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Perfectionism Behind, Improvementism Ahead

By Dave Stuart Jr.

In the New Year, new semester, new school year, the impulse to believe that things can be perfect is real but invisible. Of course I don’t think I can be perfect, the savvy person says. That would be naive.

But our reaction to the inevitable setbacks — the abandoned resolutions, the failed lessons, the kids we can’t seem to reach — shows whether or not we actually believed that perfection was possible, that going from where things were to where we wanted them to be was just going to be a straight, upward-sloping line.

Every day I see the impact of perfectionism on my small town students; it’s an impact that seems to transcend socioeconomic barriers. When they perform poorly on a quiz, when they construct awkward sentences, when they stammer in a class discussion, when they struggle to read a primary source, I can see the defeat in their eyes and hear the dejection in their voices.

There are a lot of solutions here — proper scaffolding, appropriate challenging, better teaching — but the foundational one is in relentlessly creating a classroom culture where perfectionism is weird, illogical, and harmful while improvementism is the norm.

The perfectionist sets an arbitrary standard and relies on it to tell him whether or not he is good enough. If he meets the standard, he lives to fight another day; if he doesn’t, he is crushed. Criticism is not the perfectionist’s friend — it is an existential threat. To protect herself, the perfectionist will “not care” about things at which she is likely to fail.

Meanwhile, the improvementist has two standards: first, one of doing better at a task this time than the last time; second, one of achieving the best possible result. An improvementist in my ninth grade AP World History class will aim both at securing the Synthesis point she keeps missing on Longer Essay Questions, as well as “striving for 5” on the AP exam in May. The second standard keeps us humble, keeps us rooted in what is possible, makes excellence our objective. But the first standard, we realize, is the only way to actually get there. You don’t teleport to the top of Mount Everest, no matter how badly you want to or how much you believe in yourself.

In other words, the improvementist has both the ultimate, highest end in mind as well as the practical, personal next step. He wants to be a healthy person in 2017, and that would ultimately mean losing twenty pounds, exercising three times per week, and eating real food. He keeps that in mind, all the while aiming to walk for five minutes today; tomorrow, to walk for six. Keeping this in mind, he brings the four mindsets to bear on his challenge and is therefore more likely to see it through to success.

If we want this for our students, it starts with the determination to make improvementism central to the culture of our classroom, to the world we make wherever and whenever we teach. Perhaps it starts with you being an improvementist yourself, especially in that one area of your life. You know, that one.

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2 Responses to Perfectionism Behind, Improvementism Ahead

  1. Joy Kirr December 31, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    Dave, did you happen to see the #DitchSummit speakers? Your blog post reminds me of this… except this one is for teachers, too! You might want to hurry and watch this one – I hear they are “gone” 12/31! https://youtu.be/t63aaQnExSM

    • davestuartjr January 1, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

      Oh no, I missed it, Joy! I hadn’t seen them or even heard of the summit. Shoot — but thank you for the heads up!

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