Lecturers ‘must create culture of constructive failure’

Leaders of top universities say students must be pushed to ‘breaking point’ and allowed to fail

September 26, 2018
Lino Guzzella speaks at the World Academic Summit

Universities must create an educational environment where “constructive failure” can flourish if they are to foster a culture of innovation, heads of leading European and Asian universities have claimed.

Lino Guzzella, president of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, said that failure is more important than success “because in success you usually learn very little but in failure you learn a lot”.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Singapore, Professor Guzzella said that ETH Zurich has “a rich tradition of project-based learning” but has recently combined this with an approach of “constructive failure”.

“We try to formalise this process by bringing students in a friendly environment, in a safe environment, to the breaking point where they fail. And we provide an environment where they can learn from their failure and really grow,” he said, adding that this approach allows students to develop both technical and personal skills.

For example, ETH Zurich brings students across all disciplines together for a week ahead of each semester to work on team projects.  

“In a week-long setting, in groups of 20, they develop crazy ideas. Not all of these ideas are viable or very useful, but that’s not the point. The point is that they learn how to interact in a diverse environment; they learn how to solve problems where there is no concrete solution,” he said, during a panel discussion on the role of research universities in creating societal impact.

“If you teach your students how to solve research problems which have no answer, you teach them how to solve the common problems of the world.”

Professor Guzzella added that it was important that such programmes start at undergraduate level.

Eng Chye Tan, president of the National University of Singapore, said that his institution was also trying to embed “constructive failure” into its educational programmes.

“We hear too much about success but it is true that students learn the most from failure. And if you can [foster this] through an experience, all the better,” he said during the same session.

Professor Tan said that NUS creates this environment by sending hundreds of students abroad each year to locations including Silicon Valley and Shanghai, where they work at start-ups during the day and study at partner universities in the evening.

He said that one student recently went to Israel through this programme and worked at a company that “collapsed” during his internship.

“If you were working after graduation in such a company you would have lost a job. But being a student on an attachment, actually you experience the tribulations of success and failure and that’s extremely valuable,” he said.

Lin Jianhua, president of Peking University, said that it was also important for universities to “break boundaries” across disciplines and sectors to foster a culture of innovation and provide the knowledge that today’s generation of students need.

“We are trying to break the boundaries of the university and try to work together with industry, companies and also the government to allocate more resources to enhance research,” he said.

“We are trying to break the boundaries of schools and disciplines. In the past 10 years we have created more than 10 cross-disciplinary research institutes. Those institutions really bring new ideas and cooperation with companies.”


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