Over my long career, I have often come across students who are described as perfectionists. These students have ranged in age from five to fifteen but all share the same characteristic: they will only present work when it is perfect. Is “perfectionist” an accurate description of these students, or is there something else at the root of their behaviour? And should we be supporting this desire for perfection or are we in fact doing a disservice to these students by not encouraging them to take risks?
When we think of risk-taking, we often think of people who engage in extreme sports such as sky diving, free climbing or bungee jumping. But the definition of risk-taking is to take action which involves risk in order to achieve a goal. If we apply this to learning, any time a student puts out an answer for which they are unsure, they are taking a risk. But they are also taking a step towards their goal of learning and achievement. So how do we help “perfectionist” students view risk-taking in a positive light rather than something to be feared?
As teachers, we are perfectly placed to identify students with this risk avoiding behaviour, and gently guide them to consider a new path to learning.
- Create a safe learning environment. Students should trust their teacher to listen and explore new ideas and to value their input regardless of the perceived correct answer. Mutual trust and respect is vital.
- Design situations where there is no right answer, only open-ended discussion. Build these into each session so that over time the student begins to take those more risky steps, putting their ideas out there.
- Lead by example. Students should know that teachers are not always right but are fine with taking a chance on an idea and having it proved wrong. Put your idea out there and encourage your student to disagree with you!
Risk-taking is a core life skill. It is integral to an innovative and forward thinking society. We need to encourage learners to move from their safe path in which they avoid all risk, and help them recognise it as an opportunity for development.