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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, Student Voices

Caution: Work in Progress

Perfection. It’s the unattainable. It’s what counselors tell children to shy away from.Image “Nobody’s perfect,” they say, “And who cares (about perfection)?” The answer is, apparently our society. In a world where children face a deluge of information from a variety of sources,  the quest to be perfect is omnipresent and never ending. Parents and teachers alike blame image skews on the media. But no one has stopped to examine the institution where children spend the majority of their waking hours: school.

Our venerable school halls are hotbeds of this pressure to be perfect. Adorning school walls are the best art pieces, the A papers, and photographs of the “most involved,” “highest academic achieving,” “sportiest,” and the est-iest students. They earn a place on the wall as a reward for striving to be perfect.  Yet the same people who unconsciously uphold this desire for perfection, are the ones publicly trashing the very same idea. How ironic?

Wouldn’t it be cool if students could be applauded for failing then getting back up and improving? What if the art showcase contained before and afters, highlighting the most improved? Even that’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Along the highways, I’ve often seen warning signs declaring, Caution: Work in Progress. What if schools adopted this mindset? We are works in progress, incomplete, imperfect and amazing. Even if one somehow reaches the status of perfect and achieves the honor of appearing on the hallowed school halls, the journey is still not over. Learning doesn’t stop, and people don’t stop learning (even subconsciously), once they’ve hit this “perfect” bar.

Perfection then is really fickle. Being perfect is truly unattainable, because once a certain level of perfection is reached there’s always more that can be done. So why don’t we keep striving for greatness and realize that perfect is a label we don’t need?

Teachers, parents and all members of the adult persuasion should be awakened to realize that they said it best. “Nobody’s Perfect.” And perfection is irrelevant. We don’t need perfection to be happy and successful. Education should help students be able to stand tall and proudly announce that they are imperfect, constantly learning and above all, a work in progress.

But what if someone were to say, “Sure, Nobody’s Perfect. Does that mean I shouldn’t try?” As a student chock full of raging emotions, this question really speaks to me. Sometimes, it feel like the nicest and simplest thing to do would be to quit. I mean, if you can’t have it why try, right? However, every time my mind drops to this plane, I think back to what my tennis coach once told me. Even if you’re down 1 set and down 0-5 in the second, don’t give up. If you grit your teeth and stick with it, you’ve already won a huge battle. By saying to yourself, I CAN do this, much has already been accomplished. Embodying this can-do attitude, Nike stole the hearts and minds of the world with its tried and true saying, “Just Do it!” And why not? Even if the results and actions seem futile, who knows? Maybe all the effort will pay off and you’ll reach a higher level of greatness. Not perfection, but greater greatness. Don’t let the fact that the mountain has no peak stop you, just keep climbing. And maybe someday, you’ll look down and see how far you’ve come.

Life’s a journey, we’re always improving. So why shouldn’t our schools mimic this? Shouldn’t our schools help us see that perfect is overrated? That hard work and dedication are where it’s at?

When will you start your climb on the journey of a lifetime? It only takes one step to start an adventure. And what are we waiting for? Let’s go get the schools on board. On your mark, get set, GO.


About: As the result of a good and expository education thus far, Tara is passionate about making school a place where all students love learning. She’s a student who loves all things foreign and almost never stops talking. She tweets at @tara_supersub, and blogs at


13 thoughts on “Caution: Work in Progress

  1. Progress is an even better goal. As is mentioned in the piece, almost any effort can get better AND improving should always get acknowledgement.

    I’m reminded of the tale of an engineer and a mathematician / scientist at one end of a long hallway. At the other end was their favorite beverages. The instructions were to go half the distance to the beverage every two minutes. The mathematician / scientist turned around and left immediately – knowing she / he would never get to the beverage; the engineer followed the instructions – knowing she / he would eventually get close enough to grab it!

    Posted by John Bennett | April 5, 2012, 12:34 pm
  2. Tara,

    I appreciate your thought-provoking piece about a “work in progress,” and you know that I agree with you about the pursuit of growth and progress, not perfection. Endurance and persistence beat perfection all the time. May we all strive for kaizen, not the illusion of perfection. Thank you so much for sharing your thinking! Brava!

    The only place I get stuck in the writing is about the art work hanging in the hallways. I disagree that the criteria for having artwork in the halls is “the best” work. Being someone who helps select those pieces in the JH, I know that we look for so much more than “the best.” There is a story behind every piece and every artist, and the criteria for selection are diverse and in alignment with your sentiments about wanting to honor works in progress. In fact, the 400 pieces in the JH are tributes to process as much as they are tributes to the products that are hanging or displayed. Much like this blog post, the product can be an outward sign of the process which lies at the heart of the visible. I like thinking of products as slices-of-time processes. They are iterations of the process of learning and thinking and designing and sharing. Maybe the art pieces are like those highway signs that read “Work in progress.” The work that is in progress is not the art itself, but the person who created the piece – they are the work in progress, and the art is just a slice of time showing a dollop of where they are in the journey.

