Sunday, January 15, 2017

Embracing imperfection

We learn by enlightened trial and error. In fact failure is essential for learning. We try something, it fails and so we try another strategy and this process is repeated until we feel we have acquired the desired skill. The assistance of someone else who has already mastered that skill can help us but we still need to make our own mistakes.

An article by Maha Bali in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy of Imperfection, argues that we should embrace imperfection in education and stop demanding perfection either in ourselves or in others. An imperfect lesson is not the result of not being prepared, it's because no matter how carefully you prepare, your students will react differently according to mood, time of day, external factors. You may have prepared meticulously but when you meet the class something distracts or disturbs you. Many teachers set themselves unrealistic targets because they adopt the traditional role of the infallible teacher. If you can't answer all the students' questions you haven't prepared well enough. Good teachers are not necessarily the best prepared but those with the ability to improvise and react to the mood of the students and are willing to allow the students room to find answers. If the teacher immediately answers a question then the students are denied valuable information retrieval skill development. They need to learn how to find reliable information rather than learning to become dependent on the knowledge of others.

Students need to feel that they are not expected to succeed first time. Learning is an iterative and collaborative process and both students and teachers should be able to admit their uncertainties and shortcomings.

Seeing other people make mistakes, laugh it off, and keep going helps to open doors for others to join in the experimentation. If there is no expectation of perfection, this gives a sense of permission to participate. A pedagogy of imperfection entails teachers and mentors sharing, expressing their own imperfection openly, in order to facilitate it for others.

The author advocates greater risk taking in teaching, especially when using technology. So often teachers get stressed when a tool or device does not work as expected. I often hear colleagues complain about a tool that didn't work perfectly first time and is then dismissed as useless. Expecting perfection can prevent us from ever experimenting and that means we never learn anything new. If something doesn't work, see if the students can help you or simply move on to plan B and try again another time (once you've investigated why plan A didn't work). Students also need to be encouraged to experiment with technology and not expect to succeed first time.

The need to be ‘right’ means they are overly conservative in what they do. Giving them explicit permission to play and explore helps to open up what they can do.

A positive learning environment is one where teachers and students alike are able to admit their limitations and focus on sharing their skills and knowledge. Aspiring to perfection is admirable but so is realising that you may never attain that level.


  1. That is a nice idea that makes a lot of sense Alastair!
    It fits nicely with the 'LIFT' strategy , by Gianfranco Conti, where students annotate their work to show what they are unsure of. Great way to know what they want feedback on and to start conversations about the value of uncertainty.

  2. Thanks for the comment and the link Sinead!