Technology Integration

How to Cultivate Productive Failure When Using Edtech and AI Tools

Common edtech tools guide students toward right answers instead of letting them grapple with wrong ones, but teachers can plan intentionally for this valuable learning experience.

May 17, 2023
SeventyFour / iStock

During my time as a teacher, I constantly encountered students impatiently looking for answers, and if the answers didn’t come fast enough, frustration took over. This craving for immediate answers has been eased by the implementation of educational technology and artificial intelligence (AI) in educational settings. The boom of edtech and AI has been intensifying in the last years, and its use was significantly accelerated by Covid-19.

But how do we guarantee that students are truly understanding, internalizing, retaining, and transferring knowledge? How do we support students’ use of edtech and AI? One way is through the use of productive failure (PF).

Productive Failure

PF is a learning design developed by Manu Kapur, a renowned learning scientist. It arose from a need to balance direct instruction and discovery learning, both long-lasting dominating teaching methods.

Kapur conducted research to prove the impact of PF in students’ learning outcomes. To summarize the findings, both PF and direct instruction were equally effective for developing basic knowledge. But when analyzing students’ conceptual understanding and transfer skills, PF significantly outperformed direct instruction. In his September 2019 TEDx Lugano Talk, Kapur said, “To put it practically, if you were learning via productive failure, it would seem as though you were performing one to two academic years ahead of direct instruction.”

Providing Support for PF

When designing for PF, educators must do so in a safe, curated, and supportive environment. As Kapur further stated in his TED Talk, “Making learning easy does not necessarily ease learning.” PF encompasses four core mechanisms:

  • Students’ prior and background knowledge are activated in relation with the new or targeted content.
  • Students become aware of the most important aspects of the new content (ease the learning process by decreasing cognitive load).
  • Students generate and explore different representations and solutions leading to  explanation and elaboration. 
  • Teachers then assemble the content purposefully and correctly by rectifying and building on the possible solutions generated by students. 

To learn more about PF, I highly recommend you read Kapur’s Edutopia interview: “If You’re Not Failing, You’re Not Learning.” As I learned more about PF, I had three main questions: How can we establish what PF looks like if failure and success look different for every student? How do we implement PF in an era of personalized learning? How does PF relate to edtech and AI?

If used well, edtech and AI tools can be a great support for educators. One of the greatest benefits of AI is how personalized it can be. Students have the opportunity to advance at their own pace and review content they find challenging.

In a way, these tools allow students to experience failure on an individual level. Nonetheless, many of these tools quickly prompt students toward the right answer instead of letting them engage productively with the wrong ones. One of the biggest questions is How do we find common ground when each student is on a different level?

Edtech and AI are also outstanding tools for developing and strengthening hard skills, such as how to solve mathematical problems or write a well-structured essay. Incorporating PF lessons periodically would help strengthen soft skills, such as better communication between students and educators, coping strategies when faced with frustration, leadership skills, and a better sense of community, among others.

As recent research has shown, soft skills are paramount in today’s context. In fact, research shows that they’re six times more important than hard skills! If students start developing these skills at a young age, it’ll be easier for them to keep strengthening those skills during their adolescence and adulthood.

As new edtech, AI, frameworks, and research findings continue to emerge, it’s important to find ways to bridge the gap between them and learn to use them intertwiningly to create a richer educational experience for students. Merely adopting edtech in educational settings is not enough.

As educators, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we’re using these tools mindfully and in a purposeful manner. One way to enrich students’ use of edtech is to incorporate PF lessons throughout the school year.

5 Things to Consider When Incorporating PF Lessons

1. Start right away. Before introducing an edtech or AI tool to your class, plan a PF lesson instead of having students use edtech or AI right away.

2. Assess students’ performance throughout the year and plan PF lessons that students can engage in collectively. These should be planned periodically after formative or summative assessments. For example, if you’re using IXL during the semester, make sure to incorporate PF every three to four weeks.

3. Teach students to cope with frustration and uncertainty. This is one of the most important skills that students develop when engaging in PF lessons. These are big feelings for a lot of students, and that’s where social and emotional learning (SEL) comes in.

SEL goes beyond simply telling students “You’ve got this!” during class. It’s important to address, through different interventions, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s five SEL pillars: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

4. With edtech tools, students advance at different paces. Additionally, you might have neurodiverse learners in your educational setting. Planning a lesson that takes all these differences into account is crucial—and hard. One way in which you can address this is by planning your PF lesson using Universal Design for Learning.

5. Parents and caregivers are your most important allies. It’s important to explain to them what PF is and why it’s important. Many parents put a lot of emphasis on grades, and many perceive frustration and “not doing well” automatically as something bad.

If parents understand what’s happening inside the classroom, they’ll support PF at home—even if at first they might perceive it as a setback. And remember, not all your lessons will be PF lessons. That’s why planning for them strategically is key.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School

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