August 13th, 2013

Learning from mistakes

Failures are not all bad, but serve as reminders of how we should tackle issues and get positive outcomes.

PEOPLE make mistakes and face failures, both small and big ones, so many times in their lives.

Even bigger are those of the life-changing personal ordeals. These are the physically-exhausting, emotionally-draining, and spiritually-testing struggles.

Each one of us may relate to different experiences that qualify in this category.

There are also mistakes that may be collective failures. We as a society are not doing so well in some aspects.

The problems of social cohesion, language barriers, mediocre infrastructure, and public sanitation are testimonies that we need to do more.

There are no shortages of new challenges too: worsening climate, environmental pollutions, and social gaps.

There is no such thing as a perfect life. Life proceeds through an iterative, trial-and-error, process.

What we must do is to learn from the small failures so we won’t make the big and costly ones.

The key point is to learn. Bill Gates said: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

The first thing in facing failure is to admit it. Then we must have faith that there are good values in it which were explored in my earlier article.

The gist of it is that facing failure is a character-building process. It demands us to become more resilient and humble, a good antidote to keep our ego in check. Good virtues don’t come cheap.

If failures, at least the small ones, are constant tests and reminders for us, then how do we educate ourselves in dealing with them? Can we even roll them into a school curriculum to teach our kids? That’s a thought worthy to be entertained.

The answer is yes and no. Yes, as it is a worthy cause to teach kids how to deal with failures.

No, because it is the opposite culture that our schools are promoting: that failure is unacceptable, that perfection is a must, that mistakes cannot be tolerated, that right answers must be obtained in the first instance, that wrong answers must be punished.


Young children are being taught t that there is only one right answer to every question, and that this answer only comes from the textbook. They cannot even write a story without being guided with fixed answers already prepared in floating boxes.

How do we teach creativity, innovation, originality, and confidence with this spoon-feeding attitude? Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, succinctly said that “an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.”

My daughter said she was confused when presented with a question on which was bigger from the two pictures she had of an elephant and a mouse.

Shen then asked her teacher whether it was based on reality or graphics and the teacher responded by asking her to look at the pictures.

My daughter had answered that it was the mouse because it was drawn bigger in the picture than the elephant.

I said to her: “It’s okay. Your logic is good.”

It’s important for young children to be honest and build their confidence and creativity as the foundation of their emotional strengths.

These are not done by constraining their learning process, but by allowing plenty of safe space for them to wander and learn from guidance as well as from mistakes.

Setting rigid boundaries and penalising mistakes only limit their capacity.

One way to do this is to let them explore the real world freely on their own: discovering animals and plants, examining surrounding environments, engaging with real people of different ages, understanding and building tolerance towards differences among friends, contributing original ideas to improve things around them, and communicating thoughts by writing or talking about them.

In doing all these, there’s no one right answer to anything. It’s not about who gets high scores based on how closely they can match textbook answers.

It’s about constructing relevant knowledge, brick by brick, from their own perspective.

There shouldn’t be one standard syllabus from the grown-ups’ perspective. Children see the world differently from us. We need to start acknowledging this fact in order to enhance their understanding of the way the world works and then align that towards positive outcomes.

This exploratory approach is a rough and patchy road to travel, with bumps and mistakes along the way.

Right tools

They might not get it the first time, but the trick is for teachers to guide and inspire them to have fun in working together to keep building the bricks without ever giving up.

Exploring things is not easy, especially for small children. We need to prepare them with the right tools first.

The main ones at this early stage would be the communication tools: the tool of relevant languages to speak their minds and write their ideas, of math to count things, of science to explore the natural world, and of spirituality and morality to understand their feelings.

This learning process closely resembles the real life.

We build appreciation of things around us through bumps and mistakes.

Being spoon-fed with “right answers” kills the excitement of self-discovery and the satisfaction of real learning.

The mindset that mistakes and failures are intolerable is seriously damaging to child development.

It ignores the human nature, the reality of life, and the advances in educational theories. We face three major challenges to do all these.

