Lec­tur­ers urged to build ‘cul­ture of con­struc­tive fail­ure'

THE (Times Higher Education) - - WORLD ACADEMIC SUMMIT: NEWS - El­lie.both­well@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Uni­ver­si­ties must cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tional en­vi­ron­ment where “con­struc­tive fail­ure” can flour­ish if they are to fos­ter a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion, heads of lead­ing Euro­pean and Asian uni­ver­si­ties have claimed.

Lino Guzzella, pres­i­dent of Switzer­land’s ETH Zurich, said that fail­ure is more im­por­tant than suc­cess “be­cause in suc­cess you usu­ally learn very lit­tle but in fail­ure you learn a lot”.

Speak­ing at the Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Aca­demic Sum­mit, Pro­fes­sor Guzzella (pic­tured in­set) said that ETH Zurich has “a rich tra­di­tion of project- based learn­ing” but has re­cently com­bined this with an ap­proach of “con­struc­tive fail­ure”.

“We try to for­malise this process by bring­ing stu­dents in a friendly en­vi­ron­ment, in a safe en­vi­ron­ment, to the break­ing point where they fail. And we pro­vide an en­vi­ron­ment where they can learn from their fail­ure and re­ally grow,” he said, adding that this ap­proach al­lows stu­dents to de­velop both tech­ni­cal and per­sonal skills.

For ex­am­ple, ETH Zurich brings stu­dents across all dis­ci­plines to­gether for a week ahead of each se­mes­ter to work on team projects. “In a week-long set­ting, in groups of 20, they de­velop crazy ideas. Not all of these ideas are vi­able or very use­ful, but that’s not the point. The point is that they learn how to in­ter­act in a di­verse en­vi­ron­ment; they learn how to solve prob­lems where there is no con­crete so­lu­tion,” he said, dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion on the role of re­search uni­ver­si­ties in cre­at­ing so­ci­etal im­pact.

“If you teach your stu­dents how to solve re­search prob­lems which have no an­swer, you teach them how to solve the com­mon prob­lems of the world.”

Pro­fes­sor Guzzella added that it was im­por­tant that such pro­grammes start at un­der­grad­u­ate level.

Eng Chye Tan, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore, said that his in­sti­tu­tion was also try­ing to em­bed “con­struc­tive fail­ure” into its ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes.

“We hear too much about suc­cess but it is true that stu­dents learn the most from fail­ure. And if you can [fos­ter this] through an ex­pe­ri­ence, all the bet­ter,” he said dur­ing the same ses­sion.

Pro­fes­sor Tan said that NUS cre­ates this en­vi­ron­ment by send­ing hun­dreds of stu­dents abroad each year to lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley and Shang­hai, where they work at start-ups dur­ing the day and study at part­ner uni­ver­si­ties in the evening.

He said that one stu­dent re­cently went to Is­rael through this pro­gramme and worked at a com­pany that “col­lapsed” dur­ing his in­tern­ship.

“If you were work­ing af­ter grad­u­a­tion in such a com­pany you would have lost a job. But be­ing a stu­dent on an at­tach­ment, ac­tu­ally

you ex­pe­ri­ence the tribu­la­tions of suc­cess and fail­ure and that’s ex­tremely valu­able,” he said.

Lin Jian­hua, pres­i­dent of Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity, said that it was also im­por­tant for uni­ver­si­ties to “break bound­aries” across dis­ci­plines and sec­tors to fos­ter a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion and pro­vide the knowl­edge that to­day’s gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents need.

“We are try­ing to break the bound­aries of the uni­ver­sity and try to work to­gether with in­dus­try, com­pa­nies and also the gov­ern­ment to al­lo­cate more re­sources to en­hance re­search,” he said.

“We are try­ing to break the bound­aries of schools and dis­ci­plines. In the past 10 years we have cre­ated more than 10 cross­dis­ci­plinary re­search in­sti­tutes. Those in­sti­tu­tions re­ally bring new ideas and co­op­er­a­tion with com­pa­nies.”

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