BABIES and pre-schoolers learn through play - and teenage students can benefit by doing the same, a new study has found.
Research led by Associate Professor Manu Kapur from the National Institute of Education (NIE) found that students learn better when they "play" with ideas before being taught.
Prof Kapur, who heads the NIE's Learning Sciences Lab, calls this technique "productive failure".
Such a process leads to "failure" but it is precisely at this point that students start to learn, he said.
Speaking to The Straits Times, Prof Kapur said: "We all know we learn from failure, so why don't we design for failure to happen first?"
The study, believed to be the first of its kind to test this teaching method, was funded by the Education Ministry through grants totalling about $1.1 million.
More than 5,500 students aged 13 to 18 from 14 schools were tested over the past five years. Some 81 teachers were trained in this method.
In each school, students were divided into two groups to learn a new mathematical topic such as fractions, ratios or statistics.
For the first group, a teacher would use the traditional method of "direct instruction" and set aside time for practice.
The second group worked on their own in teams without help from the teacher. They had about an hour to think of ways to solve new problems. When this was over, the teacher went through their methods and taught them the correct way to solve the problems. The students were tested before and after the classes.
The study found that 76 per cent to 92 per cent of those in the second group outperformed their peers in the first.
"The focus is not on getting the correct answer but letting them play with ideas first," said Prof Kapur.
"Learning through play" has become a catchphrase in pre-school education, especially in the last year with the release of the revised kindergarten curriculum framework.
"But why just pre-school?" asked Prof Kapur. He said he believed "play" can be implemented even at the later stages of learning. "Play is a very powerful mechanism of learning across all ages. We think of it as just unproductive fun but it involves challenge, frustration and failure, if you examine how children play.
"Research in this area is fairly new and we are trying to understand how play works and build a science around it."
He said he hopes the study's findings can be used to bring about change in classrooms, although he added that it will not be easy. "Students are used to being told what to do and schools and parents need to be convinced that it works," he added.
Since April last year, Prof Kapur has trained more teachers in this method, starting with 18 maths teachers from primary and secondary schools and junior colleges.
Some students, however, are yet to be convinced about his method.
Victoria Junior College student Cheryl Koo, 18, said: "It sounds effective but as students we need efficiency and this sounds quite time-consuming."