Productive Failure vs. Unproductive Success with Yong Zhao

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Yong Zhao


In late February, I had the privilege and the misery of being the second keynote speaker to Yong Zhao at the Learning and the Brain Conference in San Francisco. A privilege to soak in the candor, intelligence, humor, and vision of Yong Zhao, a misery to be the next one to go on stage. But here is what resonated with me along the way.

Productive failure vs. unproductive success.

The juxtaposition of the two in Zhao’s keynote was stunningly simple, as all powerful ideas are. The premise is that our nation’s education has been built on a premise of accountability that does not line up with future success. Our hyper-focus on standardized test scores to close the achievement gap has little to no affect on college success.

This is the definition of unproductive success: getting really good at instructional and assessment practices that boil down to a test-prep curriculum. Productive failure requires us to reimagine what teaching and learning can look like, one that taps the unique talents, aspirations, and ideas of every student.

Quantifying what counts: what knowledge and skills are worthy of mastery.

Yong Zhao contends that it is an unhelpful challenge to identify and measure a set of qualities and competencies that everyone should know and be able to do. The key word in this sentence is everyone.

We would all agree that every student should learn how to read, know basic foundations of math, and possess the key principles of civics. But even within that territory, what does everyone need to know and be able to do? And if the students have more of a role at the design table to pursue learning that interests them, how can we quantify their growth? How do we know if they have met the expectations if we are moving into a more personalized world?

This goes back to the idea of unproductive success. Developing competencies based on the standards does not open up the door for a more personalized learning experience. It creates an opportunity for students to learn anytime, anywhere, because they control the pace and the platform of their learning experience. As educators, our job is not to make learning more efficient, but instead reveal the ambiguity of challenges that have no obvious solution path or right answer.

Your voice matters.

As I worried about how to follow his keynote, a little voice in my head said “just do you.” The core message in both Yong Zhao’s talk and my own were incredibly in sync with one another: tapping the hearts and minds of our students and ourselves to reimagine something better. I sailed through disrupting the efficiency model and spent most of my time on real engagement — when students choose to invest (and reinvest) their attention and effort in pursuit of a goal.

As we worked through several design exercises together, we talked about the elements of relevant learning experiences — one where students are clear on the goal; opportunity to engage with authentic networks, audiences, and genres; and a respectful environment where everyone has a perceived capacity to succeed. Just do me. And the energy will follow.



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