Going to university, learning how to fail better

Character matters more than grades. Students must grapple with failure even as they receive signals that success is everything.

In the university calendar, two consecutive ceremonies allow professors to reaffirm the reasons for their existence and the ideals of a university.

During convocation, we share the joy of our graduates and mark their personal transformation throughout their undergraduate years. Days later, we welcome our freshmen before classes begin, reliving our own excitement during our first days of university life decades ago.

Most professors were first-generation university entrants whose parents did not have opportunities for further studies.

That's still true for the majority of our students today, and that's why the well-deserved pride of their parents and grandparents during convocation is so palpable.

As part of the academic procession on the stage, we witness our graduates receiving their degree scrolls, and as the valedictorian requests them to stand up and turn around to thank their families, we too join in the applause. In a sense, we are thanking parents for their trust in our university and, by extension, the public for its support of our mission.

...the desired attributes of our graduates not only make them more employable, but also enable them to be lifelong learners who can contribute to society in many ways. These core attributes are competence in a discipline, creativity and innovativeness, effective communication skills, civic-mindedness and - most important of all - character and integrity.

A paradoxical feeling strikes us when we welcome freshmen: The years have moved on for us, but our undergraduates are always in their early 20s.

At the university, the relationship between teachers and students is ideally more equal and collegial than in earlier phases of education. Professors are permanent students, we don't know everything, and we shouldn't pretend that we do. Our students are always engaging us, leading us to become not only more effective teachers, but also better learners.

Signals and values

The university is the ultimate learning community, and each member is a "learning organism".

I am not a biologist, but as a sociologist, I am fascinated by social life in the animal world.

According to a report in Science Daily, a recent scientific paper showed that slime mould, a single-cell organism without a nervous system, "is capable of a type of learning called habituation".

Furthermore, "this discovery throws light on the origins of learning ability during evolution, even before the appearance of a nervous system and brain".

We want our students to enjoy not only a vibrant campus life, but also an exciting intellectual life in a special inter-disciplinary environment.

By interacting with students and professors from diverse disciplines in seminars or informal discussions, we develop new perspectives and collaborate on solving problems, drawing insights from many sources.

In this spirit, let me share what I have learnt from our students and researchers in the life sciences.

When bacteria from diverse species come together to form a "biofilm" or a "multicellular community", they synchronise their activities to achieve a better chance of survival in response to a changing environment.

The bacteria can be said to communicate and cooperate with each other using chemical signal molecules or what's technically called "quorum sensing".

In terms of human evolution, the university must be considered a very advanced and complex learning community, with a critical mass of professors, students, researchers, and staff devoted to higher learning.

Just think of the diversity of human talent and the intensity of learning activities on our campuses, in our seminar rooms, laboratories, residential halls and among student clubs and societies.

But doesn't this advanced learning community also function best when its members - just like those of a bacterial community - are able to communicate and cooperate effectively with each other?

Doesn't "quorum sensing" in bacterial life sound like the equivalent of "consensus building" in human life?

This reminds me of our student leaders persistently having to engage in consultation and collaboration with many diverse student groups and with university management.

In so doing, we develop the good habits that help us work together to achieve the ideals of the university.

This is why we have to keep signalling our values to each other and build consensus on what we are about.

And this is why we tell our students: "You are not passive consumers of education; you are not customers buying a degree and demanding customer satisfaction; you are not clients who are served by consultants providing you with solutions.

"Together with professors, administrators and fellow students, you are the co-owners, co-creators, and co-drivers of your own learning experience."

In this way, students take ownership and responsibility in practising mutual respect, inter-cultural understanding, resilience, leadership and teamwork, and service to others. These forms of learning rest on a strong sense of idealism, and we can't claim that all members of our university community are equally idealistic.

We often remind our students that university education is not about chasing after grades and getting a degree, a passport for entering the higher end of the job market. Yes, "employability" is very much on our minds.

But we also believe that the desired attributes of our graduates not only make them more employable, but also enable them to be lifelong learners who can contribute to society in many ways.

These core attributes are competence in a discipline, creativity and innovativeness, effective communication skills, civic-mindedness and - most important of all - character and integrity.

Character is forged in the process of "learning by doing" and by facing moral dilemmas - which is one thing that human beings do and other life forms do not.

As one students' union leader told me last year, she and her teammates had to struggle "between doing the right thing and doing the popular thing" when they sought consensus on reforming freshmen orientation and faced resistance from their peers.

Failing better

To say that university education is shaped by ideals is also to say that we have to learn what it means to fall short of our ideals and how to live up to them.

We must learn to grapple with failure all the time, amid receiving signals that success is everything and failure is not an option. Throughout our schooling, the most terrifying or discouraging word that we dread is "fail".

A recent BBC programme, Failing Gracefully, Success and Failure in Medicine, discussed the pivotal role of technology in medicine and the difficulties of human control in high-risk complex systems.

The presenter, Dr Kevin Fong, concluded: "The truth is that failure is inevitable. So part of the problem is how we - and that means we as clinicians, but also as patients and the wider public - understand and meet failure. And here I'm talking about more than just learning from our mistakes."

Dr Fong says: "It's about not just understanding why we fail, but how we fail and what we can do to continually improve. And that's the essence of failing gracefully.

"Understanding those things that are unavoidable, evolving slowly and surely over time towards the future that will always be imperfect, but should be better."

We are now living in an amazingly complex world that dispels the illusion of total human control.

No university can effectively inoculate its students against risks of all kinds.

Yes, we must exercise our duty of care in providing a safe environment for learning, but we must also find ways for students to learn how to deal with complex and ambiguous situations, and come out stronger.

If anything, the university is the one imperfect institution that offers a myriad of learning situations for its members to learn what it means to "fail gracefully".

It's not just about "teachable moments" that call forth the correct and authoritative answers from the professors. Instead, our students must personally confront dilemmas, draw their own lessons and resolve to do better.

In a university, the privilege of exercising the freedom to fail comes with the responsibility of having to continually do better.

We must always remember that this privilege is made possible by public support. What we are learning from science, medicine, business and education today suggests that the ethos of individual success - which lies at the core of meritocracy - cannot stand on its own.

This means that we have to unlearn some of the ingrained habits associated with our fear of failure.

And this is something that we also learn from the humanities and the arts. I recall the words of the playwright Samuel Beckett, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better".

And in the words of Singaporean dramatist Kuo Pao Kun, "A worthy failure is more significant than a mediocre success".

We wish our students every success - every success in failing, trying again, failing again, and failing better.

  • The writer is a professor of sociology and associate provost (student life) at Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'Going to university, learning how to fail better'. Print Edition | Subscribe