kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

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

Tags: learning, mistakes

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