Kapur terms “productive failure,” a diverse group of students in grades 7 through 10 are being asked to solve challenging and novel math problems at levels their teachers haven’t yet covered.

The idea behind this experiment is that learning results from attempting to solve challenges that go beyond one’s current level of skill and experience. Kapur has added a twist by asking groups of students to problem-solve together. The teenagers pool their “intuitive and formal resources” to generate solutions to problems that target concepts such as average speed, standard deviation, and ratio and proportion.

“Students often learn best when they learn from each other by working together, and technology is an ideal collaborative medium,” says Kapur, who is both a researcher in the Learning Sciences Lab and an Associate Professor in the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group of Singapore’s National Institute of Education.

Kapur grew up in India and spent five years teaching mathematics at the junior-college level in Singapore before completing a doctoral degree in Instructional Media and Technology at TC in 2006. He first explored the notion of productive failure in his TC dissertation, writing about students from Indian high schools who worked in an online chat interface to solve complex problems in Newtonian kinematics.

Kapur’s current research in Singapore extends his work from online chat to a face-to-face modality. Students are challenged to generate ideas and solutions to complex, novel problems, and then their teachers conduct lessons that compare those ideas with canonical concepts and solutions. This iterative process helps students and teachers alike identify precisely where and how student thinking is either falling short or, in some cases, proving to be ingenious. A large number of teachers have reported that the method has deepened their own understanding of mathematical concepts as well.

Kapur has received multiple grants, both in Singapore and abroad, to test his ideas and has inspired colleagues in Australia, Germany and India to conduct similar experiments. He has also been invited to give a keynote address in Sydney, Australia, at the 2012 International Conference of the Learning Sciences, the flagship conference in the field.

One of the most exciting outcomes of Kapur’s current work is that students who don’t perform well on high-stakes academic tests learn as well from productive-failure lessons as do their higher-scoring peers. “This surprises teachers because it runs counter to everything the system is based on,” Kapur says. “But to me, it’s yet another sign that standardized tests can fail to reflect the skills and intelligence of students whose minds don’t work in traditional ways.”

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