Want to Get Education Unstuck? Try a Little WD-40…

Education needs something to help it get unstuck. Maybe a little WD-40 would help?


One of the reasons that it’s so hard to change education is because it is stuck in its current practices: legacy systems that are organized more around sorting, indoctrination, and custodial care than around learning.

Education needs something to help it get unstuck. Maybe a little WD-40 would help? For as it turns out, WD-40 offers us several valuable lessons on how we might get education unstuck from its current predicament.

The first lesson is described by an article by John Merrow (thanks to my friend and colleague and Peggie Weeks for sharing this on Facebook!), which is entitled Why ‘WD-40′ Is Not Known As ‘WD-1′. This article explains how the number ’40’ in the name “WD-40” stands for the number of attempts it took for the inventors of the product to perfect their formula. This illustrates a well-known but routinely overlooked truth about learning: that failure is an essential part of succeeding, and thus of learning as well.

If learning were the essence of education, failure would be a recognized, even encouraged part of the schooling process as well. Unfortunately, however, the opposite is true: education is stuck on rewarding success based on very narrow time-based measures, and on punishing failure rather than using it as an integral part of the learning process. Grading systems routinely measure each student’s performance at the same time relative to each other, which works passably for sorting purposes but not for learning purposes. The reward success/punish failure principle is an essential design feature of standardized tests. School calendars and schedules leave little or no time for trying and failing to improve quickly, let alone failing 39 times before finally getting it right on the 40th try.

John Merrow’s article describes some of the alternative approaches which allow for learning through attempt, repeated failure, and eventual success: field trips, discovery, tackling of real problems. And there are many more.

If the numbers in WD-40’s name illustrate the value of learning through failure and persistence from repeated trial and error, the letters in WD-40’s name offer some equally valuable lessons. I was reminded of this while telling a friend of mine at dinner about the story behind WD-40’s name. Her response was to ask, “what does the WD stand for?” Although I’d read it in the article, I’d forgotten what it was, and so I had to look it up again. The ‘WD’ stands for “Water Displacement,” which reflects WD-40’s original purpose as a water displacing formula to protect the outer skin of the Atlas Missile from rust and corrosion back in the early 1950s.  So the “WD” in WD-40 is also instructive in several ways:

– The label is not important. Almost nobody knows what the “WD” in “WD-40” stands for, and with good reason. While it’s an interesting curiosity and a fun fact to know, it’s unnecessary for us to know what the label “WD-40” means. It’s far more useful to know what it can do for us.
– Knowing the right answers has its place, but the more powerful learning results from moving beyond right answers. At the beginning, WD-40 was part of a product line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry; it was the right answer for solving the problem of “Water Displacement.” But this answer was just the beginning; soon after the product was invented, employees found that it worked so well that some of them began sneaking some cans of the stuff out of the factory to use at home. Eventually, the company’s founder started putting WD-40 in aerosol cans to see if consumers would find it useful. And they did: in fact, the makers of WD-40 have a list of over 2000 uses for the product: cleaning, shining, protecting, lubricating, polishing, unkinking, unshining; stops squeaking, rusting, sticking. Many of these uses still depend on “water displacement,” but the product has clearly evolved far beyond that.

This is how education should work much more often: looking for right answers through trial and error, through embracing failure as a vital part of the learning process, and then moving beyond right answers to exploration and making new discoveries.  Instead of treating education as a giant content installation project, we can follow Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein’s approach and choose to structure education as the pursuit of ignorance: learning as the process of discovering knowledge which reveals what we don’t know, which creates a virtuous cycle: the desire to learn more, fueled by the ever-unfolding discoveries of our ignorance.

WD-40 has such a wide variety of useful purposes that it has become a cultural phenomenon. Need to hold something together? Duct tape. Need to get something unstuck? Spray some WD-40 on it. Maybe applying a little WD-40 could work some wonders on education as well…


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