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Response to the Adjournment Motion: Why Fear the Fear of Failure? Imperatives for Refining Our Education System

Published Date: 03 February 2020 12:00 AM

News Parliamentary Replies

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Prof Lim Sun Sun, NMP


1. I thank Professor Lim Sun Sun for sharing her views. Failure teaches us valuable lessons, and learning to bounce back from setbacks is one of the most critical life skills that our students can learn. My response will elaborate on three points: first, the value of failure, and what our teachers are doing to inculcate a growth mindset in students. Second, the systems changes that MOE is making so that students can develop their fullest potential. Third, our collective effort in re-shaping societal attitudes, helping students to learn from setbacks, and grow in confidence. Parents, alongside educators, also have an important role to play.

Learning from Failure is a Life Skill

2. First, on the value of failure, MOE has looked into the PISA findings that Prof Lim mentioned. In MOE's studies, students report that they are stressed by high expectations from themselves and others. At the same time, the PISA findings also indicated that our students have higher levels of self-efficacy, which reflects confidence in one's ability to get things done, compared to peers in other top-performing education systems.

3. Hence, the fear of failure may actually be a reflection of the strong achievement motivation and expectations of our students. Just like stress, a healthy level of concern about failure is not a bad thing – in other words, we don't always have to fear the 'fear of failure'. Nonetheless, we agree that excessive fear of failure is undesirable – it can lead to risk-aversion, anxiety and a reluctance to try new challenges.

4. As everybody can attest to, experiencing failure is an unavoidable part of life. In fact, some successful entrepreneurs will tell you that it is actually an essential stepping-stone on the way to success. Hence, we must teach our students how to get up when they fall, and to manage the challenges and stressors that they may face, whether in school or in life.

5. Today, our schools and teachers provide opportunities for students to face challenges and openly discuss success and failure. Schools promote a supportive learning culture, whereby positive teacher-student relationship and peer support are emphasised. Our teachers are trained to use different means to motivate their charges. They use role models and positive peer examples to encourage the class to excel. Teachers also help students to see that there is no need to be overly anxious over 'failures' – instead, they are just setbacks that provide useful learning points and feedback in their lifelong journey, and the "try-fail-try again" approach can provide a richer learning experience. There may be instances where this can be done better, and we note the feedback given by Prof Lim.

6. Developing resilience in the face of failure is also proactively inculcated as part of Character and Citizenship Education (or CCE) that all students experience. Through CCE, students learn about a growth mind-set, and understand that their abilities can be developed through dedication and a never-say-die attitude. Beyond classroom lessons, our students reinforce these skills through CCA interactions, inter-school competitions and even student-body elections. These experiences enable them to overcome challenges, taste success and learn from setbacks.

7. At this point, let me share the thinking behind the collection of national examination results. First, it is important that when students receive their results, regardless of whether it meets their own expectations, that they have the support of their closest friends, teachers, and school counsellors at hand. Second, we have seen that this is the juncture where many students look to their teachers for timely and relevant advice regarding their next phase of education. To avoid undue pressure, we had stopped announcing the top PSLE scorer and the academic banding of secondary schools. Some schools also give out results at the classroom level, rather than in the school hall. We will continue to review how schools release results, in the best interests of students.

Diverse strengths, multiple pathways

8. Moving on to my second point, indeed, I fully agree with Professor Lim that we should nurture a culture of lifelong learning. I thank her for the support in the changes that we are making at MOE. This is why MOE is making broader changes to our education system. New pathways, increased porosity between them, and a greater diversity of programmes cater to the diverse strengths and aspirations of our students, and give them the chance to chart a different path, or to try again. As a result, experiencing temporary setbacks certainly does not curtail future opportunities in their educational journey, nor does it equate to being a failure in life. Let me share a few examples.

9. We have introduced Direct School Admission (DSA) to our secondary schools and JCs, and different forms of aptitude-based admissions for our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs). These pathways recognise our student's achievements beyond exams, and supports them to develop and pursue their strengths and interests. It mitigates the high stakes of exams and reduces overemphasis focus on academic results.

10. We have also increased porosity between pathways. In secondary schools, the pilot for Full Subject-Based Banding (or Full SBB) has started. This marks our move away from stream labels, so that students are less likely to impose a self-limiting mind-set on themselves. Instead, they can discover and develop their potential, and take a combination of subjects across different levels that cater to their strengths.

11. In our Institutes of Higher Learning, students have continuous opportunities to upgrade so that they can always try again, or further their education subsequently. By 2030, all Nitec students will have the opportunity to upgrade to a Higher Nitec over the course of their careers, and can progress further through work-study diplomas or full-time programmes. Working adults can return to full-time studies at the polytechnics via the Early Admissions Exercise. Among polytechnic graduates, many go on to pursue a university degree. University graduates may further their education through a specialist diploma in a Polytechnic. Everyone can continue to acquire new skills or deepen their skills throughout life, through a wide range of continuing education and training opportunities that are supported by SkillsFuture Singapore.

12. We are also encouraging students to go beyond their comfort zone through diverse educational programmes that provide opportunities for students to chart their own path. One of the students I've met, over the years, is Alif Adam, a Ngee Ann Poly graduate who now runs an e-commerce business in fitness wear. Alif dropped out of JC twice, before he found his footing in polytechnic where he discovered his natural talent as an entrepreneur. While pursuing his Diploma in Advertising and Public Relations, he took advantage of the school's work-study entrepreneurship programme in Jakarta, a $5,000 Kickstarter grant, and with his parents' blessings, eventually launched his company three years ago, which now boasts an international client base. Today, he still goes back to Ngee Ann Poly to inspire and mentor students.

From fear to confidence

13. This leads me to my third and final point – how we as a society can also shift our mind-sets. Our education system is increasingly one where our students can customise their goals based on their own definition of success. They can take advantage of many "bridges" and "ladders" in their lifelong journey of learning. Our schools and our teachers also create a supportive environment where our students feel safe to challenge themselves, rather than hold back due to a fear of failure. All of these will help students to be more resilient, self-reliant, and innovative.

14. At the same time, parents and families also have a part to play. We, as a society, should also start to redefine how we measure success and react to failure. By showing timely support and seizing teachable moments, we can provide a nurturing environment for our children to be comfortable with confronting failures. For example, as parents, when our children do not perform as well as expected, we could emphasise that what matters more is how they pick themselves up. Recognise effort, and not just the outcome. Encourage reflection and a growth mind-set. Guide our children to turn their disappointment into a source of motivation to do better the next time, and to never lose belief in themselves.

15. Through actions big and small, we can become a society of opportunities for everybody by doing our part to provide that "trampoline" for our children to bounce back from setbacks and set their eyes on greater heights. Together with parents and teachers, MOE will nurture the next generation of resilient Singaporeans who are ready for the future.

16. Thank you.