Perfectionism is the enemy of learning.


If one were perfect, there would be nothing to learn. Yet, despite the logical impossibility of unbroken academic perfection, students of all ages try to achieve it. The fear of being wrong is instilled early, and praise for being right is highly appealing. I worked with a kindergartner afraid to read aloud because she might make a mistake. I have also seen older children suffer particularly for their perfectionism. In one case a sixth grade student known for her academic excellence, social acumen, and impeccable behavior would never ask questions in math class despite feeling uncertain about the material. I also have seen a tenth grader slog slowly through low-stakes writing assignments so as to ensure that her rough drafts reflected the very best of her writing ability. All of these children were intelligent and high achieving, and all struggled with some aspect of learning. None of them deliberately chose perfection as a goal; they were just responding rationally to cues from those who evaluate their work; being right is good, being wrong is bad. Unfortunately, deliberate or not, perfectionism has significant downsides. It limits risk taking, creates anxiety about starting assignments, and leads to shame over normal mistakes.

An effective learning environment, therefore, requires the normalization of error making. All adults who interact with children can play a role in this cultural reset. Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, wrote about how to helpfully address children's errors. While his audience is primarily teachers, parents and tutors can learn a lot from his ideas on error and correction. Read an informative short excerpt here.

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