Fail Better

iphone fail message
Photo by Ricky Romero, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This post originally appeared in the Instructor College Blog hosted on

by Sue Wortman

Back in December I sent around a link to a TED talk  by Diana Laufenberg called “How to learn? From mistakes,” thinking it had a number of things for librarian instructors to consider.  Ms. Laufenberg is an energetic and inspiring young public school teacher who described her experiences teaching both high school and middle school students.  Her teaching experiences have included working at a rural Kansas high school, an Arizona middle school and most recently she teaches at the Science Leadership Academy, a school sponsored by the Philadelphia Public Schools and the Franklin Institute for students in grades 9-12.

Designing Experiential Learning

In this TED talk which lasts barely ten minutes Diana Laufenberg gives three concrete examples of assignments she gave students at her three different schools.  The assignments demonstrate beautifully the use of experiential learning, or what she calls an “authentic experience.”  For one assignment in a high school government class Laufenberg required her students to put on an election forum for their community.  Another assignment involved middle school geography students creating their own short movies, explaining what they intended to do with their lives to bring about positive change. In the third assignment students developed informative graphic posters which explained some natural disaster which took place in history. As part of this last assignment students critiqued each other’s posters, discussing both the positive and the negative. Each of these assignments stretched students. Laufenberg expected a lot from her students and they didn’t fail her.  She didn’t spoon-feed students, or teach to standardized tests. She gave them an experience and then stepped back to take the part of mentor,  counselor or facilitator to guide them.  She mentioned that more experienced teachers thought she was being too idealistic and implied that they thought she’d soon become jaded toward the students' abilities, like they were.  It takes courage to get out of your comfort zone and try something different. That goes for teachers as well as students. Sir Ken Robinson, in one of the most viewed TED talks ever states this succinctly when he says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original.”

FAIL road sign
Photo by Dagny Mol, (CC BY 2.0)

Prepared to Fail?

I think this quote gets to the very heart of learning. When we teach students about the library are we prepared to let them fail in order to let them learn? What might that look like? I don’t have the answer to this but I would welcome discussion.  And it’s not just students who learn by failing. Teachers, librarian teachers also need to be prepared to fail. In the past, library sessions were lectures or demonstration, not workshops. Authors Brooks-Harris and Stock-Ward provide a great definition of what a workshop is in their book Workshops: designing and facilitating experiential learning.

A workshop is a short-term learning experience that encourages active, experiential learning and uses a variety of learning activities to meet the needs of diverse learners. [Page 6]

Do the one-shot library instruction workshops we offer conform to this definition? It’s very hard in the short time we have with students to create a workshop which encourages active, experiential learning and by trying sometimes we may fail in our attempts.

Outside of the Comfort Zone

Last week I tried involving MSW level students in a discussion about formulating a search. I was trying to explain the process of coming up with a research question and then deciding where to search for articles and which search terms to use. I used the recent example of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s’ shooting to suggest I was trying to formulate a research question. I wasn’t specific but I said I wanted to see if I could find articles which connected extreme political views and the lack of civility with violence in democracy in the U.S.  I was purposely vague about the question and asked for suggestions for making it clearer.  In other sessions where I’ve tried to teach students about searching I primarily went with the “canned search.”  I knew which database and exactly which terms to use to get the best results. No chance of failure on my part there. This was different. There was more buy-in when students worked together to come up with the question they wanted to answer as well as the search terms to use. We dissected the question into major topics and I listed possible search terms on the board as I normally do but even when the class was letting out I overheard students telling each other which search terms worked best for them: “I found that using (left and right) instead of (left wing and right wing) worked better.”

Teaching vs. Facilitating

I see the connection between this class and Diana Laufenberg’s classes. I wasn’t so much teaching as facilitating. This is another important concept covered by Brooks-Harris and Stock-Ward in their book mentioned above. Being a facilitator is a much more active role than being an instructor or teacher.  This may be a real paradigm shift for most of us. The facilitator role leads to experiential learning, according to these authors.  Failure and experience go hand in hand. I got a great quote from my niece this week on Facebook, “Experience is a hard teacher. She gives the test first and the lessons afterwards.” Vernon Law, a pitcher for the Pirates back in the 1950s said that.

More Food for Thought

If you’re interested in reading more from Brooks-Harris and Stock-Ward’s book and can’t get to it from the library (I have it!) you can see most of the first chapter on Google Books. Here’s another good quote, “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” – John Dewey

Thanks, again, to Sue for this thought-provoking post.  Now, tell us what you think.  As a library instructor, do you give your students the opportunity to learn from failure?  What experience do you have facilitating experiential learning?  What are your thoughts or concerns about this model of teaching and learning?


on Sept. 16, 7:20pm

Thank you for this thoughtful post. Do you know from what publication the John Dewey quote came?

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt
on Sept. 22, 11:50am

The quote is widely used and attributed to Dewey, but finding the provenance proves a bit difficult. Some searching around does not uncover any citations, so its possibly something he said, not put in writing.