Embracing “Failure” as a New Design Philosophy in Ethiopian Education Reform (Part V)

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Failure is an option here. If things are not failing you are not innovating. Elon Musk

The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. Steve Jobs

Winston Churchill started as a failure in school. Unable to pass, he failed the sixth grade and had to take a math class over three times. He had a speech impediment. Churchill became UK Prime Minister and is now regarded as one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group failed primary school test two times, middle school test three times and college entrance exam two times. Ma scored 1 out of 120 points on the math portion of his college entrance exam. Ma ended up creating a $34 billion Chinese multinational technology company specializing in e-commerce, retail, Internet, and technology. Ma says: “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

Steve Jobs said he was born a failure. His biological mother put him up for adoption. He started college and dropped out. He started Apple and was fired from his own company. He left Apple and started other great companies and finally returned to Apple triumphantly.

Author’s Note # 1:

While this commentary in the “Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” series stands on its own merits, I strongly recommend reading Part I, “Message to Ethiopian Intellectuals: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste!”; Part II, “Message to (Diaspora) Ethiopian Intellectuals: Save/Support Ethiopian Youth/Education!”, Part III, “Disruptive Innovation Can Fix Failing Ethiopian Education” and Looking for a Few Good Hummingbirds for Mission Education S.O.E.Y. Part IV.

Author’s Note #2:

In these series of commentaries,” I am fully aware that I am having a monologue, a conversation with myself in the public space. Since I published the first commentary in the series on January 24, I have not seen nor heard any informed opinion on the 97 percent student failure rate in the school leaving exam in Ethiopia. That is mindboggling because education is the most pressing and alarming existential threat facing Ethiopia today. Ethiopia’s “intellectuals” (assuming there are many) have gone AWOL and those who have not have drowned in the abyss of intellectual bankruptcy. (May they rest in peace.)

In these “Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” series of commentaries on education in Ethiopia, I have tried to be intentionally provocative in an effort to spark public conversation on Ethiopian education. I have lectured and hectored but to no avail.

My personal (grandiose and delusional) crusade is to transform Ethiopian education with innovative and creative ideas and reinvent learning the digital age.

I have been told no one will read my commentary series on education. It is too long to read. It is written in “hard” English for most Ethiopians to read and understand. The commentaries are written in pedantic and didactic tone (professorial language) and few will understand what I am talking about. My message written in English will not reach or be understood by the young people or those in the educational bureaucracy who have limited proficiency in the English language. Policymakers will ignore it because there is no culture of interaction between policymakers and intellectuals in Ethiopia. I am wasting my time. I should prepare it for publication in a scholarly journal.

Aah! But there is method in the ways of the “crazy professor.” Time will show!

There is the old idiom about thinking “outside the box.”

I prefer  “radical/radial thinking.” I shall explore this concept in a future commentary but stated simply, I prefer to think from clearly stated basic principles in solving real life problems. I prefer to look at the old problems and issues of education in Ethiopia afresh with the aim of “reinventing the wheel” and coming up with new solutions.

The very idea of embracing a philosophy of failure in education must sound totally mad, crazy as in “only a crazy professor would dream up something like that.” That remains to be seen.

My aim is to be provocative and to get high level policy makers, academics and ordinary people interested in improving education in Ethiopia to think outside the hollow and shallow iron box of mundane thinking and come up with bold solutions that can be openly and robustly debated.

I feel like a broken record when I say the core problem of lack of innovative and creative thinking among most Ethiopians is rooted in herd mentality and groupthink.

The desire for harmony, cohesiveness, avoidance of controversial issues and fear of criticism breeds conformity and suppresses independence of thought.

As American General George Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

That is especially the problem of Ethiopian intellectuals in my view. They are trapped in a groupthink box huddled at the bottom taking comfort in each other’s blanket of intellectual cowardice.

Few would dare to engage in substantive, informed and vigorous public policy discussions of education (or for that matter anything else of public importance).

Alas! Ethiopian intellectuals with a trace of pulse left in them have become intellectual crybabies and Chicken Littles.

They have become sheep-les!

As for myself, I never set out to change Ethiopia.

I set out on a crusade to change the hearts and minds of Ethiopia’s Cheetah (Young) Generation that will change and reinvent Ethiopia into a peaceful and prosperous nation.

The commentary has five parts:

1) an examination of Minister Berhanu’s metaphorical declaration “we have failed as a country”;

2) an examination of Professor Mesfin Woldemariam’s “Adafne” and “mekshef” (Failure) in Ethiopia;

3) my personal message to the 97 percent Second Chancers;

4) my conception of “failure” as a design philosophy in Ethiopian education and

5) a thumbnail sketch of “failure” as a new design philosophy for educational reform in Ethiopia.


“We have failed as a country…”


(Author’s translation of a stirring children’s song in Amharic about the importance of learning/education.)

Learning brings respect/dignity
Learning brings pride to our country.

Let us learn, let us learn
Let us do deep learning.
Learning makes humans humane.

