Return on failure

We all remember the quote attributed to Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This quote is supposed to encourage us to never give up and keep on trying and learning from our failures. While many educators use this quote, education systems do not really support this philosophy.

Students are rewarded when they find the correct answer and they are penalised when they fail.

This goes deep in the tradition of the academic establishment.

With a publish or perish mentality, recognition of success in scientific research is often measured by publication in the peer-reviewed journals that publish only the work that bears fruit.

No journal will publish a failed experiment, for example.

We end up in a situation where we intellectually understand the importance of trying and failing, in the process of learning, but have a system that discourages failure and risk taking.

Successful people recognise that failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of it.

Bill Gates said: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Closer examination of the situation leads to the realisation that our schools and universities need to encourage students to take risks and fail while they are pushing their educational limits.

This is important for two reasons; firstly, failure is a great learning tool when used in the right way. Secondly, as failure is an integral part of life, training students to deal with failure in a safe and supportive environment will make them more resilient and provide them with valuable life experiences.

To encourage my students to push the limits while they are learning, I changed the assessment of one of the project-based courses to assign 10% of the marks to failure!

In order to have good and insightful failures, students were encouraged to identify a limit, whether personal or technological, and push across that limit into uncharted territory.

To earn the 10% marks, students needed to complete a “Return-on-Failure” form where they identify the limit they pushed, discuss the nature of the failure they encountered and most importantly, they reflect on the learning that resulted from that failure.

Giving marks for failure destigmatises it and enables the students and educators to see it in a totally new light.

It creates a new dynamic that encourages calculated risk taking and crafts new mental habits that are much needed in today’s economy.

Samuel Beckett was quoted saying: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” This should be the mantra of an education system fit for the 21st century.


Senior Deputy Provost,

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia