The Power of Productive Failure in Adult Education


The Power of Productive Failure in Adult Education

The Power of Productive Failure in Adult Education


How can failure be productive? In the educational context, failure could mean learning has gone wrong – goals are unmet, and learning objectives are unachieved. Yet, our understanding of failure is evolving. The quest for immediate success is giving way to an appreciation for the rich lessons found in missteps, fostering a culture that values experimentation and, inevitably, some failure.

The Silicon Valley mantra, 'Fail Fast, Fail Often', underscores a critical insight: approached constructively, failure morphs into a powerful catalyst for growth and innovation. In fact, failure is unavoidable in a world of constant change, marked by shifting job roles, swift technological advances, and global market dynamics.

Despite being equipped with initiatives designed to pave our path to success, such as the upskilling programmes and targeted support unveiled in Budget 2024, applying our knowledge does not guarantee instantaneous success. Setbacks are an anticipated part of the journey. Therefore, it is essential to acknowledge that failure, when met with resilience, is part of the learning curve.

When faced with the inevitability of failure, do we dust ourselves off and move on, or do we leverage these setbacks to propel us closer to our ultimate goal of success? Combining thorough planning, insightful analysis, forward-thinking initiatives, and robust safety nets makes it possible to use productive failure as stepping stones towards success.

The long-term value of learning through failure

Recognising the value of failure is transformative in adult learning. It is more than just about making room for mistakes; it involves fostering a culture where experimentation and the freedom to fail are vital to innovation and adaptability. This shift away from immediate success as the benchmark of learning effectiveness encourages more adaptable individuals and, in turn, a more resilient and innovative workforce.

Crucial to this shift is the concept of productive failure, as outlined by Professor Manu Kapur, pertaining to “a learning design that entails the design of conditions for learners to persist in generating and exploring representations and solution methods (RSMs) for solving complex, novel problems.”

The Institute for Adult Learning conducted a pilot study on Productive Failure in the adult learning sector in 2022, and results showed remarkable benefits across various educational contexts. By encouraging learners to step out of their comfort zones, educators facilitate a space of discovery and experimentation, crucial for breaking down psychological barriers and providing a platform for learners to devise novel solutions to complex issues.

In areas like coaching and leadership training, productive failure encourages learners to test various strategies and learn from their setbacks, leading to a more comprehensive development of skills. In technical fields, such as first aid or emergency management, learners are initially challenged to apply their knowledge in unguided scenarios, promoting a deeper grasp of principles and techniques through subsequent consolidation.

Feedback from educators who have implemented productive failure underscores its effectiveness: learners are more engaged, actively seeking solutions and learning from their attempts. This method equips them with the targeted skills and knowledge and cultivates critical soft skills such as critical thinking, communication, and resilience.

The importance of productive failure in mid-career professionals and the Singapore context

Unlike younger learners, mid-career professionals have a rich tapestry of experience and expertise. While this strengthens their learning journey, it also introduces complexities. The perceived stakes of failure, potentially affecting careers and livelihoods, may lead them to prefer a tried and tested path, even when that may not be the most effective way to solve existing challenges.

Hopefully, new-found self-validation from the productive failure approach would help them translate to more proactive contributions, leading to better workplace outcomes and career prospects.

Reflecting on their learning experience, one of the learners noted, "Traditional role-plays or training methods might have made me more anxious, especially if something was demonstrated first and then I had to replicate it. The expectation to perform properly would be daunting." They appreciated the alternative approach where, “We were given the freedom to make all the mistakes we wanted, just to try out what we think is correct." Consequently, learners felt supported for their ongoing efforts and motivated to explore, challenge and revisit their and others’ views and ideas.

Our discussions with adult learners revealed a compelling truth: mistakes were inevitable, but failure was not the end result. In place, it should lead to deeper engagement and enhanced understanding, and with knowledge and applicable skills becoming more firmly ingrained. Such a learning outcome requires highly skilled educators and trainers. Productive failure underscores the importance of the adult educator's awareness and the need to create a supportive, psychologically safe environment that allows learners to think independently, explore openly and learn meaningfully.

This situation highlights IAL's core mission – to cultivate highly skilled facilitators, learning content designers, and workplace consultants who can cater to a diverse range of learners and ensure meaningful learning outcomes.

Singapore's education and workforce development strategies have long been admired globally for their effectiveness and innovation. The nation's commitment to lifelong learning, as evidenced by initiatives like SkillsFuture, underscores the importance of continuous education and skill development. Within this context, productive failure gains even more relevance, offering a paradigm that aligns with the country's focus on resilience, innovation, and continuous improvement.

The capacity to learn from setbacks and persist in experimentation is crucial for both personal development and collective advancement. By weaving productive failure into the fabric of adult learning and corporate culture, adult educators and companies cultivate a skilled workforce and empower individuals to become lifelong learners, adaptable to change, and unafraid to harvest their full potential.

This transformation, fuelled by the courage to fail productively, will ripple outwards, shape careers, enrich lives, and foster a more innovative and resilient society.
The above article is co-authored by Associate Professor Sim Soo Kheng, Director, Innovation Centre, Institute for Adult Learning and Nilanjana Saxena, Senior Manager, Innovation Centre, Institute for Adult Learning

Assoc Prof Sim was also invited to share on ST Podcast CareerTalks, click here to listen.

For more information on Productive Failure, click here.