Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Engineering success through failure

by James Dyson

Todayonline  Jul 09, 2012

Singapore's Minister for Education has called for the country to move beyond rote learning and unlock its creative potential. Simultaneously, Britain's review of its curriculum is looking to Singapore for inspiration.

But while Singapore's excelling education system is to be admired, there are lessons to be learnt from Britain too. Because failure in the classroom is not always a bad thing. In fact, Singapore should be actively encouraging it.

Measuring success in education is not easy. British exam results have risen every year for decades. However, universities and businesses complain of poor basic writing and numeracy skills.

The media laments. Teachers grumble. Politicians blame each other. The latest well-meaning attempt to overhaul the education system has included calls for Singapore-style education and a return to rote learning.

In contrast, Singapore is the model student: Second for maths, fourth for science and fifth for reading, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development international league tables.

But A grades are not always the best indicators. Thomas Edison, one of history's great inventors, believed in Fs - that is, F for Failure.


We make progress by making mistakes. While inventing the bagless vacuum cleaner, I failed 5,126 times. But prototype 5,127 was a success.

Singapore will only unleash its potential through teaching the value of failure. In a world where intellectual property is often far more valuable than the tangible, it is invention that counts.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, Singapore filed 4,000 patents worldwide in 2011 - impressively up more than 30 per cent on 2010.

Compared with the US, which stacked up 415,000, there is plenty of catching up to be done (population sizes excused, of course).

Singapore's Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Keat, last month called for an education system that was "less about content knowledge" and "more about how to process information". Promising words.

Learning "rote" is too often distilled down to memorising useless facts or ticking boxes. Processing information is problem solving. And to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, problem solving is to 'Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better'.

New ideas are not found by doing the same as everyone else. They are found by learning from your mistakes. If you are told that there is one right way to do something, you are unlikely to go looking for another.


The message in British and Singaporean schools needs to be that embracing failure is a lifelong commitment.

Britain has made strides in recent years. Design and Technology lessons challenge students to apply the theory they learn in science and maths to real problems.

They will not succeed straight away, but they are encouraged to persevere. And when they hold a physical solution in their hands, a passion for invention is ignited.

This is true in business, too.

In our company, we occasionally set our engineers a challenge unbound by the day job (if there is such a thing at Dyson). They have fired rockets, created battery powered go-karts and navigated obstacle courses.

The most sophisticated challenge yet, a ball-based mechatronics challenge, will shortly see teams from our sites in Singapore, Britain and Malaysia go head to head.

Victory is not the point. They will learn and, more importantly, be inspired to create new exciting technology.

Singapore is ready to do the same. Its superb academic scorecard makes the world jealous. Now is the time to make the world envious of its ideas and inventions. And ironically, that begins with learning the importance of failure.

Sir James Dyson is an inventor and the founder of Dyson. He is a frequent commentator on education andinnovation issues in the British press.The technology company spendsS$2 million a week on R&D at theirUK, Singapore and Malaysia facilities.

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