There is no doubt in Principal Judith Carlisle’s mind that perfectionism is a weakness - not a strength- in her students.
So when a prospective parent proudly told the school leader that his 10-year-old daughter was “an absolute perfectionist”, the seed of an idea began to form.
“The next day, when talking to a colleague, I mentioned the anecdote and laughingly said ‘we need to do a project with the girls – let’s call it ’The Death of Little Miss Perfect.’ She happened to mention the idea to a journalist and two days later I was being interviewed by the BBC about this innovative project,” Carlisle tells EducationHQ.
With the program propelled into the public eye before the school could even begin to nut out the specifics, Carlisle says this initial coverage really put the idea of unhelpful perfectionism out there, opening up conversations and dialogue about the point at which students’ ‘high standards’ actually become dangerous.
Bolstered by growing feedback and public interest, the principal and her staff began to plot what they could do to help their 900 students establish a healthier approach in both their academic and personal lives.
According to Carlisle, looking at ways to maintain a strong sense of perspective is the cornerstone of the now-flourishing program.
“The vision was to empower the students, and the staff, by enabling them to become aware of their own habitual thinking about not being good enough, dispelling fears such as ‘imposter syndrome’” Carlisle says.
“I began to think about the high standards and aspirations of the girls and the ways in which these can become completely unrealistic if they lose a sense of perspective.
Designed with the guidance of experts, including the likes of leading educationalists Dr Erica McWilliam, Professor Roz Shafran and Professor Peter Taylor, The Death of Little Miss Perfect is rooted in research to ensure the schools’ war on perfectionist thinking is targeted, relevant and successful.
“[It’s about] consciously allowing ourselves to tackle things we know we can’t yet do and also to know when something is simply ‘good enough’,” Carlisle explains.
“We try to instil helpful thought processes in our students about how to face a challenge. This can range from the youngest pupils celebrating what they can’t yet do (ride a bicycle without stabilisers, swim without armbands) to 11-year-olds being encouraged to reflect on what a really good friend is and working out whether they are a good friend to themselves.”
Meanwhile, Sixth Formers are put through behaviour coaching to “overcome potential procrastination tendencies” and encouraged to flex their practical skills in class.
“You can imagine, for example, how powerful it can be for girls to only be given a broad paintbrush in art instead of painting neat, tidy lines with a fine-pointed brush,” Carlisle notes.
In fact, all aspects of teaching and learning at the school now follow the core principals espoused in The Death of Little Miss Perfect.
“This week, for example, our Year 7 (11 to 12-year-olds) are creating their own logbooks to record a small, daily achievement that they may not have otherwise recognised and wouldn’t warrant external accreditation, a reward or merit for example, but focuses on their own internal validation.
“Our Year 12’s (16 to 17-year-olds) are hearing from the head of student counselling at a leading university that the further you progress in academia, the less likely an answer will be verified as being correct or perfect - they must begin to develop their own internal validation,” Carlisle says.
While some have argued (most notably Dr Kevin Donnelly, ACU’s outspoken senior research fellow) that quelling perfectionist thinking only works to establish a culture of mediocrity and leads to a demise of academic achievement in schools, Carlisle happily reports that this is not the case at Oxford.
“OHS is a high-achieving school and our academic results are amongst the top in the UK. I’d like to think that our work on unshackling the girls’ fears about perfectionism has helped them to perform better academically and to be happier within themselves as young women at the same time."
Read part 1 of our series on perfectionism:The rise of unhealthy perfectionism in teens
Read part 3 of our series on perfectionism:Donnelly disses 'dumbed-down' curriculum, says quelling perfectionism a bad move