Education Failing on Failure

In my Terry Blogging debut I’m going to cautiously begin with a critical observation of the Terry Blog.  In spite of my love for the Terry Project and the new blog, I noticed something odd as soon as I began writing my first post.  There are over 50 categories for posts, including expected topics such as science, politics, Vancouver, etc.  There is even a category for panda.  Yet, one (in my opinion) very important category was missing: failure.  It’s something we all do so often, it impacts our lives immensely, it has enormous implications on a global scale from the smallest to the largest endeavors, and still it is missing.

No one really is to blame for the omission (I would have added it but was unsure of how to do so).  Rather, I think the problem is a pathology of the way mainstream education is framed.  I’ll briefly segue and give some info about myself to explain the context of my perspective…

I’m an American; born, raised, and educated.  My mother, born in former Yugoslavia, completed her entire education in the country before immigrating to the US.  My father, born in the Philippines, was educated in Manila through college before completing a PhD and MBA in New York City.  For college I really wanted to go to Stanford, a long shot.  My next best bet was the University of Michigan (near my home town), but I was rejected there as well.  A few schools further down the list of rejections came UBC with a green light (phew!).

Funny how my failure to gain admission to most of my top choices out of high school led me to perhaps the best decision I could have made for my life and my career (what would have happened if I had gone to California, we will never know).  Long story short, I studied biotechnology through the UBC-BCIT program, and completely turned around my academic prospects.  I started organizations, studied for exams, started a business, volunteered, and lo and behold Harvard Business School decides to give me admission to their MBA program under the condition that I spend 2 years gaining some work experience.

That work experience, of which I now have about 5 months under my belt, has led me to be extremely passionate about both education and failure, hence the subject of this post.  5 months out of graduation, I’m an entrepreneur.  More specifically, I run an online education company.  It’s scary.  I fail all the time.  And it teaches me more than any teacher ever told me it would.  Why?

In this post I won’t explore the value of failure, as I think it is a) self-evident and b) too lengthy to explore in this one post.  What I really want to explore is how failure is so stigmatized in education.  For such a powerful learning tool, it gets an awfully bad rap.  More importantly, modern education (including, in many cases, higher education) creates a nightmare that in few ways mimics the real world when it comes to failure.  Yes, when CEOs fail their duties they are often fired.  When doctors fail they are often tried.  But when scientists fail, and they do all the time, the consequence is the opportunity to try something else.  How unfortunate it is that education creates such a strong disparity between how science is actually done and how science is taught.

I once took an exam (for a course whose name shall not be mentioned) which penalized my mark by nearly 10% for writing ‘beta barrel’ as my answer instead of ‘beta barrels’.  Petty penalties train petty people.  And therein lies the problem: the purported goal of the University is to endow students with knowledge and competence, but it is structured such that its goal appears to be to generate statistical curves off which students can be differentiated on sometimes objective, and sometimes subjective principles, many of which have no bearing on the overall competence of a student.

Let’s be frank: a student gains little educational or psychological value from learning that he is in the bottom quartile of his class.  He gains no value when he learns that while he thought he was being examined on his understanding of protein structure, he was apparently also being tested on spelling.  Lest this post come off as a rant against former instructors, I have to give credit where it’s due: many educators are shying away from this model and generating truly engaging coursework that focuses on broader understandings and which encourages failure, or at least trial and error.

Interviewers love to ask questions about failure.  They want to get inside your head and see how you deal with the reality of failure, and whether you can gain value from it.  But how many people sit in an interview and answer “well there was this one time when I answered a question wrong on a test, and boy that really taught me a lesson about thinking that retroviruses didn’t have reverse transcriptase!”  Trivial as it may seem, this kind of failure is often the only kind that exists to students.  Failure is pigeonholed into a small class of mistakes whose real impact is trivial but whose perceived impact is immense.  By pigeonholing failure in such a way, students often completely overlook (perhaps unsurprisingly, due to its very nature) the types of failure whose perceived impact is trivial but real impact is immense.

As students, the sheer utterance of the word ‘failure’ invokes dread, and solely due to its impact in an academic setting.  The crippling effect of failure’s stigma is that it is avoided even in retrospect; we not only avoid future failure at all costs, we also often lose even the ability to examine our failures in order to glean what valuable lessons it has to offer.  Failure is viewed as trash rather than as a source of rich lessons.  It doesn’t deserve a footnote… and apparently doesn’t even need its own category of posts!

One final thought… while I can muster the arrogance to critique, my ego often falls short of purporting to have answers.  As a result, I will usually merely point out my observations… and this is one such case.  I have no good answer for how to fix the framework of education.  I’ve just found one part that’s dreadfully broken.

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