    It is your writing and thinking that helped me reach the above idea. I didn’t know that I thought that about the artwork on the walls, until I saw what I wrote here. You spurred this thinking in me. Your displayed art (this post) gave integrity to your process and progress, and you helped me evolve – as evidenced by this product (my comment), which demonstrates my process and progress as a learner. Thanks for teaching me today!

    Posted by boadams1 | April 5, 2012, 8:13 pm
    • That’s true Mr. Adams- in our JH at least, pieces are not chosen for their perfectness but for other reasons as well. I do believe that at our school, pieces are on the walls because maybe the artist had a back story or it’s there in honor of the artist’s improvement. And because many artists are chosen again, one can see for themselves the improvement. I made that comment in reference to a general, stereotypical school, where art is often hung as a showcase to talent and to reflect positively on the school. My original comment was directed at a school where art is not a permanent fixture (with regular additions) on walls, but to a school where that one piece of art is one among few, if any. I do often recognize and sincerely appreciate that at our school, we are showcasing the works in progress and not only the more polished end results.

      Thanks a lot for your feedback and your questions that always make me think further.

      Posted by Tara S | April 6, 2012, 10:30 pm
  3. It helps to talk to students about their work in terms of real-life “Quality Levels” (QLs).

    QL1: Writing just for you. We write shopping lists, notes to self. Handwriting, shorthand, whatever is fine.
    QL2: Work in progress. This is where writer’s workshop and reader’s workshop fit. Perfection is not expected. Consistent progress is expected. You need to be able to communicate what you are working on as a learner.
    QL3: This is the content you publish. Whether for a blog, a business meeting, or an art show, this work needs to be as close to perfect as you can possibly make it.

    If I never expect students to strive for perfection on a piece, I allow them to not learn some important editing/revising/presentation skills that are necessary in adulthood.

    If I expect every piece to be QL3, I’ll quickly burn out students (and miss some other important teaching points).

    Janet |

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | April 5, 2012, 11:16 pm
    • You raise a good point. However, I think it’s not perfectness we strive for really, but greatness. What’s the difference? Being great at something is longer lasting because it’s a self-accomplishment, not one to be measured against others. When we become the best, not that this is a bad title, but it can become one that is easily lost, as standards change and other people continue to improve as well. Perfection is a fickle standard. Aim high, yes by all means aim high. But don’t aim to be perfect, because then you may find that the truth is, perfection isn’t the ideal standard. I understand what you said that if you don’t have the students strive for perfection, they’ll never learn important life skills. Even if they’ve polished a work so that it’s considered perfect, I’ll bet there’s always room for improvement. And that’s why the label perfect is in my mind inaccurate. You help your students to make it the best they can make it under the current circumstances, whatever they may be– and they vary from project to project–. That’s the goal you’re achieving, and there’s nothing at all wrong with it.

      This said, I think what you’re doing with your multiple quality levels is fantastic. I think it’s a really neat idea, one that ties in with the idea of leveled concept assessments.


      Posted by Tara S | April 6, 2012, 10:28 pm
  4. Tara, what do you think about the place of play in learning and/or in schools, and how would you involve kids – or transfer over to them – ownership of the evaluation and purposes of their work?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 6, 2012, 7:27 am
    • I think play is important, just in general, in the lives of children. In learning, I believe this means allowing students more creative, free-choice opportunities. Children have play set as their sort of default. I think if more teachers just let them tackle problems without constant guidance or supervision, it would become more like play. But I don’t know if this is true, it’s just my hypothesis.

      Transferring over the responsibility of evaluating their own work to students is happening as we speak. Some teachers (for example, Mr. B at my school) have self-check quizzes, where the key is at the back of the room and you can check it as soon as you finish. Peer-editing is in my mind another example of students taking charge of their work.

      Sometimes, for students to take charge of the purpose of a course, they have to become invested in it… A state that can be reached when they are allowed to play a little with the concepts. Other times, I think if the opportunity was presented to us students, we might surprise everyone and make the best of it. People often generalize and assume that many kids don’t like school. I find that within each student there is one class in which they want to succeed, the (at least) one class they love. And if you find that student in his or her element, they shine. Because when they enjoy the class, it feels like play.

      ~ Tara

      Posted by Tara S | April 6, 2012, 9:10 am
  5. “We are works in progress, incomplete, imperfect and amazing.” If someone told me this a year and a half ago I would have made significantly less mistakes socially and educationally. I would have accepted myself for my flaws instead of forfeiting my happiness in order to perfect my image to others. So much energy and time was spent striving for perfection only to come to the conclusion. The image you portray and the way people see you doesn’t matter as long as you accept yourself.

    Posted by Kalila Bohsali | April 10, 2012, 3:49 pm


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