Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Problem with Perfection

When I was in school there was always one objective - get the right answer.

Seemed simple enough...want to seem smart? Be successful? Make your parents happy? Go to college? Well then...get the answers right, be as perfect as possible in each subject, each day.

Needless to say...I wasn’t a huge fan of school. There were times I tried to cheat, especially in Spanish class. There were times that I would fake being sick...always on a test day. There were times I was stressed, times I was bored, and most of the time I just wasn’t interested in what was being shared at the front of the room...Why? Because I wasn’t perfect at school, and I didn't want to be either.

I love to learn, I love to make mistakes and then learn from them...that’s why I loved the game Mario Brothers as a child...yes, the first one...because it was the mistakes I made and the “Game Over” screen that drove me to continue and start all over again. Somehow, the way I loved to learn as a child through making mistakes didn’t seem to translate to success at school. It was as if mistakes made were not acceptable, only perfection was….but here is the thing: There is a key problem with means the learning stops.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with getting that perfect grade, or getting all the math problems right...but what I am saying is that it is in the moments of perfection that we are no longer required to learn and grow. So while as educators we push our students to find the right answer, I have to ask, how can we also create an environment that encourages mistakes to be made for real learning opportunities to take place?

In an educational world filled with the next big thing, it’s important to remember the little things we can already do in our classrooms today. Creating an environment rich with learning from mistakes all starts with this one word: “Why?” It’s then followed up with phrases/questions like: “What do you want to learn about?” - “It’s alright if you're wrong, it just means we get to try a new strategy.” - “How can we make that?” - “How ever will you solve that?” - “What are you interested in?” - “Looks like you have a great plan, but what if…” -

So often teaching sounds like this: “Alright class, to solve this problem...first you do this, then this, enter this formula, cut this paper on this line, cross out the wrong answer, then you have your answer...alright, your turn.”

Why do we do this? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for modeling, and I fully recognize there is a time and place for direct instruction...but let me throw out a challenge...just once, try having a lesson sound like this: “Alright fourth grade, I have a problem, and I am hoping you all can help me. My daughter wants a dog so bad, and I would love to get her one, but...I don’t know what kind to get. I need a dog that doesn’t shed as I am allergic, and it can’t be larger than 30 pounds. I also will need to build a house for it outside and need to figure out the design, as well as all the materials needed. Plus, I found this website with all kinds of items and prices for things I will need from the pet store, but I don’t know what all I need to buy or how much it will you think you all could help me? I was thinking if you all were in groups of four you could work together to get this puzzle solved. I need to find the right type of dog, materials and design for a home, and find the right items and total cost for all the supplies I will need.”

Now, there are a ton of better examples out there I am sure for a problem to be solved...but notice order to be successful students will need to be able to read, comprehend, research, write, design, calculate angles/money/amounts, collaborate, engineer, and the best part of all...there isn’t one perfect answer.

Practice may lead to perfection, but learning comes from the mistakes we make along the way. If you can create an environment where mistakes are celebrated as part of the process of learning...well, you might just capture the imagination of your students, and from there...who knows, maybe they might actually take a risk, make a mistake, and learn from it -

What if we allowed students to solve problems they are interested in? What if we focused on the process and expected great results along the way? What if we gave our students the power to own their learning? What if we stopped looking for perfection in everything, and celebrated the moments we fall forward? What if...


  1. I have a question. Why are we still teaching kids today the way we were taught? Lecture, straight rows, worksheets, "filmstrips," (ick) . . . Just wondering.

  2. I came across your blog from the #txedchat. I attended High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, from 2004-2008. We did so many amazing projects. Sometimes I think that type of learning taught me more than I learned in undergrad and grad school. I'd love to see 4th graders tackling the dog project!