Let us learn (education), for learning is needed
Learning (education) is needed for our country.

Wake up, you brave student
So you can eat at the table of knowledge
It is no use to cry out, “Mama, I am hungry.”

Best to get up and go to school.
To serve our country is our great honor.

On January 27, 2023, Ethiopian Education Minster Dr. Berhanu Nega in a press conference broke the conspiracy of silence and secrecy and perennial denial and publicly dumped the truth everyone knew and suspected about education in Ethiopia but was afraid to tell or talk about.

The statistics Education Minister Berhanu recited for the 2023 national “Ethiopian School-Leaving Certificate Examination” (ESLCE) [examination taken upon completion of upper secondary education and allows students to enroll into public universities] are shocking to the conscience. (“I have received comments privately that Minster Berhanu’s amounts to a “moral condemnation of one generation of the nation [youth] as ‘incompetent’ by using unprofessional parameters.”}

I like a man who mans up with a stiff upper lip when there is no other choice but to man up. True the saying, “It takes guts to take out the ruts.”

Ethiopians owe a debt of gratitude to Minister Berhanu for exposing the raw truth about the structural failure in the Ethiopian educational system! My special thanks to Dr. Berhanu.

Minister Berhanu’s statement on the school leaving exam leaves no room for ambiguity:

Those who failed are not only our students. We have failed as a country. The responsibility is collective and our own. Students, teachers, school administrators and the government in general must prepare to deal with a world that is starkly competitive. We have to create an educational system that is capable of meeting the challenges. That is our obligation. But this is not (the test results) something that should make us lose hope. This should be regarded as a wakeup call.

What is “education?” What is “learning?” What is the difference between the two?

What is “failure?”

What is “educational failure” at the individual, institutional, parental and national levels?

Why do students “fail?” How do they “fail?”

Does “failure” mean the same thing to students, parents, teachers, government, society?

Is failing one exam, regardless of its importance, proof of academic “failure”?

Why is “failure” considered repugnant, abominable by the rational segment of the human race?

Why do all rational human beings always strive to succeed and avoid failure?

What is educational “success” at the individual, institutional, parental and national levels?

Is passing one exam, regardless of its importance, proof of academic “success”?

Is a display of academic acronyms (Ph.D., MD, JD, ING, etc.) proof of “education?” (I find it amusing the title of “doctor” in Ethiopia should be worn as a flea market trinket by practically anyone than a credential obtained after years of rigorous study and research.)

What is the difference between education, information and indoctrination?

What is the purpose of “education?” Is “education” a tool of social engineering?

Does “liberal education” have universal validity or is it limited to Western societies?

These are not metaphysical or phenomenological questions into the experience of “failure.” They are merely a few questions aimed at probing,  examining and gaining insight into the mechanics of failure in measurable output performance on learning outcomes discussed below.

Global giants including Bill Gates (Microsoft) Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zukerberg (Facebook), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Stephen Spielberg (blockbuster filmmaker) US President Harry Truman, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and so many others were all college dropouts.

Abraham Lincoln finished only one year of formal schooling of any kind. Walt Disney dropped out of high school.

What does the academic “failure” of these highly accomplished people say about “education”?

I shall explore these and many other similar questions in future commentaries in detail.

Back to the topic of “we have failed as a society.”

Beltway bandit American think tanks like to classify African countries as “failed states.”

They have created a lucrative cottage industry classifying African countries as “failed states,” never admitting in the slightest African countries are “failed states” because of colonial exploitation and imperialism. State failure is entirely the problem of Africans.

There is no limit to the words and phrases the beltway bandits use to depict (demonize) African and other non-Western societies as failures: “Crises States”, “Dysfunctional States”, “Declining States”, “Fragile States”, “Disintegrating States”, Collapsing States”, “Dissolving States”, “Disordered States”, “Collapsed States”, “Paralyzed States”, “Virtual States”, “vulnerable states”, and even “etats sans gouvernement” (states without government), among others.

The forked tongue “beltway bandits”, monetize African failure while actively promoting imperialism. When they got hammered for being politically incorrect, they began peddling back. Now they try to hoodwink us by describing African countries as “fragile states”.

Fragile as African violets?

What did Minister Berhanu mean when he said, “We have failed as a country?”

Did he mean national/state “failure” in the same sense as the American beltway bandits?

I believe Minister Berhanu is conveying a completely different notion in his use of the metaphor of “failed as a country” in education.

In “The Republic,” Plato wrote, “the direction in which education starts a man, will determine his future life.”

I would argue the minister used the metaphor in a platonic sense.

Education is the foundation of Plato’s ideal state (republic) because without an educated citizenry, there is no justice or peace. With equal educational opportunity from an early age, citizens can compete fairly, coexist in harmony and help build and maintain a just republic.

