In December 2019 I presented a paper at the Australian Business Ethics Network Conference based on research for my Master’s thesis topic entitled “Productive Failure Learning Design in Tertiary Ethics Education” which was received with interest by ethics educators from Australia and overseas.

In the paper I outlined an approach to teaching ethics based on the work of Learning Sciences Professor Manu Kapur. Productive Failure is a learning design that has had wide application in high school education – particularly in maths and science. I have proposed an application of this learning design for teaching tertiary-level ethics based on my experience of teaching MGT211 – Business Ethics – a Global Perspective. Productive Failure focuses on the learning potential of students generating their own solutions to complex and novel problems.

What’s important about this?

MGT211 and MGT230 are two similar introductory ethics subjects in the Undergraduate Accounting degree. These subjects can prove challenging for students for a number of reasons including:

  • Students may have never encountered philosophy or other humanities concepts in their accounting studies
  • Students believe they are already highly ethical and it’s not something they need to be taught
  • Accounting students are used to learning formulas and techniques that must be followed precisely to get a concrete answer
  • Generally, students are able to learn ethical theories but find them hard to apply them to unfamiliar examples.

If the main aim of business ethics education is to prepare students to face and resolve ethical issues in their future work lives, we need to feel confident that they will retain and be able to draw on that knowledge when that time comes. However, it has been shown time and time again (through corporate scandals) that this is not happening. Furthermore, we do not even test them on it while they are students! Exams and essays are great for testing declarative (fact-based) knowledge but not for checking if transfer of knowledge is occurring – meaning being able to apply their learning in novel situations.

What does it look like?

In this learning design, the students first start learning by attempting complex ethics case studies that they have not yet been told how to solve. It is not possible for them to find a complete solution, leading them to experience “productive failure”. Failure highlights to the student that the task may be more complex then it first appears and that there are gaps in their knowledge that may be addressed in the upcoming instruction thus preparing them to fill in the gaps in their knowledge during the instruction phase of the class. It also allows students to activate their prior knowledge on related topics and start to place this task within their existing mental schemas thus making it easier to retain the knowledge they acquire during the instruction phase.

I have been using this method regularly in my teaching – mainly in MGT211 but also in others such as project management where for example, I might ask the students assess risks on a project before showing them some recognised structured risk assessment techniques. By using this method, student generated solutions can be shared and discussed which leads to further understanding of the complexity of the task by the group as the solutions will vary greatly. This phase of learning also allows for erroneous mental models to be corrected – if students have misunderstandings about underlying principles used to solve the problem.

Productive failure works well for ethics topics as they can be considered ill-structured problems i.e. real-world problems without a model solution. These are the type of problems likely to be encountered by students once they enter the workplace.

How can I make it happen?

The ability to understand and solve ill-structured problems can be seen as an “expert skill” based on the ability to use schemas and mental models derived from extensive experience, as well as analogic reasoning to analyse unfamiliar problems (Blasi, 1995). Developing these expert skills in students is difficult due to their limited experience and exposure to professional ethical dilemmas. Experts will not reach consensus on ethical dilemmas – there is no concrete answer. However, experts are able to turn ill-structured problems into well-structured problems by identifying the key information needed to present a case for their solution. This is the skill that students need to develop, and in the absence of exposure to a large number of complex real-life events, we can simulate the experience to some extent with the experience of productive failure.

Productive failure first engages students in problem solving followed by direct instruction – the opposite sequence to traditional instruction. In studies of primary, and high school maths, and science, as well a professional engineering education there are encouraging results showing large gains in transfer of knowledge – students are able to apply their learning to unfamiliar problems.

We start by designing a problem that the student is not able to solve with the knowledge they currently have. We allow them to feel frustrated and fail, while encouraging them to come up with a range of possible solutions.

In this design ethics students:

  • Attempt ethical case studies before receiving any instruction in frameworks or philosophies.
  • Generate multiple solutions and think of ways to justify and support their answers.
  • Discuss and collaborate on solutions to expose more features of the case study.
  • Identify features allowing ill-structured problems to become more well-structured.

The same design can be used in any subject that involves complex, ill-structured problems.

What next?

Currently there have been few studies outside of mathematics and science education, and most of these are focused on high school education. My aim is to run an experiment in late 2020 with an undergraduate ethics cohort.

It will consist of an online module run in the two sequences to compare for transfer – one with the traditional format of instruction followed by problem-solving and the other in the productive failure format of problem-solving followed by instruction.

Findings from this study may inform teaching practice for ethics and other humanities subjects as productive failure has been adopted in many high schools as a learning design for the sciences.


Adams, J. S., Harris, C., & Carley, S. S. (1998). Challenges in Teaching Business Ethics: Using Role Set Analysis of Early Career Dilemmas. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(12), 1325-1335

Blasi, A. (1995). Moral understanding and the moral personality: The process of moral integration.

Kapur, M. (2008). Productive Failure. Cognition and Instruction, 26(3), 379-424.

Kapur, M., & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for productive failure. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(1), 45–83.