The Art of Critique

As social creatures, we cannot live without reacting to others.  These reactions may strengthen relationships, such as with compliments or praise, or weaken relationships, such as with insults and shade-throwing.  However, teachers (and parents) also have to care about the results of their reactions on the development of the child.

The reactions we give to a student may produce the unintended consequence of sending the student down a dangerous developmental path.  Koberg (1972) lists pride, fear, jeolousy (i.e. envy), and (over) competitiveness as the four main “demons” that students may adopt (Koberg 1972,p. 13).  Holt (1982) further stresses that fear has become especially ingrained in almost all modern day students, and that this “fear destroys intelligence” (Holt 1982, p. 92).

So how can teachers fight against the fearful mentality whereby students will avoid creative risk and pushing themselves academically for the safety of conformity and mediocrity?   It all comes down to the reactions we give our students.   We give these reactions in a variety of forms, ranging from a pat on the back and a smile to yelling out loud and publicly shaming.  But, as it turns out, the right kind of feedback is not so easy to find.

Resultado de imagem para terence fletcherTake the two extremes:  The praise-a-palozza over a second grade paint project vs. the chair thrown by jazz instructor Terrence Fletcher in the 2014 film Whiplash.    On one hand, the paint project reaction of “Wow, that’s great” without further specific elaboration will never help the child improve.  In fact, an overdose of praise produces children who will not be able to handle failure and will give up at the turn of a dime.  On the other hand, pushing students to the brink of suicide with barages of harsh criticism and totalitarian teaching will instill an unhealthy fear and sense of insecurity.   So where’s the magic middle?

As a teacher, I have often grappled with this problem.  For some reason, the mistakes that students make jump out like firecrackers, while it takes effort to find areas to praise.   There is, however, hope.   The best advice I have heard about how to react to children came from youth-adult relationship expert Michael Brandwein.

Michael had two main points about how to give beneficial feedback to children – specificity and directed inquiry.   First, Michael gave the example of teaching a child to swim.  The child tries and fails repeatedly to reach the other side of the pool.  Finally, the child prevails.  If a parent just says “attaboy, way to go!”, the child will be left in doubt.  What is the parent praising?  Instead, the parent can be more specific in praise, and say “I’m really proud of you!  Even though you had to try many times, you stuck with it and never gave up. That shows real perseverance!” Not only is that parent being clear about what the child has accomplished developmentally, but the parent has given the child a specific trait to be proud of.

Second, Michael discussed how to react to an art project.  There are several bad approaches:  “Wow, great job” is unclear and”That’s a nice spaceship” is too risky because it might not be a spaceship; “What is that?” is just plain rude; instead, a parent can help the child grow by eliciting the child to discuss the work.  Some beneficial question types are “Why did you choose to use blue?”, “Where did you start in that painting?”, and, best of all, “Tell me more about your painting!”.

In addition to the wisdom of Michael Brandwein, Stone and Sheen’s 2014 essay “Thanks for the Feed Back” provides an excellent explanation of what feedback really is and how we can best use it.   Stone and Sheen introduce three types of feedback: appreciation, coaching,  and evaluation.  Appreciation is saying “I see you! I value you”.   Coaching is when we want to help someone improve.  Evaluation is comparing or ranking the worth of an action.     According to Stone and Sheen, we need to not only understand which type of feedback we are giving, but also which type the recipient needs.  If a student comes up and says “Look at my painting”, they are looking for appreciation feedback.  If a student makes a mistake, the teacher should be aiming for a coaching response.

In addition, Stone and Sheen make it clear that any single type feedback is never adequate and may be harmful.  Those who give feedback should work on providing all types to students throughout the day/week/semester/and lifetime.   This balance of feedback types brings us full circle back to our original question:  how to balance reacting to students.   Rather than looking for a middle ground, teachers need to provide a wide variety of feedback types to students.  Just as our diets require diversity for proper growth, so too do our students need a balance of criticism, both positive and negative, subjective and objective, and creative and productive.


Pic – Pinterest

Brandwein, Michael – June 2015 training talk

Holt, J. C. (1982). How children fail. Da Capo Press.