Plato believed education has the “greatest tendency to civilize and humanize people in their relations to one another.” Education improves the moral character of citizens and “best safeguards against tyrants.” It is also the great social equalizer. “Education that makes a man a good guardian (those who keep order in the society and protect it from invaders) will make a woman a good guardian; for their original nature is the same.”

In modern parlance, Plato’s ideas on education could be described as the highest form of human capital.

Education is the driver of economic growth, social advancement, equality, justice  and the quality of life in any country.

Education is the most effective tool and instrument for poverty reduction, inequality and sustained economic growth.

Nelson Mandela explained, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

After WW II, a number of countries in East Asia were among the poorest in the world with high levels of  illiteracy.

In the People’s Republic of China, the national poverty rate fell from almost 90% in 1981 to under 4% in 2016. In other words, 800 million fewer people living in poverty in 2016. Key to China’s success has been massive reforms and investments in education across the board.

The so-called “Asian Tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) powered by exports and rapid industrialization in a couple of decades joined the ranks of the wealthiest nations. “At the core of these East Asian countries’ superior performance are educational systems that rigorously select the best students for civil service and top business careers.”

In 2015, Barack Obama said, “When I came here as a U.S. senator, I pointed out that South Korea’s economy was the same as Kenya’s when I was born, and then was 40 times larger than Kenya’s.”

Underlying China’s and the Asian Tigers’ extraordinary development is massive investment in education and technology.

America is a global power because it has higher educational institutions that are at the cutting edge of human scientific and technological advancement.

The telephone, cellphone, electric light bulb, airplanes, the internet, the microchip, laser, email, the personal computer, mass production of practical electric cars and Artificial Intelligence are products of American ingenuity.

American research universities are the tip of the spear in making the US the “greatest [power] in the world because of their ability to produce new knowledge through discoveries that change our lives and the world.”

Countries with the most investments in education are correspondingly the most developed and industrialized.

I believe Minister Berhanu used the “failed as a nation” metaphor to signify our national inability to develop and use the most precious of our national capital, the human capital stored in our youth.

Investments in education is the key to Ethiopia’s economic and social development. With quality education, Ethiopia could emerge from the darkness of ethnic and identity politics and transition from poverty to prosperity.

Indeed, Ethiopia can become the leader of the “African Lion Pride” and compete with the “Asian Tigers.”

Professor Mesfin Woldemariam’s “Adafne” and “mekshef” (Failure)

In 2015, the late great Professor Mesfin Woldemariam wrote a book in Amharic entitled, “Adafne.” I had the pleasure of reviewing the book.

The book written in the didactic tone of a reflective professor, the angry tone of the patriot who is pained by the sight of his nation’s descent into the morass of tribal politics led by a coalition of ignoramuses and in the loving paternal tone of the wise elder giving advice and counsel to the younger generation.

“Adafne” is Ethiopians’ sickness of the soul. “Adafne has made Ethiopia the land of chatterboxes first by suppressing truth, second by suppressing education and knowledge, third by closing down all means by which truth is propagated, fourth by hiring silver-tongued spinners of lies and fifth by closing all avenues for the publication and dissemination of ideas and knowledge.”

Prof. Mesfin argues “mekshef” (failure) has caused colossal systemic and structural collapse on a societal scale in Ethiopia.

“Failure” in Prof. Mesfin’s analysis has a variety of manifestations. “Failure” could be the inability to complete or bring to fruition a societal project. “Failure” could be missing one’s goal and unable to make progress. “Failure” could be the collective inability to pursue development and change.

Prof. Mesfin identifies three sources of “failure” (mekshef) for Ethiopia and Ethiopians:

1) Failure brought about by the dominance of governance systems unrestrained by the rule of law. The effect of that failure has been passive acceptance of tyrannical governments or voting with one’s feet and going into exile.

2) Failure of Ethiopian intellectuals.  The intellectuals and educated classes sold out to the powers that be, whomever they may be. The intellectuals and educated classes have failed to guide the powers that be to do right; they have failed to record their crimes and misdeeds for future generations; and worst of all, they have propagated  the mistakes of the past for the future generations by compounding their own mistakes. Religious leaders have not fared much better as they have failed to provide spiritual guidance.

3) Failure of not having national role models for Ethiopians. Because there were not any successful countries around Ethiopia, Ethiopians have not been able to learn much about better governance and administration.

Prof. Mesfin was disheartened by the fact that ignoramuses in power aspiring to gain intellectual respectability went on a binge purchasing academic credentials from internet diploma mills and fly-by-night universities. “To embellish and burnish their power, the ignoramuses in power buy bogus papers with official-looking seals and call themselves doctors, professors, government advisers and representatives of international organizations.”

In “Adafne”, Prof. Mesfin counsels Ethiopia’s youth to beware the monster of “Adafne” and avoid repeating the mistakes of their parents and ancestors or they will find themselves buried under a mountain of lies.

