Is failure a positive result in PBL?


When I was a kid, the idea of failing was incredibly frightening. I don’t recall hearing anyone say anything positive about that word. Failing was something to be avoided at all costs.

These days, things are a bit different. The concept of failing as a positive thing and the learning that can occur through overcoming failure has gained much steam. Further, the idea of fostering an environment that helps kids work through failure (as opposed to completely avoiding it) possibly encourages kids to take more risks with their learning. Terms such as “failing forward” have become quite the buzz words.

But at the end of the day, failing is still…scary! No matter our age, we see people succeed in their endeavors every day and want to obtain something similar.  So indeed, the idea of failing being a positive thing and learning from mistakes may be a rough concept for some, including our youth.

As we move forward with the phenomenon of project-based learning, an understanding of how “failure” fits into the picture should be intricately considered.  As students collaborate and use inquiry to discover answers, they may find that the direction they are taking their project is not moving towards the answers or solutions they seek. In my time of growing up, this would have been a tremendously frustrating occurrence, likely causing our group to start all over.

Yet there can be learning in that (even pending) failure, right? How much do we encourage our students to take risks within the project that may not lead to discovering desired answers?  Perhaps any answer that a team of students reach through PBL is a good one, even if the answer is, dare I say, incorrect? As long as the students go through the process of inquiry, discover more about themselves as learners and collaborators, and get a chance to reflect on what exactly didn’t go according to plan.

In other words, is failure an acceptable end result in project-based learning? If a group of students use documentary filmmaking to learn more about a historical event, but are unable to make the film, or don’t learn much about the historical event, is this acceptable?  What if they truly worked together as a team and used their curiosity to explore strategically during the process?

Very interesting to consider. What place does failing have in PBL?  And what role must we as educators assume to ensure that failing takes its proper place within the process?