Faculty Focus


Telling, Doing, Making Mistakes, and Learning

Recently, I was vividly reminded that my responsibility as a teacher involves more than telling. Teachers also have an obligation to provide a supportive environment where students can learn by doing and by making mistakes.

Several weeks ago, a colleague rushed into my office. He was off to a noontime meeting but without lunch. At my coaxing, he decided to fix one of my dehydrated standby lunches of Thai noodles. I warned him that preparing the noodles involved multiple steps. I heard him reading the instructions out loud. “Step 1: Remove all contents from tray. Remove noodles from bag and place back into tray. Add enough boiling water to cover noodles. Secure lid to tray. Let stand for approximately 4 minutes.” At that point I remembered that I made a mistake the first time I prepared the Thai noodles. I interrupted my colleague and told him what I had done wrong. He nodded and continued to prepare the noodles. A few minutes later expletives emanated from near the microwave. I turned around to see my colleague making the same mistake — the very one I had just warned him about.

At that moment I realized that my colleague’s noodle-making experience was the perfect analogy for what we advocate in the classroom, learning by doing. Because I had made the exact same mistake, I blithely assumed that I could prevent the error by telling my colleague what to do. In fact, he needed to make the mistake in order to learn.

This learning by doing is an excellent example and extension of Dewey’s Experiential Learning Theory, which suggests that everything occurs in a social environment. Learning is a process that includes knowledge, as facilitated and organized by the instructor, as well as, students’ previous experiences and readiness. As educators, we have a responsibility to provide students an environment where they can learn by doing, and that includes giving them the opportunity to learn by making mistakes. It is true that experiential learning takes longer. I could have made lunch for my colleague without error and in less time. But the cost would have been his learning and I would have to fix his Thai noodles henceforth. When we work with students we should aspire to create “teachable moments.” Those moments rarely come from “telling” the student what to think or do, but they often emerge out of mistakes students have made.