His larger message to Ethiopia’s youth could be stated in three simple propositions:

1)  Only you(th) can save Ethiopia from certain self-destruction.
2) Only you(th) can save Ethiopia from the fires of tribalism and sectarianism.
3) Only you(th) can save Ethiopia from Ethiopians of the past and present who have destroyed the social fabric, mangled the political structure and perverted the economic system and desecrated the spiritual well-being of the society.

“Failure” is overrated

People make a big deal about failure.

There are many types of failure.

Only 3.3% of students (out of 985,354) who took the 2022-23 high school leaving exam passed to qualify for university admission.

When a public declaration of a 3 percent pass rate on the national school exam is made, how do the other 97 percent feel?

The reflexive answer is they very likely feel they are “failures.”

The interesting question for me is, “should they feel like failures?”

I would argue 97 percent of our students did not fail the national school leaving exam, they just did not do as well as the 3 percent who passed.

One simple solution is to figure out how the 3 percenters who passed did it, hit the reset button for the 97 percent and do it again.

In other words, thoroughly prepare and take the exam again.

But the stigma of “failure” has devastating consequences for young people.

There is substantial research indicating “school failure is a major cause of low self-concept in students. School failure damages their self-image and they often start dislike themselves.” Students often seek to avoid the “esteem damaging consequences of their performance by denying responsibility for their performance – blaming their grades on such factors as the teacher, their home life, or the difficulty of the material.”

The blame game, finger pointing game, in my view, is the most damaging thing in educational outcomes. The blame game is not about accountability. It is about CYA (cover your **s).

It is so easy to point fingers for educational failure.

Teachers blame lazy students, students in turn blame incompetent and indifferent teachers.

School administrators blame teachers who pretend to teach and the government blames careless and indifferent school administration.

Parents blame the teachers who do not teach, school administrators who have poor accountability mechanisms and government bureaucrats  who could not care less about their children and politicians who do not allocate an adequate budget for their children’s education.

The vicious circular finger pointing leads down the slippery slope of accusations, recriminations, distrust and disagreement. It never leads to consensus for constructive and corrective collective action.

As the finger pointing goes on, hundreds of thousands of young men and women descend into the abyss of ignorance and poverty.

Ethiopia’s path to prosperity is littered by the detritus of the young and despairing.

My personal message to the 97 percent Second Chancers

Here is my message to the 97 percent Second Chancers who now have a second opportunity to take the national school leaving exam.

I have been on the road of failure all my life. Failure is overrated.

Failure has been a great source of inspiration to me.

You did not “fail”. You made a first pass at taking the national school leaving exam and now you have a second chance to go for it.

In life, if at first you do not hit the target, then take your second and third shots.

You must believe deep in your heart and mind Ethiopia is the Land of Second Chances.

Failure in education is simply FAIL, First Attempt In Learning.

The 2023 massive failure in the 12th grade school leaving exam is a cumulative and preventable failure.

If proper preventive actions were taken in grades 1-5, 6-8 and 9-11, such catastrophic result would likely not have occurred in the 12th grade.

Without failure, there is no success. Failure is the bump in the road to success.

Failure and success are flip sides of a coin. If you flip a coin fairly a thousand times, statistically you have an even chance of drawing either side.

But life is not fair.

Those who are born to wealth and privilege have the coin of life rigged. More often than not the success side of the coin drops in their favor.

In life, education is the great equalizer.

There is really no such thing as failure. Only those who are afraid to try or quit trying because they are afraid will not achieve their objective on their first, second, third… attempt.

Failure is a word found in the dictionary of fools, cynics, the indolent and those suffering from lack of self-confidence.

Failure is not the opposite of success. It is a vital, unavoidable, inevitable and a necessary part of success.

Failure is a state of mind not a fact of reality. The quickest road to success is to possess a “no fear” attitude toward failure.” There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

Fear drives failure. Fear makes us play it safe and making the same choices.

Fear not only drives us to failure but also to insanity. As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

One or a series of failures do not define the man or woman. Failure is an event at a particular place and time.

We live in a time of mindboggling change.

In my day, we thought the times were a-changing.

For the loser now/ Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

The slow one now/ Will later be last
As the present now/ Will later be past

And the first one now/ Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

The greatest fear of students is that they are terrified of getting things “wrong,” and that fear of failing paralyzes them.

I have had students who were so afflicted by “test anxiety,” (fear of failing an exam) they threw up as they were taking the exam.

You should know fear of failure is the greatest obstacle to human achievement. Overcoming fear of failure is the greatest opportunity to human achievement.

The greatest education is to learn from failure because failure is the greatest teacher.

You are a failure only if you believe yourself to be a failure. You should never allow anyone to tell or convince you are a failure.

There are two types of people in the world: People who try and never quit and losers who quit trying. Those who never quit trying eventually win but losers whine and point their index fingers blaming others oblivious three fingers are pointing at them.

Those who never quit trying look at the world as full of opportunities that can be obtained at will through creative use of their imagination and insatiable intellectual curiosity.

Those who never quit never take their eyes off  the prize come hell or high water. Their attitude is, “Full speed ahead. Damn the torpedoes.”

