Incorporating Failure Into Library Instruction

Failure is what’s getting a fair amount of attention right now, especially when the conversation turns to learning. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a growing consensus, but I’m hearing and reading more about the importance of allowing students to learn through authentic practice, what some call experiential learning, that puts them into situations where they can succeed or fail – and learn by doing so themselves or from the experiences of their fellow students. Educators have known for many years that students have better learning experiences when there is a hands-on component which enables them to learn through their own mistakes and by coming to their own conclusions; what then need is less lecturing and demonstration. Think back to the days when the vast majority of trades were learned through apprenticeships. It was all about having authentic practice, and learning from one’s own mistakes.

One good example that promotes the value of failure for learning is a TED Talk by Diana Laufenberg on the topic of “How to Learn? From Mistakes.” In this talk Laufenberg, who is a teacher at a progressive school in Philadelphia, describes how she creates projects that promote constructivism in the classroom. Traditional education, as she describes it, is focused entirely on getting things right – and never being wrong. How do you get an A grade? You always give the right answers on tests. The problem associated with test taking is that it rarely results in real learning (a permanent change in behavior/thinking). I really like the point that the traditional methods are based on a world of information scarcity when you had to sit in a classroom to have an expert pour it into your head. In a world of information abundance, the answers and possibilities are all around contemporary students. They know how to find it. What they need are learning activities that enable them to hone their thinking skills to enable them to sort, synthesize, evaluate and create from the information they find (sounds familiar, right). What Laufenberg discovered through her learning projects was how much more effectively students learned when there were no hard and fast rules, and they learned through experience and the making of mistakes.

And when you move outside the world of education into business there is growing evidence of a “there’s value in failure” movement. Again, nothing particularly new when you consider that in the 1991 Deep Dive video the IDEO group emphasizes the important of trying lots of different ways to accomplish tasks knowing that many will fail, but that out of the failure will come learning and eventual success. More recently I came across this column titled “The Role of Failure in Learning” – you can’t get much more direct than that – that provides a corporate perspective. The author writes:

society tends to reward performers, rather than learners. All through school and life, it is not the person who learned the most who is rewarded but rather the person who came in first — the person who scored the highest. High performance is what is valued, not high learning. The downside to this is that high performers, without balancing high learning, will ultimately quit trying when they aren’t successful. They may leave avenues with an obstacle to success unexplored. Learners see the obstacle for what it is — a momentary blip to be dealt with. Failure is never failure; for the learner, it is simply an opportunity to learn.

I could point to other examples, but you get the message. It’s better perhaps to remind ourselves that there are different levels of failure, some are good for learning while others are just…bad failure. What do I mean? You don’t want the engineer who designs your car’s steering system or the factory worker who installs the parts to fail. They might learn something from the catastrophic failure, but at what cost? In this post about innovation, Michael Schrage makes the point that the best kind of failure for learning and innovation is some sort of partial failure – where you fail enough to have things go wrong but not so destructively that there’s nothing to learn from at all – the type of failure likely to result in quitting. I think what he’s saying is that we need the type of failure that takes us from version one to version two. Our libraries already have enough examples of systems that are so poorly designed that they lead to the type of failure that makes the students and faculty just want to give up on them. We don’t need more of that.

With so much discussion about the importance of failure for learning and innovation, how are academic library educators incorporating these lessons into research instruction? Are we still spending more time on making sure that students get things right, rather than on designing an experiential learning situation that allows them to make mistakes and learn from them? Admittedly, this is difficult to achieve in one course session. Laufenberg’s examples are week or month long projects that allow students to learn through experience at a more reasonable pace, as is often the case in the real world. The literature of information literacy contains good examples of problem-based learning where students are put into more realistic situations that require them to locate and use information to help solve a problem. That does get more to the point of experiential learning, but I’m not sure how the making of mistakes is capitalized upon to develop a more intense learning experience. My quick and dirty search of the library literature finds a few articles on the importance of learning from failure, but these are mostly geared to the profession – encouraging risk taking. What I don’t find are articles providing good examples of instruction designed with some intentional failure component that is there to ultimately aid students in learning how to think for themselves when they are dealing with information overload. If it appears that employers may be looking for the type of people who are comfortable with failure as long as they learn from it, and we’re about lifelong learning, perhaps that’s a skill we need to help our students develop.

In our rush to develop new “learning from failure” methods, let’s remember to recognize that as great as all this constructivist learning from mistakes sounds, there are times when a good old behaviorist approach might be better suited to the learning task at hand. If I have a room full of students who need to learn how to use the MediaMark (MRI) Plus database for a marketing assignment, I need to get them to learn the 15 steps they’ll need to get to the right data for their project. It would be pointless to get them to the first screen and then tell them to “experience” the interface and expect them to learn from the many, many mistakes they would no doubt make. This is a case where the reward for getting it done right is a successfully completed assignment.

