Perfectionism in Education

Perfectionism is a term spoken about much, but little time has been spent reflecting on where it comes from and the consequences of having a perfectionist mindset. On the surface, perfectionism sounds ideal in the sense of wanting to do your best all the time. And for some parts of a student’s educational journey, that may be feasible within the time constraints they have and lead to great results. However, particularly as students progress this approach becomes demanding and burdensome. I want to briefly consider how education can cultivate this mindset, how we can try to create different mindsets, and why its so important to do so.

In the first few years of education, it is possible for students to attain full marks with reasonable effort. Absolutely we should encourage students to do their best, the problem is when their conception of ‘best’ is unreasonable. Like any target, they should be SMART, specifically in ensuring they are achievable in the timescale available. Individuals may receive much praise when they achieve a very high score, while others who don’t perform as well receive far less praise. We should reward results to an extent, just like in the business world outcomes are hugely important. And we should absolutely encourage students to do their best, importantly though it should be their best rather than comparing themselves to somebody else’s. While healthy competition can be productive, obsessive comparisons are deeply harmful. I’ll dive into more why this is the case.

As students progress through their educational journey, what their feasible best is will likely be less in percentage terms than what it was before – in university a first-class essay gets 70%, where an A* at A Level may be 80%. Getting full marks becomes unheard of, and that can be demoralising to individuals who always received praise for achieving the highest score possible. The consequences are that students may suffer a lack of self-confidence, and they may become paralysed by the fact they can never achieve what they felt they could before. Perfectionism is no longer productive, as some students can’t get started in the first place for fear of making mistakes. This fear of mistakes is detrimental, particularly in business where innovation and taking risks is exactly how we make progress. When students become comfortable with making mistakes as part of the learning process, that is when they can achieve their best and be comfortable in themselves about it.

So what students experience in their educational journey is hugely impactful to the mindset they have about the tasks they face. What can we do about this challenge? Well we need to ensure to reward effort, as well as achievement – students doing their best need to be recognised, and the process needs to become as important as the outcome. Students need to feel comfortable taking risks and putting themselves out there, so they can learn and continue to grow. Having a growth mindset needs to be the mindset we encourage in education. We as tutors or educators must cultivate that to equip our students for success. Half of education to me is about how we learn, rather than what we are learning specifically. Knowledge can be taught and skills can be developed, but behaviour is what is most important – behaviour and mindset is the lens through which we see our knowledge and skills. Get mindset right, and everything else should follow.

While my reflections have been brief, I hope they have encouraged you to reflect on how to tackle perfectionism, and how perfectionism is inherently linked to mindset. What educators say and do is so important for how students respond, so we should create a system that rewards risk and growth as we expect in the wider world. Your best does not mean perfection, and how we disentangle that is a crucial part of laying the groundwork for effective learning.

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