Failure-Based Learning

I remember in grad school reading about a model in design theory sometimes described as “failure-based learning.” This is the idea that the most teachable moment is when someone makes an error.

I make use of this paradigm when I talk about the importance of well-written wrong-answer feedback.

Since that makes total sense to me, it’s always struck me as a little strange that I tend to shy way from the notion that we should put learners in positions where we expect them to fail so that we can then teach them the right way. For instance, I took place in a pilot for a two-day simulation recently, where the developers expect participants to do poorly on the first day–that this would lead to powerful learning in the debrief and the beginning of day two.

From an instructional design standpoint, I worry about learners spending a day practicing doing it wrong. On the other hand, the developers were consciously looking to create a memorable, competitive event. They also wanted to make the point that participants are doing it wrong today–I’ve used pre-tests to similar effect in the past. They want learners to be indignant and motivated to prove themselves and to be talking about the event a year later as part of a larger culture change effort.

Will it work better than attempting to equip participants to be successful at the simulation from the beginning? Hard to say.


One thought on “Failure-Based Learning

  1. Ellen

    It probably depends a lot on the personality of each student. If I spent the first day of a seminar being told that I was doing things wrong, I’d at least tune out. At most, I wouldn’t be back for the second day. Though I suppose your students have their jobs or licenses on the line.
    If you’re teaching me, try to set it up so I succeed right from the start.


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