Pedagogy of Imperfection

Imperfectly shaped strawberry
[This post is co-authored with Autumm Caines and Rebecca J. Hogue. Together we are the co-directors of Virtually Connecting.]

They say perfect is the enemy of done, but there may be more value to imperfection in pedagogy than just getting things done. Learning is an imperfect process and the situation is few and far between where we see someone getting it perfect the first time. Many times perfection is a self-defined construct that we ourselves cannot even precisely articulate, though we know it when we reach it. Often, several rounds of mistakes have to happen in private before a polished finished product can be presented to the world.

The problem with this is that we are often presented with polished projects and we start to associate imperfection with unpreparedness. It is not that polished projects don’t have their place but how are we supposed to prepare students to be lifelong learners if we don’t teach them how to embrace imperfection?

In truth, perfect pedagogies are an illusion. We will continually be improving on any new teaching practice every time we teach. Highly produced, and edited, educational material lacks a sense of humanness. There is an authenticity or humanness that comes out with imperfection.

Seeing other people make mistakes, laugh it off, and keep going helps to open doors for others to join in the experimentation. If there is no expectation of perfection, this gives a sense of permission to participate. A pedagogy of imperfection entails teachers and mentors sharing, expressing their own imperfection openly, in order to facilitate it for others.

Keeping our pedagogy open

If we’re planning how we will be teaching a course or a particular class/lesson, trying to perfect it is problematic because it allows less space for us to respond to our students in the moment. We have heard Jesse Stommel say that it’s better to be underprepared than to be overprepared. Embracing imperfection recognizes that we alone do not control our classrooms and that a good class session is not something we can plan perfectly a priori but something we need to create space for, to develop it with our students.

Taking more risks

Taking risks with innovative pedagogical approaches, including trying out new technologies, can be very risky – the technology might fail, or your bright idea may not engage students the way you hoped it would. If you let things like those faze you, there is so much you would never even attempt. For example, if you never invite a guest speaker via video conference for fear the tech will fail, you will deprive yourself and your students of opportunities to learn from guest speakers who couldn’t come in person. When you embrace imperfection and take more risks, you actually eventually learn to mitigate risks and have backup plans (e.g. have alternative technologies available, have a back up lesson planned).

Encouraging imperfection in student work

Sound crazy? How much better for learning is it when students submit an imperfect draft for you to work on improving together, versus working directly on a final draft they try to perfect on their own?

I (Rebecca) like to explicitly give students permission to play with technology. They feel they need to be perfect or to get it right, and that stifles their openness to play and explore new things. The need to be ‘right’ means they are overly conservative in what they do. Giving them explicit permission to play and explore helps to open up what they can do. This is especially true when teaching about new technologies with adult populations. I (Maha) make it a point to tell undergraduate students to iterate their work over several drafts, and to accept that even their final project will be imperfect, such that they submit a final reflection on how they would make it better if they had more time.

Having worked with faculty for over thirteen years to help them integrate technology into their classes, I (Autumm) have come across two extremes. On one end someone who would never try a new technology without fully vetting it first, and on the other those who regularly subject their students to the latest thing without critical review of the impact. Neither of these extremes are helpful and, as with most things, a balance is needed.

We aren’t arguing for imperfection for its own sake, but for accepting and even encouraging and embracing it when it’s valuable.

Because this article is imperfect, we are still thinking of ideas and thoughts to add…so you may hear from us again.

In the meantime, how do you embrace a pedagogy of imperfection? Tell us in the comments

This post was inspired by a conversation in a private meeting with a group of Virtually Connecting buddies: embracing imperfection is part of our manifesto. Thank you Sue Beckingham and Mia Zamora who were part of that session.

Flickr photo “Project 365 #193: 120713 Ugly Fruit?” by comedy_nose shared under a Creative Commons (CC0 Public Domain) license

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