Learning from Mistakes

For more great, laugh-inducing, cringey mistakes, click on the image to visit cakewrecks.com

I’ve been thinking about making mistakes in relation to inquiry-based design.  As a high school teacher librarian who currently (pushing for change, pushing for change) has limited time with students in a classroom setting (1-3 lessons in a year per class of freshmen), I have felt like my biggest impact is in filling each minute with instruction.  However, I realized, in my pausing to take a quick breath and a sip of water between class periods, students were leaving my lessons looking like zombies.

So what is the result of my teaching?  It’s probably not heads filled with educational, information-rich, meaningful learning.  If anything, they probably paid attention at those moments when I said, “Okay.  This is really important, and you’ll want to write it down.” Beyond that, I’m lucky that their teachers have me teach on a yearly basis in the remaining three years of high school to get refreshers.

So if learning comes best, as most teachers are aware, by doing, and if we are encouraged to collaborate and function as facilitators in order to support student learners in the 21st century (see AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner), then we must seek to transform our practice, as educators like Patricia Montiel-Overall suggest in her 2013 LMC article, “Students as global citizens: Educating a new generation.”

This transformation requires some shifts that may be pretty darn uncomfortable. Speaking from my own experience, I decided that my impact was being undermined by time constraints.  Thanks to help from a fellow educator, and from an inquiry-based lesson on data literacy by Tasha Bergson-Michelson at the 2017 California School Librarian Association conference, I decided to pull back on content.  I took Tasha’s lesson and modified it for my purposes, creating an inquiry-based lesson on evaluating resources.  I’m not going to go into the full plan, but suffice to say, it was an uncomfortable transformation.

Mistakes were made.

If I learned anything, it was this: the cake may look bad, but that doesn’t mean it tastes bad.  In other words, after that first lesson was taught, I thought, “Well, at least they gave me a round of applause, and there was that big ‘aha!’ moment when the students came up with the list of traits a good resource should have.”  But it felt weird, too.  I didn’t have that tidy, all-wrapped-up feeling like I usually do after covering content.  It felt more like observing chicks hatching, or a newborn calf standing up for the first time.  The key word is observing.  I wasn’t wiping my hands and saying to myself, “good job.”   I was telling the students that.

Diana Laufenberg, in her November 2010 TEDxMidAtlantic talk titled, “How to learn? From mistakes,” notes that “always having the right answer doesn’t allow students to learn.”  She was talking about students learning from their own mistakes, but I’m here telling you that they learn from yours, too.  AND IT’S IMPORTANT!  It’s not only important to make mistakes, but it’s important to admit that your lesson is sloppy, or that you need a hand.

In “Learning from mistakes: Confessions of a flawed librarian” by Linda Braun in the April 2016 issue of the Voice of Youth Advocates journal, the author notes that “Most people would agree that everyone–even professionals–make mistakes, and most would agree that some of the most significant and profound learning comes from those mistakes” (p. 40).

If we’re to make transformation happen, where students come out of our lessons feeling like they have learned something, we need to embrace the messiness of the transformation.  Our mistakes benefit those 21st learners.


Braun, L.M. (April 2016). Learning from mistakes: Confessions of a flawed librarian. Voice of Youth Advocates 39(1), 40-41.

Laufenberg, D. (November 2010). How to Learn? From mistakes. [Video File with transcript]. TEDxMidAtlantic.  Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/diana_laufenberg_3_ways_to_teach

Montiel-Overall, P. (2013). Students as global citizens: Educating a new generation. LMC 31(3) 8-10.  Retrieved from School Library Management, 7th edition [Kindle version].



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