Visualize yourself becoming your dreams.

When the going gets tough (fail an exam), the tough (dust themselves off) and  get going and take the exam again and pass it with flying colors.

Do not be afraid of failure. Embrace it. Make it a companion, a friend.

When you are overcome with fear of failure, look inside yourself and bring out the hero standing behind the fretting coward.

Be inspired by people who have failed most of their lives but achieved their objective because they never quit.

There are two things you need to achieve your goals in life. Creative imagination and insatiable curiosity.

All who have achieved great things have a failure proof mindset. No great human achievement was accomplished without failure.

That is true with astronauts, inventors, daredevils, tightrope walkers, mountain climbers.

Think big, Imagine big. Be curious. Be self-confident. Be outstanding. Follow your dream, not the herd.

Perhaps Shakespeare said it best in Measure for Measure (Act I, Scene IV): “Our doubts are traitors, And makes us lose the good we oft might win, By fearing to attempt.”

Shakespeare is talking about self-doubt and self-confidence. When we begin to doubt ourselves, our ability to do great things for ourselves and others, then “we never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Listen to the inner voice but by second guessing inner voice may work to betray you.

Henry David Thoreau in Walden (“Conclusion”) wrote,

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Imagination and intellectual curiosity are very important.

It does not matter if one lives in a small village, a town or city. One need not live in a tukul, slum or mansion. One need not visit America or Europe or travel the world.

Thoreau advises in his “Conclusion” to take an inward voyage and discover our divine potentialities, our unique possibilities for greatness.

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography.

And then visit the “Human Family”, the great African American poet and novelist Maya Angelou wrote about, slightly paraphrased.

You can sail upon the seven seas
and stop in every land,
You will see the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

[You will travel the world and meet men and women]
[You will find] between each sort and type,
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Failure does not last but tough smart students do and become leaders in their chosen fields.

Embrace failure for it is the law of the universe

To propose “failure” as a basis for a new educational philosophy sounds outright insane, something that could emanate only from an absent-minded crazy professor.”

Before passing that judgment, let us consider the evidence.

Life is a long series of failures marked by occasional success.

It is never the other way around.

Every human being that ever lived was born a success. To become a living, thinking human being from a few fertilized cells is the greatest success of all.

After birth, it is mostly downhill on the slippery slope of failure.

Failure is the thing people do in the thing called life. Failure in life comes in many forms.

When we get physically sick, it is a sign of body failure. Everyone dies. That is the ultimate failure.

Betrayal is failure of trust. Despair is failure of hope.

War is the failure of peace. Hate is the failure of love.

Cowardice is the failure of courage. Cruelty is the failure of humanity.

Stupidity is the failure of creativity. Injustice the failure of fairness.

Political, social and economic systems fail.

Empires that imposed imperial rule and dominated parts of the world to advance their own peace, stability and wealth have ended up in failure.

There was Pax (Peace) Romana (Roman Empire). Failed.

Pax Sinica (China). Failed.

Pax Ottomana (Ottoman Empire). Failed.

Pax Hispanica (Spanish Empire) Failed.

Pax Britannica (British). Failed.

We are told the “End of Pax Americana” (American Empire) is in sight.

The United States of America was created after the catastrophic failure of the Articles of Confederation which created a national government that was at the mercy of the states.

Fifty-five passionately committed revolutionary Americans attended a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and by sheer dint of political will created the United States of America, changed themselves and the world.

When the American dream failed for African Americans, the poet Langston Hughes lamented: “What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up/  like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—/ And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?/  Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

The universe was created in the structural failure of “singularity.”

The Big Bang Model (hypotheses) of cosmology (science of origin and development of the universe) proposes current and past matter in the Universe came into existence at the same time between 12-14 billion years ago compacted into a very small ball with infinite density and intense heat called a “Singularity.” Suddenly, the Singularity began expanding (cosmic inflation), and the universe of matter and space-time began. With expansion came disorder (entropy) of all the energy and matter in the universe (Second Law of Thermodynamics.)

Our world is built on failure.

Failure is the foundation of the greatest successes of humanity.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb “which turned night into daylight” and so many other things critical to modern life, asked how it felt to have failed one thousand times before inventing the light bulb said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Winston Churchill, UK Prime Minister, is regarded as one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century. He started as a failure in school. He failed the sixth grade and had to take a math class over three times just to pass. He had a speech impediment. During WW I, he was a “terrible failure” as a lord of admiralty (head of the British Navy.)

Churchill who failed in the 6th grade went on to receive the Nobel Prize in literature in 1953. Churchill overcame his leadership failures and became Britain’s greatest wartime leader, leading his country through its “Darkest Hour” to its “Finest Hour.”

Steve Jobs, the founder of the world’s 3 trillion-dollar company was born a failure. He was born to fail. His biological mother put him for adoption. He started college and dropped out after six months and “spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life.”

