How failures are important for learning

For many teenagers, Jan 12 was a turning point that marked the end of secondary school education.

The release of the O-level examination results is something most people in Singapore are familiar with.

Although scoring well is important, there is something far more valuable when a student fails, as it takes courage and tenacity to navigate the challenges ahead.

As Assistant Professor Johannes Haushofer at Princeton University puts it, failing is as important as succeeding.

The psychology professor published a CV of Failures online to make public his "invisible failures". In it, he explains: "Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me."

He then details the degree programmes he did not get into from 1999 and the academic positions and funding he failed to secure. In an update in 2016, he notes that the CV of Failures "has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work".

In Singapore, most students consider failure a taboo topic. But for me, failure was the spark in my academic journey.

Every fall helps us remember how to get up. In teaching, it is important to show students how failures can take them closer to succeeding in life.

Many of us remember doing badly in a particular subject in school. For me, it was biology. Although my teacher, Ms Chen Li Yan, tried to help, I had resolved to give up because I continued to stumble.

I refused to be attentive in class and this resulted in me failing the subject in the preliminary exams. I remember telling Ms Chen that I wanted to give up, but she recognised it as a cry for help and spent many hours helping me.

That experience taught me that failing, if taken wrongly, discourages and creates a sense of fear and uncertainty. I recall how the harder I struggled, the bigger each failure seemed. The failures could have eaten away at my self-confidence and affected my other subjects, if not for Ms Chen.

Now, as a teacher-to-be, I have made it a personal mission to apply the lessons I learnt when it comes to failure and help every student to see his own potential.

Despite my academic struggles, I received a scholarship to pursue a bachelor's degree in science, a discipline in which I once failed regularly. It is a testament to how the torch of learning can be sparked by failures.

For every struggling student, there is a priceless lesson waiting to be learnt. It is also what my National Institute of Education (NIE) professors have instilled in me: It is important to recognise that every child learns differently.

Every fall helps us remember how to get up. In teaching, it is important to show students how failures can take them closer to succeeding in life. And that means being aware of other doors that open and opportunities that come along.

I can gauge my performance as a teacher from my students' response. Just like my mentors at NIE and of course, Ms Chen.

As Dr Joseph Yeo from NIE's Mathematics and Mathematics Education Academic Group often remind student teachers: "We don't teach maths; we teach students."

The students should be an inspiration and a constant reminder of the goals we set for ourselves as educators - to be thoughtful, to provoke learning and to groom the next generation.

And to enhance the spirit of enterprise with the courage to try, never mind the failures.

"Enterprise is in our blood and DNA," said Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills).

Mr Ng Chee Meng, Minister for Education (Schools) went further: "To cultivate this entrepreneurial dare, we need to infuse it into our students' education journey, to create an environment where trying is encouraged and failing is accepted as a step towards success and as part of our overall learning."

But it is not just about developing 21st-century competencies such as collaboration and communication skills, critical and creative thinking, and cross-cultural awareness. Helping students emerge as better citizens and useful contributing members of society is just as important. As teachers, we also need to impart values like compassion, resilience and empathy.

With the new school year in full swing, let it be not just about academics but also educating the heart, because life will dish out its fair share of setbacks.


•Aaron Lim is currently pursuing a Master of Science at Imperial College London.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'How failures are important for learning'. Print Edition | Subscribe