Shared Failure as a PBL Experience

[2024 note from Dr. Carmel Schettino:] Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the amount of suffering or failure that students can endure in the classroom. Learning from one’s failures and mistakes is how the brain grows, as well as how we learn from our experience. Back in 2019, I wrote this blogpost on an interesting research article about how students react in the face of others’ adversity, which made me wonder about how students can grow in their perseverance by experiencing “shared failure” in a Problem Based Learning (PBL) math classroom.

“A self-compassionate attitude could help us feel comforted when we witness the fallibility of other humans.”

Newman, 9/4/19 Greater Good Magazine

This is the conclusion of a research study that was done by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, in which they asked 100 recruited students to record a video about themselves to be rated on a scale from 1-9 on how “great” they were (see study for more details).

Unbeknownst to the students, there were no objective observers. The study actually began when students were shown peers’ scores – sometimes mediocre, and sometimes outstanding. The question really was “how do you react when you have a sense of failure in the face of others’ success?” Of course, the findings were interesting. It depended on the person. If they were the type of person that had a great sense of how life is wrought with failure and learning from our mistakes, they were more likely to have an adaptable, compassionate, and sympathetic reaction to others’ failure. However, if the student was more prone, for whatever reason, to being hard on themselves for failing, that was often reflected onto others. Students with this kind of self-critical mindset had a hard time being sympathetic towards the failure of their peers.

As I read this research study, I could not help but put all of this into the context of the PBL classroom. I immediately thought, “this is why whole-class discussion with sharing authority is so important.” In order for the failure of the presenter to be shared by the class (in other words, for the experience of failure to be a collective one), students should hear ideas; discuss pros, cons, and loopholes; and catch the mistakes together. This shared experience could not have happened in isolation, or in pairs. (Caveat: this is not to say that whole class discussion is the only way shared failure can happen, or is the only format in which PBL should happen) 

The shared experience of confusion, being sympathetic to the confusion, and the risk-taking of embarrassment or being wrong – it all needs to happen for everyone to be able to say “I know what that feels like.”

A Safe Place to Fail, Together

Of course, this needs to be done in a safe place. A classroom that fosters the idea that mistakes can be a necessary and good thing – that we need to make mistakes and learn from them – and is a safe, non-hierarchical environment where status and positioning are being closely reflected upon by the teacher. What this study shows is that the other, self-critical mindset (e.g. fixed, as we’ve come to call it) won’t necessarily embrace the shared failure and could make the shared failure counterproductive. This is a hugely important part of the dynamics of a PBL classroom.

I can’t help but recall a student that I interviewed for my dissertation research and how she captured her feeling about shared failure, in that by contributing ideas, the failures or mistakes become a shared success:

You could kind of add in your own perspective, and kind of give you this sense like, “Ooooh, I helped with this problem” and then another person comes in and they helped with the problem, and by the end, no one knows who solved the problem. Like, everyone contributed their ideas to this problem and you can look at this problem on the board and you can maybe only see one person’s handwriting, but behind their handwriting is everyone’s ideas. So yeah, it’s a sense of “our problem.” It’s not just Karen’s problem, it’s not just whoever’s problem, it’s “our problem.”

Kaley, Schettino Dissertation 2013

This article was originally published September 24, 2019, on Carmel’s blog,