Koberg, D., & Bagnall, J. (1972). The Universal Traveller: A Companion for Those on Problem-solving Journeys and a Soft-systems Guide Book to the Process of Design. Kaufmann.

Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2015). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well. Penguin.


To Heck with Good Intentions

Ivan Illich waivan_illichs quite the character.   This Austrian-born philospher / Catholic priest traveled to Mexico to work in a language school for missionaries.  However, he hated the idea of missionary work, and his purpose was to observe the effects of this auspiciously benevolent enterprise.

In 1968, Ivan Illich presented a keynote speech to a missionary conference entitled “To Hell with Good Intentions.”  In this speech, before a crowded room of societal do-gooders and staunch proponents of volunteerism, Illich denounced these missionary endeavors as damaging and ineffective.  Calling them “mission-vacations”, Illich criticized Peace Corps volunteers of well-off Americans to foreign countries as “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideals of democracy, equal opportunity, and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these” – page 2.

As a Fulbright English Teacher, I have often pondered about the use of sending U.S. idealists out in to the world.   After all, in the broad sense, who’s to say we are more than mere pawns in U.S. diplomatic strategies?  As Illich states, the largest us exports are money and guns, and the third largest export of U.S. idealists is intended to support the first two.  By spreading English and promoting American ways of life and politics, we take a semi-role of modern day colonists.  Our mission civilatrice preaches the religion of US capitalistic interests, and promotion of US culture often trumps meaningful understanding of foreign cultures.

Illich proposed having these idealists first volunteer in U.S. to find out what good (or lack of good) they are truly doing without the distortion of cultural differences and linguistic barriers.   Perhaps there is merit in sticking to the “think global and act local” mantra, and we should, as Illich entreats us, keep our travels as what they truly are – vacations.

It’s hard to think about the other side of the equation since I’ve been a lucky privileged white American for the majority of my life.  For all the positive reactions that are visible to American volunteers as guests, we can leave never thinking about any negative impacts culturally or psychologically that we may have caused.   So in a sense, based on the fact that I don’t know the full story of my impact due to cultural and linguistic barriers, I would have to agree with Ivan that I “failed” in the fully altruistic sense.   However, had I striven for a true cultural equilibrium, staying longer until I had learned enough of the the language and culture to view myself from a local perspective, then I would be able to prove Illich wrong.  Similar to immigrant Irishmen signifying through blackface or Willa Cather signifying through the workers, the only way for U.S. volunteers to take on a truly benevolent position abroad is to become the culture they are trying to help.

Illich, I. (1968). To hell with good intentions. Service Learning Reader: Reflections and Perspectives on Service, 1-8.

Wikepedia image

Remixing or Robbing?

Lawrence Lessig’s Remix (2008) incited a spark of passion in me that had been dormant for years.  His stance on artistic rights both infuriated me and critically challenged my foundational beliefs.   So it is out of necessity more than whim that I now address remixing “intellectual property”, an issue that I take very personally.

Lessig is an advocate of “free use”, that is, he believes that the public should be able to use media (music, writing, movies, etc…) for personal creative uses.   According to Lessig, societies can be divided into two camps

– Read and Write (RW) societies where the public actively consumes and produces media inspired by consumption, and

– Read Only (RO) societies where the public only consumes.

The gist is that RO societies are bleak dystopias ruled by commercialism and RW societies are the best thing since sliced bread – more democratic, more creative, more productive.  (Lessig 2008)

The point at which my temperature began to rise was when Lessig proposed that the public should not need permission to use artistic content, but HE NEVER MENTIONED GIVING CREDIT!

One thing about Lessig is that he rarely takes the perspective of the artist, and what happens when you aren’t given credit.

When I create videos or media, I always strive to follow YouTuber Casey Neistat‘s sound advice: always credit.  Whether music, quotes, or even inspiration, everything that came from someone else should be acknowledged.  I ran into an ironic situation with my own film making.   I decided to make an homage to my greatest filmmaking inspiration – Casey Neistat.  I made a vlog in his signature style, with his signature glasses, and signature content topics.  After titling my video “Vlog a la Casey” and mentioning his influence in my description, I dropped the bad boy on YT.   Weeks later, my friend posted his own vlog, using the same style, same shots, and same music as my vlog! I was outraged, not at being an influence but because neither me nor the music artist were credited.

