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It’s better for something to be finished than to be perfect

Blueprint With Specs by winnond - FreeDigitalPhotos
Blueprint With Specs by winnond - FreeDigitalPhotos

Image: winnond / www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I first read this title, suggested to our ‘Blogging Buddies’ group, I laughed inwardly – and wryly – as I considered the perpetual challenge for anyone working in a classroom to finish anything to their satisfaction, let alone it be perfect.

 

A WOMAN’S WORK AND A TEACHER’S JOB

A very recent article in the TES laments the high numbers of new entrants to the teaching profession leaving after just a few short years – not completing their career in teaching because of the massive pressures and disappointments they experience. Clearly not finished and far from the perfect job their idealistic young minds envisaged.

The old adage, ‘A woman’s work is never done’ can just as easily be applied to the teaching profession: but how and when does one consider a job done? Finished? Completed? The above TES article continues with the observation:

…teaching is a long story, one that starts even before candidates turn up to their teacher preparation courses and continues long after they graduate.

Comparing the teacher’s role today to the one I entered nearly twenty years ago is mind-boggling: barely a couple of decades ago, even with the recent introduction of the National Curriculum, I had a huge say in how and what I delivered in my classroom. Now, it appears, teachers have considerably less autonomy, in spite of the government’s assurances that they are cutting back on red tape and bureaucracy. I suspect that, as long as Ofsted exists in its present form, whatever platitudes the government make to the teaching profession will have little impact: Ofsted has changed the education landscape so dramatically that we are all on an endless treadmill of churning out evidence  to prove that we have accomplished something with the children we teach. However, as the aforementioned TES article pithily adds,

…an ever-growing tail of underachievers around the world tells us that what we have always done isn’t good enough.

 

PRODUCT -v- PROCESS

Just what are we educating our children for?

And are we looking for a finished product or pieces of  a jigsaw puzzle which may never actually be completed but whose picture becomes clearer with each stage of learning a learner completes – bearing in mind that learning is a life-long journey that never ends?

I recall a statement made by a mentor teacher when I was in the early stages of training:

The process is more important than the product.

The teacher was referring to lessons that did not necessarily have to result in a finished product but the content of which contributed to children’s skills. I have reflected on this often over my career and have come to the conclusion that, yes, the process is vitally important in achieving educational objectives but that a product is also essential in order to motivate learning.

Not long ago, whilst working with a Year 5 class, we made board games. The objectives were many but the end objective, as far as the children were concerned, was to complete the board game. Whether or not I made it clear to the children, they were also achieving other, less obvious objectives, such as problem-solving skills, design skills, evaluation skills, collaboration skills, communication skills and presentation skills. The process was elaborate: the children had to come up with ideas, draft their designs and produce a finished product – including instructions. They also played and evaluated their own and each other’s games.

Were they perfect? Probably not, although in the minds of the children, many aimed for and achieved their best.

Were they finished? Absolutely. And the children’s pride on completion was obvious.

Both product and process were equally important – the expectation of a product outcome driving the process and the process achieving and enabling the product.

 

PERFECTION IS FINISHING

Before I close, perhaps we should define ‘finished’ and ‘perfect’.

Very rarely is any finished product ‘perfect’ but how often do we admire something such as a work of art, a meal or a display and pronounce it ‘perfect’? Perfection, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder and is often attained through finishing to a degree of satisfaction that pleases. Pleasure is more often in finishing than in perfection. But even ‘finished’ can be subjective: to some, a work is never finished; to others, it is finished when it has achieved the satisfaction of completion.

So, does this offer comfort to the distracted teacher who is on the verge of leaving the profession having barely started?

One of the lessons I learnt as a newby teacher was to ‘cut corners without compromising’. That sounds like a dichotomy but I had to consider what my objectives were: it was not perfection in the product but completion of learning: the satisfaction of new knowledge or skills acquired. In this case, it was clearly better for the children to have finished a task and to have experienced new learning than to have attained perfection that was defined by me. It is, after all, the children who are to finish – not me.

And, if it helps us all to plan more efficiently, remember the following words, attributed to George S Patton:

Better a good plan today than a perfect plan tomorrow.

 

 

I’m dreaming of a Christmas

Single Tree in Snow by Petr Kratochvil

Single Tree in Snow by Petr Kratochvil

 

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas – just like the ones I used to know…

According to the Guinness Book of  World Records, Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ is the best-selling single of all time, with sales exceeding 50 million. The song, albeit short and relatively simple in its lyricism, resonates with what many of us think of at Christmas: re-creating our best memories of the season.

Mine include waking early with my younger brothers and sisters to find a stocking at the end of each of our beds, emptying them all over the floor with squeals of surprise and delight, eating the chocolate before sunrise and playing or experimenting with the various nick-nacks that comprised their contents. Eventually, we would wake Mum and Dad up to surprise them with theirs – we all clubbed together to fill a stocking for them, too. The day continued with a Christmas Day service at the chapel followed by a late Christmas dinner at around 3pm and even more presents well into the late afternoon. The lounge floor was, by then, covered with wrapping paper and each person had gathered a pile of toys, games and books in their lap or on the floor round their feet.

But Christmas was never white. My first white Christmas was at around the age of 40.

Now, with children of my own, who are equally excited about the festival as I was at their age, it has not lost its sparkle but I often reminisce about Christmas as a child and, when Bing Crosby’s dulcet tones floating out of the speakers, I wonder what kind of Christmas we are actually dreaming of and why.

Why do we have such high expectations of Christmas? Is it because the rest of the year is so disappointing? Is it because Christmas has been hyped up to deliver – when, in fact, it rarely does and, if we were honest, it can’t?

And are those expectations realistic? Is it realistic to expect a ‘high’ at Christmas that absorbs or masks the drudgery, pain or trials of what we consider to be real life?

If we’re not careful, Christmas can be a massive disappointment that comes at a high cost:

  • According to Money Advice Service’s 2013 Christmas spending survey, one in three UK adults say they expect to start 2014 in debt because of Christmas spending and one in ten are still paying for last Christmas (2012).
  • According to eBay, there are around 100,000 unwanted Christmas presents sold on its site each year, the total value this year expecting to be in excess of £2 billion.
  • January 8th is the busiest day of the year for divorce lawyers when up to one in five couples will enquire about divorce after the pressures of Christmas. The enforced intimacy of Christmas, coupled with the start of a new year is thought to be the main trigger.

 

Like many things in life, if we come with an expectation to receive, we are often disappointed. However, if we come with an expectation to give, we will often find that what we receive in turn is surprising, unexpected and memorable.

As I write, it is New Year’s Eve, 31st December 2013. The highlights of my particular Christmas have been those times of sharing, helping and giving: sharing food, chocolates, jokes, a good film, conversation; helping with preparations and clearing up, helping my kids put up decorations, helping my wife wrap gifts – and giving: gifts, time, smiles and encouragement.

How about NOT dreaming of an idyllic Christmas but, instead, making Christmastime real – for ourselves and for those we share it with.

Happy Christmas 2014…