Collaborative Floundering trumps Scaffolding

May 1, 2012 at 7:47 am 10 comments

Really interesting finding!  I suspect, though, that the collaboration had a lot to do with the floundering being successful.  It seems to me that floundering is going to require greater cognitive effort, and thus, greater motivation/engagement to persevere.  I also wonder about the complexity of the task.  I have seen pairs of students flounder at a Java program and (seemingly) not learn much from the effort.

With one group of students, the teacher provided strong “scaffolding” — instructional support — and feedback. With the teacher’s help, these pupils were able to find the answers to their set of problems. Meanwhile, a second group was directed to solve the same problems by collaborating with one another, absent any prompts from their instructor. These students weren’t able to complete the problems correctly. But in the course of trying to do so, they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like. And when the two groups were tested on what they’d learned, the second group “significantly outperformed” the first.

via Anne Murphy Paul: Why Floundering Makes Learning Better | TIME Ideas |

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shuchi Grover  |  May 1, 2012 at 11:12 am

    This is very interesting, Mark, and a coincidence too! This past AERA I presented findings from a set of studies titled “The Hidden Cost of Help on Subsequent Task Persistence”. (The idea of perseverance came from this belief – and observation – that it is one of the hallmark dispositions of good programmers). The task involved anagrams, to be solved individually – with or without hints (of different kinds).. and persistence was measured on a very tough transfer task involving an (almost unsolvable) anagrarn.

    Going back to the article, though, if the “floundering” was not well designed, then the results may well have been the same as that of your students programming in Java. “Designing for productive failure” may not be so trivial, and while I can see the benefits of “hidden efficacy” and such, I’m not sure of the findings can be applied very easily to every learning context. And on the flip side, “scaffolds” too come in various shapes and sizes – some can impede learning whereas others I’ll bet can work as well or maybe even better than “designed floundering”. In my study I gave “direct” hints and “strategy” hints. The direct hint group quite obviously did the worst, whereas the generic strategy hint group did marginally better than the group that received no hints at all…

    • 2. Aaron Lanterman  |  May 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      This sounds analogous to the sort of issues game designers struggle with. What’s the best way to ramp of the difficulty curve?When (and how) should the game give “hints?”

      • 3. Shuchi Grover  |  May 2, 2012 at 7:42 pm

        Yes, we figured that these findings would be especially useful in settings like games and intelligent tutoring systems.

    • 4. Stephen Downes  |  May 2, 2012 at 2:44 pm

      Shuchi, it would be a great idea to post your findings online – I searched for them and found nothing – unless they are online they are basically invisible.

      • 5. Shuchi Grover  |  May 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm

        Indeed, Stephen. I presented the results of the first couple of studies at AERA a couple weeks ago, but they don’t publish the proceedings, unfortunately. I am in the process of building out my webpage on the Stanford server where I hope to upload the paper. I am working with Dan Schwartz on this, and I hope to run the next iteration to investigate the mechanisms at play (self efficacy or learned helplessness or …?) and also test this in other problem-solving contexts besides anagrams. Hopefully then it will be publication-worthy 🙂

  • 6. Jeff Rick  |  May 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I had a chance to grill Manu on productive failure for an hour and “floundering” is not an accurate portrayal of the concept. I recommend reading the original article. Basically, the problems he assigns are very well designed so that learners truly engage the concepts when they attempt the problems. They think they know how to solve it, but then fail because the problem is more difficult than it first appears. They experience expectation failure (something Janet would say is tremendously important to learning) and start to see what solutions don’t work and why not. Probably your floundering Java students do not experience expectation failure and are unable to use their experience to deduce what does not work.

  • 7. Christine Alvarado  |  May 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    I have seen similar results (from Math education) in the past, and it does make sense to me. But one thing I always wonder is, learning outcomes aside, how do students feel about the subject matter when they are done “floundering” (or being scaffolded)? In my annecdotal experience (and others’), students really don’t like to struggle. I worry that they might get turned off to the whole field if the struggle is not very carefully designed and controlled, even if they are learning more. Given that so many students don’t like CS in the first place, this could be a very bad thing. Are there any studies that have looked at persistence over time with these different approaches, rather than just learning gains?

  • 8. Bijan Parsia  |  May 1, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    “Floundering” seems like exactly the wrong term (“productive failure” seems quite good).

    And indeed, the article is way more circumspect:

    This has led some researchers to argue that instruction should be heavily guided, especially at the start, for without it, learning may not take place (e.g., Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Further support for starting with greater structure during instruction with a gradual reduction (or fading) over time as learners gain expertise comes from several quarters (e.g., Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007; Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005; Wood et al., 1976)…

    What is perhaps more problematic is that an emphasis on achieving performance success has led in turn to a commonly held belief that there is little efficacy in novices solving problems without the provision of support structures initially. In contrast, our work is grounded in the belief that engaging novices to try, and even fail, at tasks that are beyond their skills and abilities can, under certain conditions, be productive for developing deeper understandings.

    Looks like a great article! I’m getting some popcorn…

  • […] don’t see it as a revolution in computer science education — not yet, anyway.  Now, maybe it’s way of supporting “collaborative floundering” which has been suggested ….  Maybe they’re right, and this will be the hook to get thousands of adolescents interested […]


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