Rethinking failure: Bringing social and emotional learning to management curricula

Divya Singhal / According to the World Health Organization, more than 700,000 people die due to suicide every year, and for every suicide, there are many more people who attempt suicide. Let me present you with some facts first:

  • Suicide does not only occur in high-income countries, but it is a global phenomenon
  • Globally, there are more deaths due to suicide than to malaria, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, war or homicide
  • Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death after road Injury, tuberculosis, interpersonal violence among those 15-29 years old

Why am I talking about suicides? There are two triggers. First, some days back, in one of my Social Responsibility and Action Course sessions, students were engaged in a class activity related to the SDG dashboard. Students were asked to explore the dashboard and choose any parameters related to Health, compare some countries or take country-specific data and share their learnings. Many of them selected suicide as a parameter and were shocked to see that suicide rates are a leading cause of death.

My second trigger was a student’s project in which a primary survey was done with higher education students to assess their expertise in various soft skills, such as empathy, and resilience. One of the dimensions of resilience was failure recovery. When asked, it was found that students are not well equipped to handle difficult situations and have limited expertise in recovering from different types of failures.

Intrigued by these findings, they had in-depth conversations with a few graduates. It was shocking to know when they shared that many of them experience disheartenments when they find any slight deviation from their desired or expected results. They remain to stay in that mentally low condition for a prolonged period, affecting other activities too. Sometimes such failures, be it in exams or in handling relationships, question their identity or existence, and students find it very difficult to cope with this. According to Carol Dweck, a failure or setback is self-defining for those with a fixed mindset: “If I fail at something, that makes me a failure.”

These triggers challenged me and raised many questions that I would like to share with you all. Are we preparing our graduates for handling failures? Are we putting too much emphasis on success or glorifying success? Are we instilling in them an unnecessary burden to be proven ‘right’? Why is a setback shaking their identity? Why do they start seeing that failure as the end of the world? Why do these young minds have unrealistic expectations? Why are they unable to deal with the negative emotions that emerge from failure? Are we, as educators, becoming too mechanical and siloed in our approach? 

I don’t know the response to all the above questions. However, I am part of the system, so I feel helpless, too. But the critical question is this: can we reverse this?

It is high time to rethink failure and integrate social and emotional learning into our curricula at all levels. The need to integrate social and emotional learning is perhaps more at the higher levels of education given the demands of career, relationship, and the constant pressure  to perform and be ‘right’ in every way.

There is an emerging need for including Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), broadly defined as an integral part of education and human development.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework suggested that SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitude to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals. By adopting SEL, these young minds will be able to show empathy for others, establish and maintain a supportive relationship, and make responsible and caring decisions. In his book Beyond Religion, His Holiness Dalai Lama writes that one feature that characterizes all destructive emotions is a tendency to distort our perception of reality. To tackle this effectively, we need emotional awareness.

It is necessary to break the failure taboo. That will be possible when we include key competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making into management curricula. When students are provided with the competencies of SEL, they will be able to appreciate that failure is a part of life and will be able to learn to deal with it and deal with negative emotions aroused from it in a positive/healthy manner.

Generally, schools look at the practices of successful companies, invite successful individuals, and by that, somehow, they breed the notion that practices they have adopted led to success and glorify that. We can create a safe environment by normalising our discussions around failure and providing readiness which helps young minds with an appropriate emotional response.

This could be achieved if we could make a transition by creating a new meaning for failure by incorporating SEL practices. PRME institutions should take the lead and incorporate such practices in their curriculum.

Dr. Divya Singhal is a Professor and Chairperson of the Centre For Social Sensitivity and Action (CSSA) at the Goa Institute of Management (GIM), India.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s