And that’s not the only experience I’ve had with the issue of “intellectual property.”  It all started in elementary school…

A brief timeline of Matt’s experiences with “intellectual property”

-Elementary school: Matt designs his own trading cards with pictures of strange monsters.  Fellow students like them until someone calls Matt out for “copying” the Magic the Gathering trading card game.  Matt feels betrayed and burns the cards.

– Early College:  A History of Jazz course with Professor Katz exposes Matt to the dangers of cultural appropriation.  For example, the Truth Hurts song Addictive sampled “exotic Indian music.”  That sampled material turned out to be “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai“, a song recorded the the superstar Indian singer  Lata Mangeshkar for a 1981 Bollywoodfilm.  Commence $500 MILLION lawsuit for copyright infringment.   After the course, Matt associates appropriation with the evils of colonialism/imperialism.

– Mid-College: Matt discovers a cool Israeli fusion band called Balkan Beatbox, and Matt’s favorite song by BBB is called “Hermetico“.  Jump two years later – Matt hears “Hermetico” on a U.S. top 40 station!  Wait a minute…that’s not Hermetico.  That’s Jason Derulo, sampling BBB in his new hit WITHOUT GIVING CREDIT!  Matt is both amused and infuriated.

– Mid-College: Matt tries his hand at music remixes.  One remix Young & Beautiful + Sweater Weather Baker Mash-up becomes his channel’s most popular video.  Another remix is shot down by YouTube for copyright infringement and is banned from the site  (Me Myself and The Hills).  Matt stops remixing songs.

-Late-College:  A professor asks Matt to help make some movie montages from major motion pictures.  The montages are seen by  seen by hundreds of people live in seven large Chinese performance halls.   Matt is proud!

– Post-College: Matt’s vlog is copied.  He’s not happy, but it all works out.

As you can see, I’ve come full circle in the RW space – from copier to copied.  I understand Lessig’s yearning for a society with free remixing – the ability to draw from media leads to educational and community development.  But I also understand that there’s a difference between needing to ask permission and quoting without citation.   The bottom line is you NEED to reference influences and samples.  Otherwise, it’s plagiarism, and that’s definitely not cool.

To make my point, I will turn to two examples that Lessig uses. When highlighting the multiplying effect of remixing media into new contexts, Lessig highlights John McIntosh’s remix video “The Matrix Has You” and Soderberg’s “Read My Lips” videos (Lessig 2008).  I thought, wow these guys seem cool, let me look them up. After searching for the videos by title on Google, I found them and had a good laugh at the clever way that these two portray political perspectives.   However, there was one thing missing.  It wasn’t in the title, it wasn’t in the description, and it wasn’t anywhere on the page.  The name of the original creators.   That means that the thousands of visitors who wandered onto these videos watched them without anyway of attributing credit to McIntosh or Soderberg.  These two artists have been forgotten; not only is this depressing, but also it’s plagiarism.

Lessig writes Remix with only the best intentions – to allow creativity and learning to flourish like Sousa’s reference to “young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs” (Lessig 2008).  But there is a major difference between singing a song with friends and posting a song remix to the internet – a remix is a digital, distributable product.  A product that wields the power to uplift or negate another’s creativity and work.

The format of credit doesn’t have to be fancy or time-consuming. A small, clear note at the end or in the description is all you need.  So regardless of whether or not you remix rap songs or reggae, or if you mash montages and musicals, you’ve gotta give credit where credit is deserved.


Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. Penguin.


This rant is a blog.

A space for sharing those sparks of anger and passion that demand action.  Or at least to be written down.

Why am I starting this now?

Maybe it’s the academic stimulation of Cambridge.  Maybe it’s the fact that T-550 requires posting in a journal.  Or maybe we all need a rant blog.

So join me, all who wish to be engaged in life, on this journey of defiance.

And to close this premature beginning, I offer a quote inspired by a student’s mistake:

“HoResultado de imagem para frog on computerw dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Blog! ”

– Emily Dickinson, -ish


(Channel Art: Stephan Brostein)