MLibrary Instructor College

An online forum for University of Michigan Library instructors

Fail Better

with 2 comments

Sue Wortman, Social Work Librarian at the Hatcher Graduate Library, recently discovered a TED talk of interest to instructors.  Sue has graciously accepted the invitation of the Instructor College Steering Committee to create a guest post for the Instructor College blog.  We hope that the post will open a conversation here on the blog.  We invite you to share your thoughts and reactions.



by Flickr user tainasnov

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.”

Prepared to Fail?


by Flickr user fireflythegreat

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?


Written by Instructor College

January 24, 2011 at 3:49 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Failure is a tough teacher. I know that when I have one moment in a one-shot session, failure can be a time-suck (just today this happened when the instructor asked me and my co-teacher to show a database that was “off-script,” and the database he suggested wasn’t working correctly). It also can be embarrassing.

    But I think students can sometimes even gain confidence in you if they witness you experiencing that failing moment in an honest, non-threatened way. Research is a process and many times the “failures” are just as interesting as the successes. Gaining rapport with the students can also convince students to contact you outside of class where you can help them even more.

    On a separate note, if you’re interested in another person’s story of how he learned from failure, you might like My Losing Season by Pat Conroy.


    January 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm

  2. I agree with everything said here. I would add, a bit perversely perhaps, that there is a kernel of literary history in the title “Fail Better,” and it’s worth teasing out, if only for romance.

    Specifically, “failing” is part of the existential crisis looping through most of Samuel Beckett’s work, and this phrase (“fail better”) comes from “Worstword Ho”: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Depending on how you read it, this can seem like a pretty bleak point-of-view. The idea that we learn from mistakes is part of it, certainly. But there’s more. There’s also the sense that there isn’t really a stable category for “success.” The “ever” in the second, third, and fourth sentences feels like it’s part of a set of rhetorical questions. But, there aren’t any question marks. Thus, it also feels like part of sequential statements of grim resignation: something more like, “I’ve always tried, but I’ve always failed.” The quasi-hopeful tone of the second half of the quotation is undermined a fair bit by this, and the idea of “failing better” as opposed to “succeeding” is unavoidably contradictory. We can’t just say: “‘failing better’ is equal to ‘succeeding'” for Beckett, because then we are essentially saying something like “it’s all just semantics”; that he isn’t trying to get at something substantial and nuanced about the limits and potential of human agency.

    At it’s barest, Beckett’s speaker seems to be comforting himself (and us, maybe) with the idea that we can survive failure, endure failure, and by embracing failure’s inevitability maybe begin to own it. In this context, one who fails better is a would-be virtuoso of the spontaneous.

    I think the most productive relationship between Beckett’s view of human experience and challenges of teaching better (teaching “successfully” being a kind of Platonic idyll) squares best with the point Sue makes regarding risk. By taking risks in the classroom, one invites failure to the foreground of what is going on rather than masking it in formality or false authority. When failure then inevitably emerges, the resourceful teacher gets an opportunity to survive, to save the situation from complete collapse. Hyperbolic as it might sound, this little drama re-enacts in the microcosm what is always happening at the macrocosmic level for ourselves and for the students as autonomous subjects. When it works out, when we actually grasp something solid as we’re falling, the experience is exhilarating for everyone involved, because it’s true. It’s not just notebook and pantomime. It really happened. I’ve tried to practice this approach as a teacher most of my career, and although it is almost always terrifying, my students and I almost always survive.

    Aaron McCollough

    January 28, 2011 at 10:36 am

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