Three steps to accepting failure: recognise, embrace and enculturate

Many fail to see the blood, sweat and tears that often go into both successes and failures. We must learn how to celebrate the process as well as the outcome


Singapore Institute of Technology
27 Jan 2023
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Failure must be celebrated in higher education

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Failure. It is a word synonymous with a lack of success and likely to be frowned upon by many, particularly in Asian societies where academic achievement is highly valued and celebrated. In addition, the word implies an absence of something to show for a great deal of effort put in.

Among higher education students in Singapore, it is not uncommon to hear the heavy emphasis they place on attaining “good grades”, as this is perceived as a hallmark of academic success – and success more generally. Anything less than good grades is likely to be deemed a failure. This perception appears to stem from the common thinking that obtaining good grades results in better employment prospects. This way of thinking is not completely wrong, as good grades do add value to a student’s CV and are still seen as a demonstration of a prospective employee’s ability to think.

However, what many fail to see are the sweat, blood and tears that often go into successes or failures. The “process”, as we will call it, is often fraught with failure, characterised by hours of trial and error and sleepless nights in order to get something “right”. Despite such efforts, success is not guaranteed. Just when one thinks that success is right around the corner, a curveball can be thrown – and failure ensues. Failure is therefore a much more probable outcome than success.

As an example, a student might achieve a failing grade for an introductory software programming module in year one of university but then go on to excel in a year-three advanced module on the same topic. The process should not, and cannot, be discredited or ignored, as the student might have spent countless hours trying to grasp key concepts and how to apply them correctly between year one and year three before finally mastering the content and skills of software programming in that final year. It is this process that often goes unnoticed, and we believe more recognition needs to be given to it if we truly want to understand the idea of success.    

How, then, could the higher education fraternity respond in view of the cycles of failure that students might experience at university? Herein, we offer three pieces of advice that might be helpful for teaching staff to include in their own teaching practices. They are summarised as follows: recognise failure, embrace failure and enculturate failure.

First, to recognise failure is to acknowledge its presence. However, accepting the existence of failure is easy to articulate, but how one reacts to it is more crucial. The actions and behaviours that follow a failure reveal one’s inner perceptions of it. Indeed, the acknowledgement of failure through words can merely be a façade concealing one’s true perceptions of it (for example, that failure is bad).

Thus, recognition of failure must go beyond words and be demonstrated through actions and deeds. In the context of teaching, this could include setting aside time to meet with students who have “failed” and finding out how or why it happened while simultaneously providing affirmation and encouragement to these students.

Second, to embrace failure is to welcome it willingly and enthusiastically. This entails a shift in mindset about what failure is or what it represents. Embracing failure involves viewing it as a stepping stone towards success or emphasising it as a transient stage denoted by repeated trial and error. Failure is thus not perceived as an end but as a means towards a different end. In other words, the failure is seen as productive because it gets one closer to the goal of succeeding.

In practical terms, tasks could be designed for students to fail productively so they realise the limitations of their present knowledge (check out productive failure learning design by Manu Kapur). Doing so could also encourage educators to embrace the limits of students’ present knowledge and possibly motivate students to seek new knowledge to solve the tasks at hand.

Third, once failure is embraced, it needs to be celebrated, and this celebration of failure needs to become part of the culture. This is what we would term the “enculturation of failure”. Do not get us wrong; the enculturation of failure is not a normalisation of failure or an excuse to fail but a practice embedded within a culture that salutes the hard work and effort that have gone on, whatever the outcome. The work put in that led to failure is rarely celebrated and sometimes even criticised outrightly for causing the failure.

Does this mean that all failure should be celebrated? No, certainly not. It largely depends on the circumstances behind the failure. If no effort was put in and failure resulted, then it probably does not deserve to be celebrated, as failure was inevitable. Hence, the enculturation of failure is infusing (in a culture) the celebration of effort, no matter the outcome. As an example, educators could make it a habit to reward students who started off with poor grades but have demonstrated high work ethic and have made steady improvements in their assignment grades over time.  

All this might sound simple and common sense in theory, but it may not be easy to put into practice. As such, we should strive towards creating practices and mindsets that recognise, embrace and enculturate failure into our classrooms.       

Kenan Kok Xiao-Feng is a senior learning analyst and Oran Devilly is an assistant professor, both at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

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