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Posts Tagged ‘failure

A few days ago, I had more questions than answers on the latest round of PISA results.

In reference to Singapore dropping to number 2 in the overall ranking, I wondered: How about being number 10 in academics? How about striving for measures that actually mean something? How about not playing the game of rankings and comparison?

I found some indirect answers from narratives of our students’ fear of failure. We are still number 1 in that respect — 78% of our students saw failure negatively impacting their futures compared to 54% of OECD member country average.

The same article hinted at why we needed to “become less allergic to failure” but did not say how. If we collectively work on how, we might answer all three of my questions. A drop in academic rankings would not matter if we focus on curing our crippling national condition.

I also chanced upon an unexpected source of answers from a researcher in Australia.

She reasoned how PISA is not a predictive tool, so we should not have knee jerk reactions (like crafting policy) to PISA results.

She also reminded me that the tests are simply that. Even though the PISA questions have evolved, they remain a very specific set of knowledge and skills. We need to ask ourselves if we want excellent test-takers or wise risk-takers.

A quick definition of praxis might be theory enacted in practice or theory-informed practice.

We need praxis in teaching and instructional design. For this to happen, practitioners would have to be aware of theories that undergird practice, stay up to date with changes, and pursue relevant professional development.

But all these are not enough.

As the image embedded in the tweet above illustrates, knowledge of theory does not guarantee effective practice. Even a good model to follow is not sufficient. A recipe does not a cake make.

So a missing element in my superficial definition of praxis might now include the need to learn quickly and effectively from mistakes. This applies as much to facilitating learning as to cake-making.

Yesterday I reflected on how our Number One ranking in OECD’s problem-solving test raised more critical questions than provided model answers.

This tweet gave me more fuel thought.

The processes behind the products of learning are just as important, if not more so. A Number One ranking is a product of a combination of complex processes. Actually it is a by-product because we are not schooling kids for a worldwide competition.

Topping the ranking boards can send unintended and undesirable messages. Among them might be:

  • We are the best, so there is no need to change.
  • Let’s maintain the ranking for the sake of being Number One.
  • We have little or even nothing to learn from others.
  • This is a competition to be the best, so we must guard our secrets.

Unlikely as these messages might be, they can still be normalised actively or passively. The press or authorities might actively laud these accomplishments uncritically. We might passively believe everything we hear by not questioning the processes and products of rankings.

If we want learners to be resilient and creative in the face of failure, teachers and educators must first model such thinking and actions. A single-minded focus on narrow measures of success does not reveal the stories and iterations of moving forward by falling. I say we ignore rankings and do what ranking tables and agencies do not or cannot measure.

Some say that FAIL is an acronym for First Attempt In Learning. So we should encourage all students to fail if they are to learn, right?

Not always. I distinguish between encouraging failure and helping those who fail.

Leveraging on failure should be about developing resilience and a mindset of strategic risk-taking. It is about nurturing these attributes when a learner fails, not about helping them fail.

I state the seemingly obvious — it is not about helping them fail — because I know of teachers here who still set extremely difficult test or examination questions as they do not want students to be over-confident. They are setting students up to stumble face first into humble pie.

There are times when failure should not be the option. Too much might demoralise. Too blind is just ridiculous. This last one is best illustrated in this tweet.

Why follow in the footsteps of others before you and repeat exactly the same mistake? This is unnecessary failure.

Sure, kids stumble all the time. But transfer this idea to learning something that is challenging or planning and implementing systemic change.

No effort is going to be perfect, and you want to learn from mistakes. But you would be foolish to go in monkey see, monkey do, monkey fall off the tree.

It is unethical to intentionally set students up to fail. It is ludicrous if you fail to see why you should NOT maintain this blind practice.

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Video source

Words fail: Me.

Words, fail me!

Words fail me.

However you read the title, there is a lot to be said about failure.

We hear enough about how to avoid it. We do not hear enough about embracing or celebrating it. We hear even less about how to actually get up when you fall.

I hope the words in the video inspire you to fail forward.

Video source

Google says it rewards failure so that the best people want to work for them. Their people know that they can fail responsibly and still be rewarded (or at least not be admonished for failing).

This is the positive type of failure because you fail forward and learn from it. You become stronger or wiser because of it. And Google is the better for it because it breeds confidence and loyalty.

Very few organizations dare to do this. They breed and nurture the fear of failure instead. If they say they tolerate it, the tolerance does not last long or they pay it lip service.

No, being irresponsibly responsible (or is it responsibly irresponsible?) is an art form akin to a balancing act. Segments of Google seem to do it so well the art has become a culture.

Video source

I subscribe to MysteryGuitarMan’s YouTube channel and I love his latest video.

He tells a story on how he moved from Brazil to Boston, learnt English, went to medical school, opted to follow his passion for making videos, lived a dirt poor life, and is finally enjoying the fruits of his labour.

His is a great example of following your passion, being persistent, and learning from failure.

I use the SBS Transit app almost on a daily basis. It helps me predict when my bus arrives at a particular bus stop. I can then leave home or my office so that I do not wait at the bus stop for too long.

At least that was the case before the app was “updated”.


This is a screencapture of the latest comments on the app. Like the other irate commuters, no matter where I am, the GPS system locates me at Toa Payoh instead of my actual location.

This is an example of a large scale failure. I call these the spectacular fireworks type of failure that affects both changers and changees negatively. It is the type of failure to avoid.

The type of failure to embrace are the small, frequent, and relatively unspectacular ones. These are the types individuals and organizations can learn from and should embrace at part of workflow.


Video source

One of the things that emerges from the course that I facilitate is the importance of failing in game-based learning.

As serendipity would have it, I just discovered this video of a TEDx speaker sharing his story on learning from failure.

But the thing to note from the speaker’s story is that not everyone is as resilient. The failures in life are jarring and scarring.

The failures in gaming are recoverable and motivating. It is important to work out why that is in order to take advantage of that failure-based principle of game-based learning.

And in the context of my course it is important to link that principle of learning from failure (or even being motivated by failure) to change management.


If you listen to and laugh with Eddie Obeng, you might agree that the world seems to be changing at a rate that is sometimes difficult to understand.

Rules and principles that we learnt and now follow do not seem to be valid any more. Or as Obeng said more articulately in this TED video:

We spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.

I took two things away after watching and reflecting on this TED talk:

  1. We run the risk of allowing the pace of change to overtake the pace of learning.
  2. We learn and innovate by failing in smart ways.

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