In Praise of Criticism

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We’ve become a nation of wimps when it comes to having our mistakes pointed out to us.  Psychological insights have made huge advances in the last one-hundred years, but one area has been emphasized to the point where it has crippled our abilities to make adjustments based on human fallibility:  Self-esteem.  We’ve come to see our psyches as delicate mechanisms that cannot bear the slightest negative input, and we bristle at any hint of criticism from others.  While this wall of false wonderfulness might be helpful in the eternal struggles we’ve all had with mean junior high school girls, our aversion to any perceived “negativity” has altered public education for the worse.

Let’s be clear that I’m not talking about nastiness.  Anyone who attacks someone else based on ethnicity, religion, intelligence, race, orientation, age, weight, appearance, height, profession, nationality, gender, and/or sports team affiliation (we Sox fans have been suppressed for too long) is and always will be contemptible.  Of course the Clippers owner should have been stripped of his team and no, we cannot tolerate what happened in Ferguson.  That said, to err is human, and humans need to be able to face those errors without lashing out at the messengers.

I think this “Everything Is Awesome” philosophy began long before The LEGO Movie. Once the laissez-faire approach to parenting we who grew up in the sixties experienced gave way to the smothering helicopter mania of the eighties (which continues today), we started worrying way too much about acknowledging the reality that everybody has weaknesses as well as strengths.  Sure, back in the day, Leroy always got picked last when dodgeball teams were selected—everybody (including Leroy) knew that he totally sucked at dodgeball.  We also knew Bertha was a horrible speaker, George couldn’t do math to save his life, and Mabel was a complete klutz.

Flash forward fifty years, and we find that nobody ever gets called on his/her weaknesses or challenged to improve.  Leroy has unique athletic skills, Bertha is orally creative, George has interesting numerical insights, and Mabel is differently abled.  And don’t worry about Leroy getting picked last in P.E. class since we did away with that kind of humiliating spectacle at the same time we dumped dodgeball as an overly competitive, brutally violent abomination that no civilized community would ever allow in its schools.

And this change has helped our kids to believe in themselves:  Despite scoring poorly in math and reading tests compared to the rest of the world, American students ranked very high in self-confidence.  (See http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/story?id=6238757 for an analysis of this issue.)  I’m okay with confidence as long as it is bolstered with realistic assessments of faults, but that is the problem.  We not only have unrealistic beliefs about our abilities, but we also attack any analysis which would suggest we have room for improvement.

Schools have always reflected the culture of the societies in which they exist, so it should come as no surprise that this shift from criticism to self-congratulation permeates public education today.  Schools now spend more time praising their students as exceptional regardless of achievement, and teachers trying to hold their students to high standards often get pressure from both parents and administrators to ease up.  Yes, we want high test scores, fantastic grades, and National Merit Finalists; but nobody wants to do the hard work of improvement by shining a light on our foibles to see how we can do better.

The solution, of course, is to separate the person from the problem.  Just because I’m genuinely awful with directions (which I can assure you, I am) doesn’t mean I’m a horrible, evil person.  I have to accept that I will quickly get lost if I don’t know exactly where I’m going and that any turn I choose when faced with an option will inevitably be the wrong choice; then I can get the best GPS money can buy, study Google Maps before I leave my house, write down detailed instructions, and accept the need to stop to seek assistance before I lose my cool.  No, that doesn’t mean I’m a failure or that I’m somehow fundamentally worse than people who can sniff the air or listen to the ground and unerringly find their way.  Hey, those pathfinders might not be able write their way out of a paper bag, not to mention being unable to relate almost anything that happens in their lives to a Simpsons episode.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it is human nature to want to emphasize one while ignoring the other.  Unfortunately, that blindness will prevent the growth we all need, especially when it comes to education.

Teachers, as I used to inform my lucky students, are paid to criticize.  Yes, they are also paid to teach, to select materials necessary to achieve that education, to provide positive reinforcement, and to organize each class period.  But when confronted with a stack of papers, their job is to let their little darlings know how they did, which involves criticism.  This was especially true in my discipline, English, where any essay test question (my main assessment vehicle) would generate roughly the same content from the students.  Ask a bunch of freshmen how Scout and Jem grow during the course of To Kill a Mockingbird, and you’re not going to get a huge variety in terms their responses. (Although you could always tell the kids who were immediately in trouble when their first point would be that during the three years of the book, the kids got taller.)