Jobs started Apple in his parent’s garage. Then he was fired from his own company. He left Apple and started other great companies and finally returned to Apple triumphantly. His message for overcoming failure, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” (That is, find the thing you love to do. Stay curious and pursue your dream like there is no tomorrow.)


Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group failed primary school test two times, middle school test three times and college entrance exam two times. Ma scored 1 out of 120 points on the math portion of his college entrance exam. Ma ended up creating a $34 billion Chinese multinational technology company specializing in e-commerce, retail, Internet, and technology. Ma says: “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”



For Elon Musk who revolutionized ground and space travel, failure is a necessary element of innovation. It is not a stigma or a thing of shame.

In 2008 Musk’s two companies, SpaceX and Tesla, were on the verge of bankruptcy. Today, SpaceX is pushing space exploration to new heights leaving the great Boeing and other dinosaurs in the dust.



Humanity’s first attempt to leave the planet and journey into space to visit the moon began with catastrophic failure.  Apollo 1 perished on the launch pad January  27, 1967 killing three astronauts.

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 successfully launched and announced, “The Eagle has landed.” Climbing down the ladder of the lunar module, the Commander proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, the commander reported, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” When the crew’s return to earth seemed doubtful, the chief flight director was resolute as dramatized in the movie Apollo 13, “We have never lost an American in space. We’re not going to lose one under may watch. Failure is not an option.”

Italian attempts to colonize Ethiopia twice ended up in colossal failure.

Italy sought to impose “Pax Italiana” on Ethiopia by twisting Art. 17 of the Treaty of Wuchiale (1889) and strongarm Ethiopia into becoming an Italian protectorate. On March 1, 1896, at the Battle of Adwa, Emperor Menelik II routed the Italian Army in just a few hours and proved to the world a black nation can defeat a mighty white European colonial army. Italy tried again in 1936 and suffered the same fate. It tasted defeat once again and was driven out in 1941.

Sometimes, failure is preordained. Just have to lick your wounds and try your luck elsewhere.

In reforming, transforming and reinventing Ethiopian education, our mindset and conviction should be: “We have lost 97 percent of our students in the national school leaving exam. We shall never lose another 97 percent under our watch because failure is an option. Because to FAIL is the First Attempt At Learning.”

Failure is an option: “Failure” as a design philosophy in Ethiopian education

My conception of “failure as a philosophy of education” is simple and expressed in the following equation: F= OL.

Failure is simply an opportunity to learn, and do it right.

Underlying my simple equation are three assumptions:

1) The challenge of education is not to prepare students for “success” (which is the exception to the rule) but “failure” or failure to measure up to learning outcomes (which is the rule) in terms of substantive knowledge of a subject matter.

2) The driving element in education should be inspiring and motivating students to be creatively imaginative and intellectually curious (always asking questions and probing into the deeper recesses of reality) so that they develop a problem-solving mindset with capacity to critically analyze, synthesize and apply knowledge and even be able to derive new knowledge.

3) Students must understand that mastery of a subject matter is a function of hard work, discipline, dedication and determination. There is no magic or miracle involved in it.

The great theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once observed anyone can learn quantum mechanics (phew!) if they only apply themselves.

“You ask me if an ordinary person—by studying hard—would get to be able to imagine these things like I imagine. Of course. I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There’s no miracle people. It just happens they got interested in this thing, and they learned all this stuff. They’re just people. There’s no talent or special miracle ability to understand quantum mechanics or a miracle ability to imagine electromagnetic fields that comes without practice and reading and learning and study. So if you take an ordinary person who’s willing to devote a great deal of time and study and work and thinking and mathematics, then he’s become a scientist.”

I am not sure if there is an articulated “design philosophy” in Ethiopian education.

Based on the literature and policy review on education in Ethiopia I have done so far, I am left with the impression that much of the educational policymaking in Ethiopia has been based on ideology, common sense, anecdotes, intuitions and guesstimates.

A 2002 TPLF Ministry of Education Report revealed not only the pitiful condition of education in Ethiopia but also the fact its design philosophy  to completely dismantle and raze to the ground the educational system that preexisted TPLF rule because it has been a deadly instrument of oppression. That report shockingly concluded:

Beyond having no policy direction, the previous educational system had acute and severe problems of both access and quality. That is why it was necessary to seek solutions and to frame a policy. However, these were not the only reasons for formulating a new policy. At the time the policy was framed, the Ethiopian people were embarking upon a new historical path to establish a new order, and begin a new life. It was a time when the Ethiopian peoples liberated themselves from a centuries-old system of oppression, and rose up to form a new order of national equality and freedom, of development and democracy. It was therefore necessary to replace the educational system that served the old discarded order by a new one.

For the following decade, and thereafter, education under TPLF was transformed into a system of patronage as I documented in my 2013 commentary, “Edu-corruption and Miseducation in Ethiopia.” At the time, I observed:

Ethiopia’s education sector has become a haven and a refuge for prebendalist (where those affiliated with the ruling regime feel entitled to receive a share of the loot) party hacks and a bottomless barrel of patronage. The Meles regime has used jobs, procurement and other opportunities in the education sector to reward and sustain loyalty in its support base. They have been handing out teaching jobs to their supporters like candy and procurement opportunities to their cronies like cake.

