Monday, August 19, 2013

Improving education by leveraging errors and failure

I was very happy when Bengt-Arne Vedin reached out via email last week. Professor Vedin, a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, is exploring the concept of learning via failure, and shared two papers he's authored on the subject. One is published in the July issue of the Journal of Arts & Humanities, and is entitled "Teaching & Learning By Way of Failure?" Near to my heart, he shares personal stories of learning by difficult experience, including this one:

In another field of physics, a new teaching laboratory had been established, with new exercises and experiments employing brand new instruments for advanced and topical measurements, intended to demonstrate advanced physics of a articular type (nuclear physics), reduced to practice. Novel, new is the key word here, novel as in untested: my colleague and I constituted the first group of two to run the gauntlet through all these novelties; we became the guinea pigs and also the troubleshooters, because nothing much worked as it had been designed or expected to. Electricity did not come on, or it went through our bodies, all by chance. Instruments measured something else than what had been intended. In fairness, the professor and his assistants showed us immense gratitude, and gave us good grades, which we had qualified for, though in a way inadvertently, forced to; not by design.

Professor Vedin's general argument is that learning can be accelerated by providing challenges to the student; for example, incomplete instructions, errors introduced in problems to be found and fixed, missing pieces to be filled in. These challenges prevent students from mindlessly memorizing and force them to engage their creativity, with the hopeful result that they learn the material more deeply. There are lots more interesting assertions in the paper, including a recommendation to capture and regularly reflect on mistakes and failure (something that has also been suggested in this space).

What do you think? Could this model improve the learning process?

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