Perfection vs Improvement: The Problem With Expecting Student Perfection

By: Jane Mueller

Perfection is a dangerous concept to aim for or claim. Perfection has a ceiling. It suggests we reach a certain point and then we’re done. But we’re never truly done.

The First and Second Industrial Revolutions changed everything. Among a mass of advancements, this era galvanized the shift from unique hand-made items, to the mass production and standardization of goods. With this shift came the new expectation that goods would be predictable, identical, and consistent; in other words, flawless or perfect.

Our familiarisation with predictable, identical, and consistent goods has influenced our expectations of ourselves, of others, and of children. We’ve become conditioned to believe that, just like a product from the assembly line, humans should in some way be perfect.

Organizational Psychologist, Dr. Jim Bright, writes: ‘We place demands on people and the universe to be consistent. We like to draw straight lines because you know where you are with a straight line. … [But] Humans are not straight lines. … If learning comes from trial and error, then it seems pretty fundamental you have to accept there has been an error.’

Studies over many years highlight the debilitating nature of perfection, which drives turmoil and mental distortions. The quest for perfection is linked to burnout, anxiety, stress and depression.

When perfection is the expectation for children, children can become overwhelmed by dread and imprisoned by pressure. Typically they will not yet have the self-awareness to recognize and the vocabulary to verbalize the crippling demands of perfection, and so it is likely to play out through procrastination, rebellion and other unhelpful behaviors.

Improvement, however, is a concept everyone can aim for and claim. Improvement is achievable. It has no ceiling, giving rise to the notion that anything is possible.

Improvement accepts that there will be mistakes and setbacks along the way. A child learning to walk, for example, will fall over again and again until one day, voila! But it doesn’t stop there. Building upon that improvement, the child will learn to change direction, to run, to jump; to sprint short distances, to endure long distances; to leap high, and to leap long. And in learning these skills, a child will persistently make mistakes and experience failure and setbacks. It will not be a perfect journey, but every attempt will ultimately lead to further improvement.

Improvement recognizes there are stops and starts. It values reflection and adopts a realistic measure of self-compassion through the knowledge that mistakes and setbacks are essential to the learning and improvement process. In fact, self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link, making way for the growth mindset and joy that are fostered through the hunger for improvement.

When improvement – as opposed to perfection – is the expectation, self-motivation tends to be high. Children willingly grapple with setbacks, confident that their toil will ultimately result in improvement. And, when the improvement becomes evident, they experience a deep sense of accomplishment. This sense of accomplishment leads to children flourishing in self-belief, growing in emotional fortitude and resilience, and developing the tenacity to achieve the seemingly impossible. Setbacks become minor bumps in the road that serves only to increase their determination and spur them on further. They compete against themselves to do better than last time. Their hunger for improvement has been ignited, and this is a flame we don’t want to extinguish.

Read or view any biography or documentary about the world’s greatest achievers: The Last Dance (Michael Jordan), Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury), Jobs (Steve Jobs), and Soul Surfer (Bethany Hamilton), just to name a few. One thing stands out in these narratives: tenacity, fuelled by a hunger for improvement. Setbacks are drivers in these narratives. The world’s greatest achievers unapologetically recognize their human frailties and imperfections in their pursuit of improvement. These human powerhouses do not fall victim to opposing forces and are not preoccupied with the demands or expectations of a society that seeks perfection. Rather, they are intrinsically motivated to face resistance and traditional thinking head-on, and they use opposition and setbacks as the impetus to reach greater heights. They recognize they can rarely change other people, their circumstances or their environment, but they can improve themselves. And improve themselves, they do.

So, how can you support your own students in developing a hunger for improvement?

Role model improvement in yourself. Allow students to witness your own mistakes and setbacks. Intentionally showcase that you view your setbacks not as frustrations, but as catalysts for growing your own determination. Speak aloud your thinking in relation to your own setbacks, demonstrating how you learn from them and showing how you try again with refined preparation, a different strategy, or improved focus.

When students make mistakes, do not reprimand. Rather, step back to see if they recognize their mistakes and set themselves on a path to try again. If they don’t, engage in relational dialogue. Use questions to assist students in discerning their mistakes, acknowledging what can be learned through the mistakes, and resolving to make changes and have another go.

Normalize mistakes and setbacks. Do not eliminate the potential for mistakes and setbacks, knowing your goal is to prepare students for the reality that setbacks exist throughout life. Discuss the benefits of having a go regardless of the possibility of failure. Focus less on what could go wrong, and more on what could go right.

Celebrate improvement. Help students to reflect on the setbacks and perseverance that led them to improve, and use this as inspiration for the tenacity required for ongoing improvement.

Undertake your own research. Familiarise yourself with educational neuroscience and child psychology. When you better understand that synapses fire when we experience setbacks, your own teaching philosophy will mature and you will be better equipped to not only support but lead student improvement.

The hunger for improvement is a characteristic that exists from birth. It is observed, for example, in the child learning to walk. But this hunger can be crushed by the expectation of perfection. The goal must be to nurture in children a hunger for improvement, knowing it will carry them well beyond their youth, driving their wellbeing and success later in life.

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Jane Mueller is the principal of Living Faith Lutheran Primary School, Brisbane. She is driven by the desire to close the gap between how schools operate, and what we know about how children learn. Twitter: @jane_n_mueller. 

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