26 March 2019
The sports ground is an ideal place for young people to learn how to overcome failure. Photo: HKEJ
The sports ground is an ideal place for young people to learn how to overcome failure. Photo: HKEJ

The importance of teaching failure

What is driving our youngsters to despair? 

While some people blame it on heavy academic workload and insufficient counseling support from schools, some point the finger at the city’s super rich and unsatisfying Hong Kong governance.

Though they are all possible causes and factors that could induce depression, blaming them would of little help in solving student suicides.

Pressure constantly exists and competition — be it between humans and machines or artificial intelligence — would only intensify in the future.

Counseling is a cure. We should teach them how to deal with failure.  

As educators, we should adopt active and preventive measures right away, empowering our students and young people on how to deal with challenges.

The concept of failure could be subjective or objective.

Failing in an exam and being bullied by classmates are objective examples. However, getting 99 marks instead of 100, experiencing difficult relationships, or fearing failure itself might be more of a subjective nature.

Regardless of the sense of failure, we educators should shoulder the responsibility of trying to reverse such an adverse trend.

In motivating students, we generally share the tendency of affirming students’ success, which would be a kind of positive reinforcement.

Nevertheless, “winning at the starting line” and “scoring high marks” are being regarded as the sole “cornerstones” of success.

As a matter of fact, there’s little chance to achieve success without any failure.

Sometimes students might even be unaware of the reasons for their own achievements, which could be the combined efforts of many people working on their behalf.

It works like an economic bubble: the later the realization, the bigger the negative impact.

Hence, educators from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have been advocating the “teaching of failure”.

Local educators should consider consolidating the following three strategies:

First, avoid striking the learners’ confidence too hard. Second, teach youngsters how they can handle and manage failure proactively. Lastly, expose students to certain levels of risk or failure, and allow them to apply what they have learned.

Striking learners too harshly could create a sense of hopelessness. A child of a friend of mine used to study in a school where only students who have won in public contests could stage a performance in school.

The little boy was entitled to a performance. However, there were too many winners so the school had to select only a handful of them via “rock-paper-scissors”.

He wasn’t picked to perform on stage because he lost in the hand game.

What’s worse was when the parents started comparing the kids and strongly believed that the inferior ones were kicked out.

We knew that’s not true but the child’s frustration was such that he eventually moved to another school where expert musical instrument players and novice players had equal opportunities to show off their talents in front of an audience.

On top of not injecting negativity, we shall promote positive thinking. “Failure is the mother of success,” as the saying goes.

However, we simply have explained the concept as a cause rather than an effect, without stressing the process, which could be complex and painful.

We should encourage students to seek failures, from which they could learn and be rewarded when they have overcome them.

Promoting positive thinking in students is easier said than done.

Enlightenment and application of the concept shall require actual experiences in daily lives.

It is indeed more likely that students would acquire it in the sports ground or the school laboratory.

We shall use problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning in guiding and encouraging students to innovate, experiment and make a breakthrough.

“Teaching to fail” is not only vital in preventing students from suicide attempts, but also fuels the drive for scientific research, starting up business and making social innovations.

We should explore the possibility of using the experience of failure to inspire students to deal with setbacks in real life.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 25.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Instructor at the School of Public Health and Primary Care, Faculty of Medicine, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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