The Downside of Perfection

My father is a retired neurosurgeon who had a brilliant career.  He was a slave to his work, and he emerged from a little boy who could only speak German when he arrived in a Canada in 1948, to a doctor and published author with status, power, money and privilege.  His dream.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Thomas Edison

I grew up with my father quoting Thomas Edison at every report card time and littering it through every summer visit and many long-distance phone calls.   Perfection was an imperative for him.  

Aspiring for perfection has some merit.  It can allow a vision to play out in your mind that can bring amazing results and the “big win”.  It can teach a commendable work ethic.  However, the flip side is it can also be debilitating.  My stepmother always recounts the story of sitting down to write letters to our mother in summer.  I would sit down and get my ideas down on the page and have absolutely no concern about spelling errors or a lack of punctuation.  When I first started blogging and she found a spelling error, she commented that I must be SO embarrassed.  I still wasn’t.  I learned that spell-checker doesn’t always work.  My sister, being plagued with being the first born, took hours completing her letter and would have holes in the page from eraser marks.  For her, it was a painful endeavour.

The part that Thomas Edison is missing in his well quoted words, is the part about the intrigue that comes with being fascinated by a question.  For Edison, I believe that this was intuitive knowledge.  He entertained the “What if” questions.  Inquiry was not an attempt to demonstrate genius.  Inquiry was letting his mind dance around the possibilities.  It takes time.  It takes patience.  It takes a belief that you can.  

In education, we frame this process in a myriad of ways:  Creative problem-solving; Deductive reasoning; divergent thinking; the inquiry process; task engagement; daydreaming.  The list goes on.  The recent rewrite of the curriculum in British Columbia comes close to describing what we are trying to accomplish in the education of our children.  We want students to graduate with the dispositions and skills to creatively engage and succeed in a world that is changing at unprecedented rates.  We want a high level of achievement that is measured in meaningful ways and inspires further investigation and maybe even genius.

In order for this to happen, we need to help people to change how they view children, adults, and themselves.  This requires a significant shift away from deficit models most of us have grown up with.  People are not defined by what they can’t do.  They are respected for their contributions and efforts are acknowledged.  Perfection is not the standard.  Growth is the expectation.  Lifelong learning is recaptured as a concept of identifying areas for growth and continuing to learn over the course of a lifetime.  

As a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University, I loved the conversations that proceeded the classroom observations with students in the process of completing their degree in Education.  They were all about what the student wanted me to look for to help them improve their practice.  I love this conversation with teachers.  The process is defined and for the learner.  I was involved in the revision of the Standards for principals and vice-principals in British Columbia.  It is the same process of supporting the learner to improve.  It presumes that the learner wants to improve.

I have enrolled Kindergarten to Grade 8 students in the public system.  I have taught summer school to secondary English Language Learners.  I’ve taught undergraduate students at the university level.  I’ve taught practicing teachers in Vancouver and in China.  I have worked as colleagues with teachers in three school districts and as a vice-principal / principal in the Vancouver School District.  I have attended professional development with educators from all over the world.  Generally, learners in all of these contexts want to improve.  The biggest block to learning is the belief that identifying growth areas will be used against you.  In contexts where a deficit model exists, perfection is the gold standard.  In contexts where a growth model exists, identifying areas for growth is a precursor to learning.

In British Columbia, the successful implementation of the revised curriculum will require the adoption of reporting practices that support learning.  Identifying areas of strength is only one side of the equation. Identifying areas which require more repetition and practice, and ways to support this learning, is the key to future development of the learner.  The aversion of many educators to letter grades or sliding scales comes out of the fact that it does not provide a complete picture that supports future learning.  Every reporting period should be a celebration of growth and an honest discussion of the plan for moving forward in the learning process.  

In the COVID-19 world, I have been involved in the question with my staff and colleagues of how to build communities when students are separated into cohorts.  My last attempt at a school wide assembly.  All students learning at school and at home were on the All-Students TEAM.  My intro worked.  Division 1 student acknowledgement of Indigenous lands from their classroom worked.  I shared my PowerPoint.  The embedded perfect clip by Canadian students illustrating the importance of Human Rights and setting the stage for Human Rights Day on December 10th.  I played it from the link in the PowerPoint.  Didn’t download it first or share on my screen.  Kids heard it but didn’t see it.  Some teachers copied the link and played it.  Epic fail.  Definitely a D grade if I was writing the report card on it.  I went on PA and apologised.  Shortly after, I received this email from a Grade 3 / 4 class:

“Division 7 is really proud of you for being brave and trying something new even if it didn’t work.”

So not actually an epic fail.  We are all a work in progress.  I met many of the criteria for success and I have learned what I need to do next time.  These kids jolted me out of the deficit model of thinking that I grew up with.  We have had many laughs on the playground about epic fails and what we learned.  I can provide lots of these stories.  For the Winter Show N’ Share, I pre-recorded everything so the hard work of students and the amazing production led by our amazing music teacher, Ms. Presley, and the slick presentation by Mr. Carruthers would be the central focus for our school community.  It was perfect enough!  For the January online assembly, I have a plan.

Published by Carrie Froese

Curiosity guarantees a life of learning😀Questioning, writing, listening, taking risks as a principal, as a student, as a mother, as a wife, as a friend to keep on learning.

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