Learning, Not Perfection, Should Be Our Educational Ideal

March 1, 2010

Half a lifetime ago, I lived in Greece, on a small island not far from the coast of Turkey. In the process of furnishing a house on the cheap, I traveled a couple of times a year to coastal Turkish towns and bought old woven kilim rugs.

I became fascinated by the patterns of these rugs, and spent hours studying the rhythms and visual rhymes in their compositions. What I learned about kilims is that the weavers believed that perfection was something beyond mere humans, and that the presumptuous ambition to be perfect would be punished by God, Allah, or the gods.

So I made a game of finding in the rugs the places where some imperfection had been purposely woven in. I've always been in complete agreement with the superstition of those kilim makers. I worry about perfection.

Or rather, with those who strive for it. To quote Joe E. Brown in the memorable last line of the movie Some Like It Hot: "Nobody's perfect." And I am living proof.

The Perfect Plan

Yet I can remember feeling, as a teenager, that perfection was possible in school, that there were certain students who were very nearly perfect, and that I was so far from reaching that lofty standard that further effort might be futile.

This shimmering mirage of perfection was not entirely an illusion. After all, there were lots of numbers and letters that ranked us according to some standard.

I could do the math (barely), so I wasn't entirely wrong in deducing that the math whiz in my class named Ted was a lot closer to perfection than I; it was as clear as the evidence that Bob was the ideal quarterback I'd never become.

And there was a general buzz of attainable perfection that ran through my proud, competitive school in the New Jersey suburbs: Our school was more perfect than those in nearby towns.

It's hard to argue against the setting of lofty goals, and the good old American competitiveness that pushes us to reach for the stars. The stark truth is that some students are more perfect than others, but it's equally true that the rankings vary according to the metric that defines the gold standard.

Hidden Gifts

My classmate Ted was a natural at math, one of the Two Talents measured by the SATs at the time, and on a sure path to Most Favored Student status. I was good at English, but so bad at math, chemistry, and physics that my one talent was pretty much overshadowed by my inadequacies. (I did get into college by dint of a few well-chosen essay metaphors.) But I've managed to make a living with words, while Ted eventually went to Federal prison for stock fraud.

What's important, to alter slightly a famous adage, is not to let a too narrow notion of the perfect become the enemy of the good. Dr. Carol Greider, a medical researcher recently awarded a Nobel in science, might easily have been seen to fall hopelessly short of the educational ideal. This, from an interview in the New York Times:

"One of the things I was thinking about today is that as a kid I had dyslexia," Grieder explained. "I had a lot of trouble in school and was put into remedial classes. I learned to memorize things very well because I just couldn't spell words. So later when I got to take classes like chemistry and anatomy where I had to memorize things, it turned out I was good at that."

Is there a moral there? Well, not all math whizzes go to prison (although cleverly manipulating numbers for ill-got gains can certainly get you in trouble) and not all dyslexic kids end up with Nobel prizes.

Redefining Excellence

But students on the perfection track do not always make perfect citizens after their school years. There's an argument to be made that who we are and what we make of ourselves is as much the sum of our shortcomings as the sum of our talents, as was the case with Dr. Greider.

Those who fail to conform to certain longstanding, easily measurable definitions of the educational ideal can do just fine, though it may take quite a while -- as it did with me -- to get over the reverberations of gloom that one is somehow second rate.

Of course, educational perfection is not the monolith it once was. Howard Gardner's concept of multiple intelligences, insofar as it influences teachers and curricula, has widened the path so that students with a variety of abilities can approach excellence.

And Gardner's work has let teachers use their own strengths to reach out to students who once would have seemed to be lagging behind. Just as important, redefining "gifted" makes it possible for teachers to respect and admire students who might once have been thought of as problem learners.

Truly dedicated teachers, I suggest, despite the metric rigors of No Child Left Behind, build a sophisticated matrix of achievement that recognizes a far richer spectrum of excellence.

To which I can say, way to go! And, where were they when I needed them?

What are your stories about supporting students you've taught who the system might deem underachieving or "imperfect?" Please share your experiences with us!

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