The World Bank also concluded:

“In Ethiopia’s decentralized yet authoritarian system, considerable powers exist among senior officials at the federal, regional, and woreda levels. Of particular relevance to this study is the discretion exercised by politically appointed officials at the woreda level, directly affecting the management of teachers.”

The TPLF regime enacted Proclamation No.650/2009 with the guiding design philosophy of weaponizing the higher education system to “promote justice and fairness,” create “a culture of fighting corruption,” and pursue “truth and freedom of expression of truth,” among others.

That Proclamation was a cynical and thinly veiled attempt to use education as a political weapon of mass indoctrination and mass distraction and ideological tool to regiment students and convert them into becoming TPLF cadres and micromanage universities as pipelines for the TPLF bureaucracy.

There is no question that the 2023 massive failure on the national school leaving exam is the tip of the iceberg of educational failure in Ethiopia produced by the two-decade old TPLF program. 

A rigorous analysis at each grade level in all schools in Ethiopia is highly likely to show similar massive failure.

There is no more convincing proof of the TPLF’s determination to destroy Ethiopia by destroying its educational system than what is stated in the 2002 Ministry of Education Report.

It has been observed that it does not require an atomic bomb or missiles to destroy a nation. Destroying the educational system will collapse any nation.

Lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in exams will one day result in the death of patients by incompetent doctors, collapse of buildings constructed by untrained engineers and miscarriage of untutored judges.

The TPLF terrorist war was expected to be the icing on the collapse of the Ethiopian nation.

Alas, the best laid plans of mice and TPLF men!

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the TPLF leaders came out of the bush with barely an elementary education, seized power, called themselves generals and bought degrees on the internet and strutted on the stage as  doctors and engineers.

The Ethiopian ship of the Ethiopian state was under the helm of TPLF ignoramuses. Ethiopia became their playground.

The 2021 “Education Sector Development Programme VI (ESDP VI) 2013 – 2017 E.C. 2020/21 – 2024/25 G.C (Section IV, (pp. 129-138)” sought to make fundamental reforms by creating the structure for an evidence-based educational policymaking, implementation, monitoring and evaluation process.

The 2021 policy sought to create baseline data for educational reform to take place over a period of five years with the object of ensuring “(a) compliance with the policy objectives set by the government (policymakers); and (b) feasibility of the targets in terms of human, material, and financial resources, as well as capacity to manage implementation.”

In cases where there are no baseline data, reform targets were to be based on “historical trends over the past five years, expert judgements and opinions have been sought from professionals at federal and regional levels, views of stakeholders on what they expect from the education sector.”

A thumbnail sketch of  “failure” as a new design philosophy for educational reform in Ethiopia

Admittedly, I have little familiarity with student learning outcomes at the elementary and high school levels.

But as a one-time high level university administrator, I am very familiar with the importance of student learning outcomes.

As I observe from afar, I sense there is much “brainstorming” among educational policymakers dealing with policy changes and regulatory, management and administration reforms to address structural “inefficiencies” in the educational system and reduce the spectacular failure rate at all levels, not merely on the national exam (e.g. inability of schools to prepare students to pass the national exam and their inability to make effective use of scarce resources in an environment of accelerating demand).

Needless to say, I see NO “brainstorming” about educational failure in Ethiopia among Ethiopian intellectuals who are as rare as unicorns and mermaids.

In my view, the 2021 “Education Sector Development Programme” is 1) overly bureaucratic and insufficiently focused on student learning outcomes, and 2) educational reform must be centered and revolve around student needs and learning outcomes.

As I think about educational “failure” in Ethiopia, as manifested and measured in the exceedingly high  percentage of high school students unable to pass the national school leaving certificate, I “framestorm” it as a problem of inability to achieve “learning outcomes” from elementary school.

In “First Principle Thinking,” (fancy way to say, “think like a scientist, don’t assume anything”), one does “Framestorming before brainstorming.”

Framestorming is the set of action one takes to reframe one’s perspective and the narratives one embraces and articulates about a critical problem.

My corollary belief about educational “failure” in Ethiopia is that if there had been mechanism in existence that assured students met a  specified sets of learning outcomes beginning at the elementary level, such a catastrophic outcome in the national school leaving exam could have been avoided.

In my “Framestorming” view, formal classroom-based education/instruction should be focused entirely on student learning outcomes.

Learning outcomes are statements of the knowledge, skills and abilities individual students should possess and can demonstrate upon completion of a learning experience or sequence of learning experiences.”

For instance, what “knowledge, skills and abilities should a third grade student possess and demonstrate upon completion of a learning experience or sequence of learning experiences in mathematics, science, social studies, language, etc.?

