15-year-olds in Singapore have a greater fear of failure than those abroad

Teacher Tay Peiyong with his students from Admiralty Secondary School.
Teacher Tay Peiyong with his students from Admiralty Secondary School.PHOTO: ST FILE

Students in Singapore are more afraid of failure compared with their 15-year-old counterparts overseas, the results of a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released yesterday show.

The Republic had one of the highest proportions of students - more than 70 per cent - who expressed concern about failure in a questionnaire that was part of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Students were asked to indicate how they felt about failure through three statements. These related to whether they were worried about what others thought of them if they failed, or that they might not have enough talent. The third statement concerned whether failure made them doubt their plans for their future.

In comparison, the OECD average was slightly more than 50 per cent. In response, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said yesterday that an excessive fear of failing could be "disabling" and that it is making changes to dial back the obsession with grades.

Mr Sng Chern Wei, MOE's deputy director-general of education (curriculum), said the results suggest students are "a bit worried about not doing well in different parts of school life, and worried about how others view them when they experience setbacks". "I think we can help more students to view such setbacks as a natural part of learning and growing, and to view them constructively."

Secondary 4 student Adeline Leong, 16, said she is afraid to fail in subjects that she has consistently done well in, such as history.

"I would be pressured to keep up the streak of doing well. But if it's a subject that I know I'm not strong in, I would not have that high expectations for myself and I would not be so afraid."

The latest Pisa study also showed that 60 per cent of Singapore students had a "growth mindset" - meaning that they believe their intelligence can change with effort that they put in. The opposite is a "fixed mindset", where people think their talent or intelligence is limited.

While Singapore's figure is slightly lower than the OECD average of 63 per cent, it is higher than those of most other top-performing Asian systems like China, South Korea and Hong Kong.


Said Mr Sng: "Where we think we can do better in is actually encouraging more students to have a growth mindset, and also helping them to see failures constructively.

"(Having a) growth mindset is important because that's a mindset where students believe that through their efforts, they could improve their intelligence, which will then actually prepare them better when they face challenges in life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2019, with the headline '15-year-olds in S'pore have a greater fear of failure than those abroad'. Print Edition | Subscribe