Why we value the process over perfection

/ Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad

Learning through play

Learning through iterative play and failure, not task-based perfection.

I recall a childhood memory, very vividly. Growing up in the south, I remember the oh so familiar sounds of the singing cicadas in the summer. But one day, I had the opportunity to watch the fascinating phenomenon of a cicada transforming into an adult by shedding its skin.

It was truly exciting, to observe the transformation as it unfolded over the course of about an hour. I had always seen their exoskeletons clinging to the bark of the tree, but never the actual process of metamorphosis. The experience was so intriguing to me in part because it was brand new to me, but at the same time ordinary. I had never stopped to notice the natural phenomenon even though it happens all the time, all around me.

The culmination of the “a-ha moment,” with my natural curiosity and awe was one of the most notable learning experiences of my life. And it happened through the process of “play.”


Play happens in the natural world all the time. Just watch a spider spin a web or a butterfly choose its flower. Creatures explore, solve problems, develop solutions, and take risks. This activity isn’t for fun; they undertake these activities to build skills needed to survive. Play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals wouldn’t exist.


Which is why I believe play is the foundation for the growth of students. It’s so important that we ensure the classroom supports true student engagement, empowerment, and enables them to take ownership of their learning instead of being passive consumers. If we are going to help all learners grow, we have to shift our expectations from mere competence to enthusiastic creativity, and our objectives from task-based perfection to intrinsically enjoying the process of discovery and play.

In her book One Hundred Names for Love, author and naturalist Diane Ackerman explains that, schools place an overwhelming emphasis on teaching children to solve problems correctly, not creatively. This skewed system dominates our first twenty years of life: tests, grades, college admissions, degrees, and job placements demand and reward targeted logical thinking, factual competence, and language and math skills—all left brain functions.


Carol Dweck, Ph.D., is the discoverer and leading expert in “mindset,” and she differentiates between “fixed mindset” and its opposite, “growth mindset.  According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”

A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on problems and challenges and promotes failure as a positive springboard for growth, change, and building our intellectual and creative capacity.  With a growth mindset, learners don’t necessarily think that there’s no such thing as talents, gifts, or passions, but they do believe that everyone can develop their abilities and strengthen their strengths through hard work, grit, strategies, and support from teachers.

Students who have a growth mindset enjoy the process of learning. They value the process over perfection.

An emphasis on scores and grades reinforces a construct in which students only work or learn to achieve an arbitrary benchmark. Applying a growth mindset instead enables us to create opportunities for students to engage in meaningful learning experiences that build new knowledge and skills; a stark contrast to activities that are measured by pass or fail, right or wrong. Immersed in a culture that encourages effort and growth, students view challenges and risks as exciting opportunities to persevere and to be proud of the impact of their own making.

Students today are enthusiastic about and believe in their abilities to make an impact on their community and to take action to make the world a better place. In a constantly changing world, educators have an obligation to prepare them for jobs and roles that haven’t even been thought of yet.

We can help students grow in their learning so they can make future contributions by providing a place for them to play, explore, to be heard, solve problems, and create things they love. By embracing play at all stages of education, we create a safe setting for students to experiment with ideas, challenge themselves, and develop the flexibility of mind needed to adapt and thrive in whatever life brings their way.

Lifelong learners who relish in challenges, thrive on failure and the process of learning, and are committed to growing through discovery and play, will find that they are accomplishing their goals and having fun while doing so.

How do you incorporate play and encourage growth mindset in your classroom? Comment below or let us know on twitter @wevideo

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