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.


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