We all have heard the expression, “(t)he perfect is the enemy of the good.” As a longtime educator and current head of school, I think this misses the mark. I prefer, “(t)he perfect is the enemy of the great.”
Education is not about achieving perfection. After all, only angels are perfect. We are flesh and blood, and we must therefore embrace our students’ faults and shortcomings as well as our own. Our goal as educators is to help our students on their varied—and, inevitably, bumpy—roads to greatness. Education is a process of discovery and self-discovery. The process is messy. There are stumbling points; there are mistakes. And there should be… For in error-prone learning, students may achieve their fullest potential.
Much has been written about the need for students to take risks and adopt growth mindsets. Numerous recent studies have shown that students benefit from making mistakes and getting corrective feedback, more than they do by being guided directly to the correct answer with no mistakes. Generating errors—when coupled with corrective feedback—actually enhances remembering the correct response. The struggle toward the solution is where we see the most learning occur.
Despite the benefits of encouraging a “mistake culture” in the classroom, students—particularly adolescents—often are desperate to avoid mistakes. Students find making mistakes embarrassing, especially when they believe their teachers, peers or parents are more “perfect” than they are themselves. These students fear failing in front of others. Imperfection—in their eyes—lessens their sense of self-worth. They hold back, choosing to avoid risk rather than to try and fail to reach. Yet, we should, perhaps, want the converse to occur. We want students to apply themselves, generate errors in the process and embrace the challenges on the road to knowledge.
The Gemara teaches us אין הקדוש ברוך הוא בא בטרוניא עם בריותיו, that “the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not deal unfairly with His creations (Gemara Avodah Zara 3a).” God only gives us challenges that we can handle. Faltering in the face of a challenge, therefore, is not a failure. God knows that we can handle it.
Mistakes have a critical place in a learning environment. When students are anxious about imperfection, however, it affects both their willingness to risk making mistakes, for instance, by trying something challenging—as well as the way they respond when they do falter. As King Saul did, students may deny their errors, try to justify them or blame others. We would rather students follow the examples of Judah and King David. When confronted by the prophet Nathan about his wrongdoings, David admitted his mistakes. Admission of fault was not failure. David kept his dynasty. Saul did not.
In the famous story of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, a Shabbat guest errs. He accidentally knocks over his glass of red wine onto a pristine white tablecloth, leaving a large stain. What is Rabbi Eiger’s response? He discreetly jostles the table, causing his own wine to spill and then comments as to the table’s instability. Rabbi Eiger’s “accident” relieves his guest of the embarrassment of the mistake.
I propose we help our students follow King David’s and Judah’s models for handling mistakes by mimicking Rabbi Eiger. We should introduce our own “mistakes” into the classroom. If adolescents see their educators as fallible, we destigmatize imperfection and, instead, demonstrate that everyone stumbles sometimes. Leave a corner of your shirt untucked. Misspell something on the board. See what happens …
We live in a world that has not been perfected. Jewish rituals take note of this. With a new home, a portion is left unfinished, in commemoration of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Similarly, we break a glass at a wedding. This again reminds us of the destruction, but, perhaps, also that things sometimes break, that life is not perfect?
I once heard the esteemed writer and speaker, Rabbi Hanoch Teller, speak about creating a “shalom bayis” fund in one’s house. This fund serves a specific purpose. When someone breaks something, the fund pays for it. There is no judgment, no shaming and no embarrassment. Rather, there is only recognition that people are imperfect and mistakes happen.
Students are human. A student’s measure of success should not be whether he or she achieves perfection on every test. Success comes from understanding and building on concepts. Success comes from trying, failing and understanding why in an environment free of judgment and embarrassment. Success is learning and instilling joy in the learning process, such that students will not let a fear of failure stand in their way.
Let’s aim for greatness. Let’s create classroom environments that embrace errors. Let’s expose some of our own “mistakes.” Let’s enable students to feel safe to try, to create, to take risks and to fail. Let’s embrace errors and watch the great work that may well follow.
Rabbi Dani Rockoff is the head of school at Westchester Day School.