In 2011 I will hope to see better examples of risk taking in the classroom, and models of library learning where there is an intentional element of “learning through failing” designed into the instruction. Despite my limited instruction opportunities, I’ll be giving more thought to this myself. Speaking of 2011, this may very well be the last ACRLog post of the year. If so, allow me to say thanks for your continued readership of ACRLog. It is greatly appreciated. On behalf of the blogging team, I hope you’ve found ACRLog worthwhile and have enjoyed the presence of new bloggers and guest bloggers throughout the year. As always, ACRLog is always open to ideas for guest posts. If you have something to share about academic librarianship, get in touch with us in 2011.

9 thoughts on “Incorporating Failure Into Library Instruction

  1. Love this post. I agree, it’s nearly impossible because of time constraints to provide ‘failure’ opportunities during a 50 minute one-shot. Recently, I’ve started encouraging faculty to bring their students to the library sessions much later in the semester: not only after they have chosen their topics, but after they’ve tried to do some research. When students have failed to find the sources they need through Google- that’s when they pay attention to the librarian. The most effective instruction is at the ‘point of need’, and nothing points out the need like failure.

  2. I agree with the article and with Candice. Basically it’s “Lesson plans, rubrics, assessments, improvements, oh my!”. It is all about that and more. I think a library instruction program has to incorporate innovation on all levels in order to succeed. As an educator-librarian who uses a wired classroom The best changes may come through collaboration, trying new approaches and being able to document what works, and for which groups. We may have to face that we tailor instruction and offer options on several levels: Live lesson, electronic resources for post-lesson content, and small group follow-ups. I like providing as much as we can…and yes, some may hit that fail wall anyway. But maybe that’s the point.

  3. Carefully designed failure opportunities and constructivism are the backbone of the learning exercises I used in library instruction classes. It can be done in single sessions, and I’ve used this approach for years, mostly because single sessions are still what we are most often called on to do. Two things need to kept in mind: 1) What do the students need to learn to complete the assignment? (as opposed to “what do I want them to learn”. Not always the same thing); 2) what is it about the resources they need to use that may trip them up without some careful observation and learning in the classroom? With these in mind, constructing these kinds of learning opportunities really isn’t difficult.

  4. The difficulty with developing instruction sessions that incorporate an “intentional failure component” stems from the fact that many of the students we teach don’t have the basic conceptualization of the information landscape necessary to make failure worthwhile. We have to start with behaviorist approaches before we can even get to a level where play, creative exploration, and failure can work in a constructivist way and by that point, as Candice suggests, we’ve run out of time.

    If educators acknowledge the importance of failure in learning, then perhaps that can be a foothold for working to develop information literacy instruction at the institutional level: working with faculty and administrators to develop long-term learning outcomes and longitudinal assessment, either though semester-long courses or across the curriculum. Not only does this give the students more time to develop their understanding, but it allows more room for failure (and time to recover).

    Thanks for all the great posts this year! Looking forward to the next =)

  5. Persistence is often the missing ingredient in making failure a learning opportunity, and perhaps the right/wrong binary test mentality is partly at fault. Students have to care enough to persist, and they have to recognize that failure isn’t an end-point, but a natural part of learning. Just about everything I do when I do research is full of fail, but that’s how I refine the question, discover interesting angles, discard things that turn out to be distractions, and find myself surprised in a positive way.

    Teaching revision as a part of writing is similar. It takes more time, but not much more (for the teacher, perhaps much more for the student), but how much more useful is it to get comments on a paper that you can use to make it better rather than a dissertation on what you did wrong.

    I’d love to get in on a revision process that included looking at choice and use of sources in an argument – before it’s too late.

  6. I am an information literacy instructor and college librarian and have in the past year put together and delivered over 36 course-integrated information literacy classes to students who are products of the Yeshivas. What is particularly interesting about teaching this very homogeneous student population is that they welcome the game-like exercises I offer them in my discussion of citations and plagiarism and primary versus secondary sources. It seems that their religious background, involving a lot of Q&A and dialogue between teacher and students, allows them to feel very comfortable with hands-on exercises that can involve getting the wrong answer. But these students are exceptionally well-prepared for the college experience and are terrific auditory learners. They also deal well with criticism becaue they are very goal-oriented (“I want that “A.” “I need that A.” “Tell me what I have to do to get that A.”) The challenge, I beliee, is to turn every information literacy class/course into a stimulating problem that distracts students from the issue of failure vs. success. In the past, I have managed to do this with not-so-prepared students by focusing on topics that they find interesting or provocative and using that as a basis for teaching them the more mundane principles of information literacy.

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