So my task on these essays would be to help them see what they did well, but more importantly, how they could do better.  Maybe the ideas were great, but the support/examples lacked specificity.  It could be that all the paragraphs were terrific individually, but they were organized poorly—you never put your best reason right in the middle of your essay since that’s the section your reader will remember least well.  Or, the analysis was first-rate with solid examples, but the mechanics (grammar, punctuation, use of inappropriate slang, etc.) were atrocious.  (And how can you read a several hundred-page novel without knowing the names of the main characters?)  I could go on, but you’ve got the idea by now—the primary help I could provide was criticism.

That criticism also took the form of grades.  Most students I taught really didn’t care much about the answers they got wrong or the comments I made on their papers if the grade was good.  Of course that varied depending on the kid, but in my Honors classes, an A was all that mattered to many of them. So I made that A hard to get.  Excellence is rare, and an A on a report card means that the student performed at the highest levels for an entire quarter.  Even more difficult to figure out was what a weighted A meant:  When you give a B the grade point equivalence of an A and then make the A worth one point above what a regular A is worth, then how amazing that kid’s performance must have been!  (I’m still confused how many of my students had grade point averages [GPA] of something like 5.5 on a 5-point scale.  I guess those coaches I always made fun of were really onto something when they demanded 110% effort from their athletes; these scholars with a 5.5 GPA were scoring at exactly 110% of the scale.)

Regardless of the necessary evil of grades, motivating talented kids will always be challenging, so one technique to get students to focus their efforts more regularly is to make certain it’s never easy to achieve top grades.  I guarantee you that it means more to students when they know their grade was hard to achieve; eventually, they will also come to appreciate the knowledge that came along with that grade.  No, all of my students did not go on to writing or literary analysis jobs, but they all benefitted from the self-discipline, work ethic, and focus they needed for that “impossible” English class.  They additionally learned that the funny, sarcastic guy in front of them every day could genuinely appreciate them for who they were and not simply because they got an A  and were good at sucking up to authority.  I treated my A students (the few that there were) exactly the same as everybody else, so eventually most of them would recognize that their value as a person wasn’t totally dependent on their grades.

The problem, of course, is that so many adults now focus so completely on the grades their kids get that they can’t conceive of a teacher’s insisting on the highest standards if it means their precious genius gets anything less than the best grades.  But in their quest to get their children that 5.5 GPA, they don’t recognize how they’re setting them up for failure later on.

Those high esteem addicts might flourish in high school (and maybe even college) without ever having to face any challenges or getting their weaknesses pointed out to them, but we all know that won’t last in the real world.  It could be their job, their personal life, their kids, their health, or simply middle-aged angst; but we all know our lives won’t go completely smoothly.  And when those speed bumps jar our chassis to the core, we have to have a reservoir of belief that we can face adversity.  That self-reliance is built through failure just as much as it is through success.  The cliché that we can’t really understand or possess a trait without some familiarity with its opposite really is true.  Criticism prepares us for the day when our world seems to be falling apart and we have to accept we didn’t make the best choice.

Nobody is going to give you a gold star or a smiley-face sticker when your kid seems impossible to manage, your boss demands the undoable, or your doctor tells you the spot on your mammogram is cancer; you will have to suck it up and do the hard work of self-assessment which will lead to a change for the better.  Hey, you might be able to pretend your illusion of total wonderfulness is intact if you want, but you will still have to figure out how to make things better.  Without having ever had to face anything but accolades, you will find that task much more difficult as opposed to a healthy awareness of your own personal idiosyncrasies.  Parents should be the first source of the constructive criticism which helps you to learn the skills of recognizing weaknesses in order to improve, but schools should also assist in that necessary life skill.  And the only way that’s going to happen is if teachers make sure their students are awakened to the reality that nobody’s perfect.

Some might argue that it’s taking this too far to claim that teachers’ criticizing their students teaches them a vital life skill, but just because we don’t acknowledge that fact as much as we should doesn’t make it any less true.  Yes, it’s hard to accept when we parents feel a teacher is being too strict or demanding, but that is something the real world will definitely demand your children accept one way or another in their post-education lives.  Schools can provide this important learning opportunity in much smaller and graduated doses that prepare students for the harsher and more sudden issues that everyone endures.  Of course we would like it if our kids never had to face any hardships in their lives, but our current obsession with preventing any disappointments or negative evaluations will only weaken them for the realities they will eventually have to cope with.  We need to recognize the difference between unacceptable meanness/prejudice and growth-enhancing-if-hard-to-hear constructive criticism.  Schools are one place where that should be happening more often than it does.

For more criticism on how public education works and ideas on how it can improve, check out the e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.

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