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How to Combat the Pressure for Student Perfection

By Loren Baron

Loren Baron is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme coordinator at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, N.C. He's served as president of IB Schools of North Carolina for the past three years, while teaching IB workshops and consulting for IB programs from Shanghai, China, to Wilmington, N.C. Loren will be writing about the trade-offs of running an open-access diploma program, why it's a mistake to bail out struggling students, and how parents and teachers can unintentionally enable students' damaging chase for perfection.

I recently asked a student who was finishing our IB Diploma Programme (DP) what's the most important thing she learned during her time in the DP. Her response was learning that she did not have to be perfect. This is a student who almost dropped the Diploma Programme after her junior year due to her near failing grades and the stifling anxiety she felt constantly. She was clearly capable of doing well in the programme, and intellectually it was an excellent fit for her. But she could not hand in her work. She would finish and not print. She would revise but could not let it go. The student knew this was debilitating but could not overcome it. She is not alone. Anxiety in high schools is an epidemic, and the need for perfection is right there to feed it. 

It is not easy to combat practices that result from pressures inside and outside of school, including social-media addictions that barrage students with images of the perfect life, parents who worry about their students' success and push them to be the best, educators who benefit from students' test scores and other accomplishments, and businesses that capitalize on perceived student weaknesses. There are, however, ways we can restructure academic practices to reframe perspectives on perfection and student success and ways educators can change their own mindsets in order to help students change their attitudes toward perfection. 

Anybody who has taught in the classroom knows the drill. A teacher returns a test to the students, and the first thing they look at is the grade. Next, they look at what they got wrong. What the students never look at and are rarely encouraged to discuss is what they got right. The emphasis is on the mistakes and how to prevent repeating them. In my role as a workshop leader and a teacher observer, I rarely see or hear of teachers talking with students about what they got right, about what they learned. There is little discussion about students' development, only about their deficits. 

I would encourage us to consider another approach, one I learned years ago as a new teacher in the IB Diploma Programme and one that has shaped the way I address assessment. When the teacher grades a piece of student work, they start at the bottom of the rubric or mark scheme and work their way up. They evaluate the student's work against the most basic indicator. If the work meets the criteria, they move up to the next. They continue this process until they identify the markband or indicator that best describes the quality of the work. The process is simple, but the difference in mindset is profound. The emphasis is no longer on what students do not know but what they know. This process emphasizes opportunities for growth and not simply the "gaps" in students' understanding. 

The process of walking up the assessment criteria instead of down also encourages a different framework for articulating the goals of assessments, along with a more valuable type of assessment. The test now demands more than simply right or wrong answers, such as multiple choice, fill in the blank, matching, etc. It requires students to identify, define, analyze, explain, and evaluate. It requires students to demonstrate their mastery of content in a way that conveys skills and not simply memorization. These types of answers allow for variations in their presentation of correct responses, some more nuanced, detailed, or analytical than others. Now the teacher can assess differentiation of skills at all levels and remove the ceiling for how strong a student response can be. Such assessments allow students to reach the upper mark bands of the rubric without suggesting or expecting perfection.

Imperfection is not a weakness but a reality. We should accept that, articulate it to students, and take advantage of that in the classroom. Mistakes are opportunities. They give students the chance to reflect on their work. Reflection provides students with opportunities to see themselves as learners, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. What we learn in high school is primarily intended as college prep rather than career prep, and colleges want students who can think critically, reflect on their work, and adapt to new challenges. If we promote an environment in the classroom where scoring perfectly is an attainable, encouraged, or common occurrence, we are setting our students up for failing to meet an ideal that they cannot meet, or placing a low ceiling on what we can expect of them.

There will be a time when our students will need to be exacting in what they do, such as when they are performing neurosurgery or operating complex missile-defense systems in real time. But in most cases, and possibly even in these, the expectation of perfection is unrealistic, unnecessary, and problematic. Students need the classroom to be a place where they can take risks and make mistakes. Parents and educators know that we have made plenty of mistakes, we've learned from them, and we are better for it. We need to model a classroom that allows students to do the same.

Loren Baron

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