Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Embracing "good enough"

As a recovering perfectionist, one of the things I struggle with is leaving things "good enough". In some areas of my life---my research, especially---I've come a really long way. For instance, I am getting pretty good about sending out results in a more timely manner, rather than holding on to them until they are "perfect". Sure, this means that the reviews the first time I send something out are not all sweetness and light, but sending out my work earlier = more feedback earlier = better work as a result. So this is one place where "good enough" is actually much more effective than "perfect".

I'm having a much harder time doing "good enough" in my teaching, though, and I think this might be one of the big things that's standing in my way.

I'm a detail person. That's why I got into this field---all those little technical details are so darned fascinating! Unfortunately, sometimes I get so hung up in the details part that I forget that there's a big picture lurking in there. I tend to focus on the details so much that those details become the focus, rather than the big picture being the focus. And that gets me into trouble---because the students need the big picture (and can probably handle figuring out those fascinating details on their own, for the most part).

Today was a perfect example of this sort of behavior. The original plan: class prep in the morning, freeing up at least part of the afternoon for research. In one class, I'm teaching a topic I've taught several times before, but haven't been really happy with the example I used. So part of this morning's class prep task was to find/develop a better example, and then outline the class based on and around that example. Perfect situation for "good enough", right? Yet I got completely mired in the details. Rather than picking a "good enough" example and running with it, I got stuck trying to find the "perfect" example for this topic. You know, the one that is easy enough to use in a class period yet cutting-edge and current, pedagogically perfect....etc. I completely got lost in the details---the actual example---to the point of forgetting, well, the point: the core concept that I want my students to LEARN. I spent way too much time on this task, which meant that instead of relaxing at home tonight, I'm sitting here writing up my class outline instead. Bleh.

My most successful classes have been the ones where I've let go of the need for perfection, let some of the details slide, and focused on a couple of key concepts. I did this pretty consistently in my intro class last year, from start to finish, with great success. And you know what? The students *learn more*. Much more. And are happier. Which makes me happier, and more relaxed as a teacher, and thus more effective as a teacher.

I'm making a concerted effort to teach less perfectly this year, although as today's example shows, I have a long way to go on this. I do wonder, though, why a lesson I've embraced in other areas of my life is so hard to embrace in my "teaching life".

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What Now? said...

Oh, I so relate. I can't tell you how many nights I've stayed up ridiculously late, trying to create "the perfect handout" or find "the perfect example." And often, I got so wound up about this pursuit that I would wander far away from the actual topic or purpose of the day's class. In other words, the pursuit of the perfect handout would become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. I still haven't conquered this problem, although I have gotten better at reminding myself that my less-prepared classes often go better, I think because I'm less constricted and more responsive.

Dr. Delaney Kirk said...

How about presenting the concept and then giving the students an application assignment to come up with examples?

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