My hypotheses is that for the 97 percent of students who did not pass the national exam, something went terribly wrong in the 3rd, 4th, 5th…10th and 11th grades.

The 97 percent who failed did not fail because they performed poorly in the 12th grade. They failed because they failed from 3rd to 11th grade.

My belief is that failure is a function of not achieving learning outcomes.

If a child fails to meet learning outcomes set for the third grade, s/he will not do well in subsequent grades.

The cumulative inability to meet learning outcomes in successive grades results in massive failure on the national school leaving exam.

Needless to say, mechanisms and processes should be introduced and maintained in the educational system to monitor on a rigorous and periodic basis the knowledge, skills and attitudes students will be able to demonstrate, represent, or produce upon successful completion of a particular grade level, curriculum or program.

But that is water under the bridge or spilled milk now.

To do it right and produce capable students means re-engineering the entire educational system – from grade school to university — on the basis of student learning outcomes.

That means, educational policymaking should be geared towards establishing standards and criteria for expected student performance and demonstrable achievements upon completion of a particular grade, curriculum or program.

The proposition that “failure” as a design philosophy should guide Ethiopian education reform sounds not only absurd but downright crazy.

As my argument is that failure to meet learning outcomes at all grade levels is the core problem of Ethiopian education, then we need a design philosophy built around the failure to achieve learning outcomes.

By “design philosophy” I simply mean a set of actionable principles to guide educational reform.

Elon Musk’s design philosophy is guided by “First Principles Thinking.”

It means “challenging assumptions and solving complex problems by breaking them down into their most basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up.”

It is alternatively known as “Occam’s razor” (simplest solution is generally the best one) or “KISS” (Keep it Simple Stupid.)



As I indicated above, I have no experience in elementary and secondary education but I do have  experience in the implementation of student learning outcomes at the higher education level.

Student learning outcomes are as valid in higher education as thy are in elementary and secondary education.

My hypotheses is that the 97  percent failure rate on the 2023 national school leaving exam in Ethiopia is the result of and educational policies intentionally designed to produce substandard academic achievements.

I believe a thorough root cause analysis into the problem is necessary and policymaking should be evidence-based, not anecdotal evidence, intuition or sentiments of altruism.

The fact of the matter is that 97 percent of students have failed the national school exam.

There are multiple causes that account for that failure.

Those causes must be thoroughly and rigorously investigated to improve the performance of students in the pipeline and to prevent a recurrence of such an outcome.

I believe what is needed is a root cause analysis into the factors that contributed to the failure on the national exam.

Root cause analysis is an approach to problem solving which uses data analysis to dig deeper into problems to uncover the underlying causes. It makes possible informed decisions, facilitates implementation of changes and selection of intervention modalities.

Conducting a root cause analysis can help schools anticipate, identify and plan improvements in all aspects of educational services delivery.

In my view, the ultimate aim of the root cause analysis of failure in the Ethiopian educational system is to reform education with evidence-based practices or interventions that are likely to prevent the 2023 catastrophic failure on the national exam.

There are many different approaches to root cause analysis in investigating failure points in the education system. The basic concept in root cause analysis is not all complex.

I shall argue that involved in Ethiopian educational policymaking and implementation can benefit greatly from the American educational reform experience.

There are extensive evidence-based US resources to consult to support school reform and improvement efforts in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian educational policymakers can access the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) extensive publications resource base.

A detailed, practical, comprehensive, evidence-based and step by step guide is available in a USDE publication entitled Non-Regulatory Guidance: Using Evidence to Strengthen Education Investments.

The Colorado Department of Education has done root cause to address student learning and performance challenges and development of  improvement strategies.

The Connecticut Department of Education has also developed a comprehensive tool kit for root cause analysis.

There are diverse illustrative and instructive root cause analysis of learning and educational issues in California.

The “failure root cause analysis” in Ethiopia would require systematic data collection at the various grade levels and undertaking multivariate analysis examining the relationship between multiple variables to identify failure points.

The ministry of Education could undertake a pilot (small scale) root cause analysis study for two purposes: 1) to test out a research design for a comprehensive national study and 2) to guide policymakers in the short term on critical issues amenable to expedited remediation.

I shall explore the details of such an analysis in future commentaries.

We have not failed as a country, but we did F.A.I.L.

I should like to believe Minister Berhanu spoke prematurely about us “failing as a nation.”

He emphatically said the 2023 national exam results should be regarded by all as “a wakeup call.”

Minister Berhanu added, “we have to create an educational system that is capable of meeting the challenges. That is our obligation. But this is not (the test results) something that should make us lose hope. This should be regarded as a wakeup call.”

As far as I can tell, students, parents, teachers, community leaders, policymakers, etc. in Ethiopia are fully awake and sitting at attention with their eyes wide open.

(Ethiopian intellectuals, especially in the diaspora, are asleep at the switch in a comatose state.)

Now that the Ethiopian people are awake, job #1 is establishing student learning outcomes.


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