First, the school environment itself must be conducive, resourceful and safe for children to explore the natural world, appreciate the physical surrounding, and engage the society.

Second, all teachers must be competently equipped with the right knowledge, not only on their subject matters, but crucially on child development.

Third, the curriculum must be revamped completely: its focus should not be on pouring knowledge into children’s brains, but on developing their honesty, confidence, creativity and capacity for self-learning.

The writer teaches aerospace engineering at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He embraces the approach of questioning everything about life and believes that overcoming challenges is a necessity for self-growth in life. The STAR Online  Home News Education Sunday August 11. 2013

Those were the days ...

An academic expounds the benefits of studying in an English-medium school saying how relevant it is in her current field of work and research.

PROF Dr Yang Farina Abdul Aziz is thankful for her schooling years at an English-medium school in a small town, where she not only gained knowlege but was nurtured by teachers who broadened her perspective of the world.

Her teachers at the Methodist English School in Tanjung Malim, Perak (now SMK Methodist, Tanjung Malim), were simply passionate about their jobs and did their best to teach and inculcate the right values to their charges.

“My teachers were great ... they were full of dedication and initiative in class,” said Prof Yang Farina.

“At school, I had many good teachers one of whom was Mrs Jothy.

“She used to single-handedly take a class of about 40 students around the Tanjung Malim area on nature walks, or to visit temples and mosques.

“We had lots of fun on such trips,” said Prof Yang Farina who is senior professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM),

While students were allowed to explore and gather facts on their own, her teachers were equally keen to explain the significance of the excursions, she said.

“Our teachers made sure that we did not get out of line. Teachers back then instilled a deep sense of discipline in each of us.

“If we did not do our homework, they would keep us at school until we completed it,” she said.

Prof Yang Farina said that it was the same type of perseverance and discipline that she expected from her team of researchers.

She and the team work in the area of inorganic chemistry which contributes to the progress of cancer treatments.

Being an English-medium school student had always been a blessing for Prof Yang Farina who said that the language was a “huge advantage” in her line of work.

Subjects related to the sciences should be taught in English, especially at higher levels because the latest references are all in the language and it is universally accepted.

“Just try searching for any scientific references in both English and Malay and then compare them for yourself.

“In my field, English helps in terms of understanding current papers, but Science cannot be just theoretical, it is a hands-on subject that must be experienced.”

Prof Yang Farina also said that English-medium schools may perhaps be the answer in promoting racial integration.

She recalled her younger days when she used to ride her bicycle and visit friends and schoolmates from various communites to join in fun activities, and to celebrate their cultural festivals.

“There was no segregation, we certainly understood each other and it did help in fostering racial tolerance and harmony then,” she shared.

“Personally, I would love to see a single school system, with a standardised curriculum.

“We have different vernacular schools, so why not have the option of English-medium schools?

“If we revive English-medium schools, the response will be positive and we may see a good mix of different races. Perhaps this is the way towards integration,” she said.

As a parent herself, Prof Yang Farina takes the responsibility of her child’s learning seriously.

“We should allow parents to have the option of English-medium schools as they play a big role in guiding their child’s educational development.

“Parents must also give more support to the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) as the current government is willing to listen,” she said.

She urged parents to voice their concerns and start a dialogue by visiting

Prof Yang Farina said that her learning advantage came from her own father, who was trained as a teacher, because he would reinforce the lessons she learnt at school.

“Our vocabulary improved so much when we were young because my father, a Kirkby-trained teacher, played Scrabble with us.

“The best way to learn a language is to start at home, now I pass that on to my own son, and that becomes the circle of learning,” she said.

Prof Yang Farina also advised her students to constantly read books, magazines and novels in English so as to form a habit and improve their proficiency in the language.

Malaysians have the option of sending their children to national and vernacular schools. Should there be an additional choice — English-medium schools? Would this be your preferred option? Please give us your views and take part in our English-medium school online poll by visiting

The STAR Online Home News Education  Sunday August 11, 2013