Why ‘WD-40’ Is Not Known As ‘WD-1’

If you’re at all like me, somewhere in your home you have at least one can of WD-40®, because the stuff works wonders. If you teach science, I believe that you ought to have a large WD-40 poster on your classroom wall. Not to advertise the product but to teach a basic lesson about learning: failure is an essential part of succeeding.

You may know the story of WD-40.{{1}} More than 60 years ago the three employees of the San Diego-based Rocket Chemical Company were trying to develop a product that would prevent rust, something they could market to the aerospace industry. They tried, and, being methodical, they kept careful records. They labeled their first effort Water Displacement #1, or WD-1.

I’ll bet you have figured out how many times they failed before they were finally successful.

Students need to know that adults try and fail and fail and fail–and keep on trying. More than that, they need to experience failure. While I am a big fan of both project-based learning and blended learning, I believe the most critical piece of the pedagogical puzzle is what we ought to call ‘Problem-based learning.’

Projects where the teachers already know the outcome won’t work, especially with older students. Blending technology and teaching so students can add fractions faster? That’s not the best approach either.

Give students problems to tackle–and make the problems real! Lord knows we have plenty of problems worth tackling that can be given to students. They cannot be intractable (how can we achieve peace in the Middle East?) or trivial and uninteresting (what color should classrooms be painted?)

A pedagogy based on discovery flies in the face of what seems to be happening in most classrooms and schools {{2}}, where the emphasis seems to be on ‘critical analysis’ to get the predetermined answers.

Some years back I interviewed a math teacher in Richmond, Virginia, who told me how he used to take his students down to the James River and challenge them to determine how far it was to the opposite shore. He didn’t give them a formula; just the challenge. Then they put their heads together and, he said, eventually worked it out. Lots of failure…and lots of genuine discovery. Sadly, he said, the new state-mandated curriculum doesn’t allow time for field trips and discovery. Now, he said, he has to give his students the formula and a bunch of problems to solve. Which group of students is more likely to have retained that information?

Here’s a genuine problem-based project that’s easy to incorporate into the curriculum. Equip every third grade class in the city, region or state with an air quality indicator {{3}}. Have students go outside and take the measurements four or five times a day. They plot the data. Share the data with other third graders. Look for differences. Take photos to see if the measurements correlate with cloud patterns. Figure out the possible causes. Study weather patterns. Bring in scientists and meteorologists and ask them questions. Write up the findings, including everything that they could not explain. That is, write about the failures, the as-yet-unanswered questions.

That’s real work, something those third graders won’t forget doing. And, while they may not be aware that they’re also developing a skill set that will serve them well as adults, that is what will be happening.

Oh, and those kids will probably do just fine on whatever standardized tests the system throws their way.

©John Merrow 2015

[[1]]1. http://wd40.com/cool-stuff/history [[1]]
[[2]]2. The entrepreneur Elon Musk has started his own school because he wasn’t happy with what his kids were experiencing. It sounds as if the entire curriculum in this school-without-grades is based on problem solving. [[2]]
[[3]]3. A device can cost as little as $30.[[3]]

7 thoughts on “Why ‘WD-40’ Is Not Known As ‘WD-1’

  1. Two quotes come to mind:

    From Albert Einstein, “Any person who has not failed has never tried anything new.”

    And from Thomas Edison, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

    I don’t care if you call it project-based learning; it still is far better when the students are in control and the “correct” answer is unknown. For real situations, there IS a correct answer but we won’t know if we get it. Our task is to get an outcome that helps us address the situation. [Yes, 2+3=4 BUT that’s correct only because of how we’ve defined +, =, 2, and 4.]

    As with so many other items, Einstein and Edison were soooo right about failure!!!!

    FINALLY, all educators need to ignor the mandates related to standardized testing and facilitate effective learning, effective problem solving, comminicating, and teaming skills at least!!! And guess what: their students will do as good or better on those stupid standardized tests!!!!

    I’m off my soap box now and hopefully will be OK in a little while…


  2. I love the WD 40 story. It’s not new for us to be talking like this, but it does bear saying in as many differently ways as possible. SO thank you. My personal favorite is churchill’s “Success is failing again and again without losing enthusiasm.


    • Thanks, Rick and John. Agreed….
      Success in this matter will be saying it over and over, in new ways, until most of the world of education listens!


  3. John great post and thanks for sharing WD-40 story, which I had not heard.

    As you may know, for more than 35 years I’ve tried to model and advocate for schools to help youngsters study and help solve local, state, national and even international problems. Here’s a recent Ed Week blog on this:

    I so strongly agree with you that if this is done well, “while they (students) may not be aware that they’re also developing a skill set that will serve them well as adults, that is what will be happening.”

    Long before NCLB and promotion of high stakes standardized tests, few teacher prep programs taught teachers how to do this, and relatively few schools did the kind of service learning where students actively study, as well as try to help deal with real problems. What are you thoughts about ways to more effectively promote these ideas?


  4. A ship Captain named Dave “full ahead” Kennedy wrote a song called “Do Something Even If It’s Wrong”. Captain Kennedy could park the largest ship you can imagine in dock. He seemed to read the mind of that ship even if it’s 600,000 feet long. But he didn’t get there by doing it right.

    The first thing he tries never works
    The second thing only makes it worse
    The third the fourth the fifth the sixth something works
    Do something even if it’s wrong

    Envision a school where failure is not only an option, but is a positive experience essential to the learning process.


    • Please turn to page 37 in your hymnal, (aka my book, http://www.wholechildreform.com). My sub-chapter begins with “Three cheers for failure” “Failure is a student’s next best teacher, a stepping stone to success” .

      We must change our current system of education that allows this horrible system of failure to drive kids into the streets, forcing them to give up, believing that they are not worthy of success only because they are not allowed to learn from failure. This goes back to the beginnings of education that was designed to, in the words of Thomas Jefferson “rake a few geniuses from the rubbish”

      This slavery based system of education exists today. Together we must take a rational look using the agenda of children rather than continue the battle of who is first and who is best.

      After all, whose children do we want to see fail? Charter children? Choice children? Private school children? Public school children.

      Everything changes when we focus on the agenda of children. We are all in it together if we are for children.


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