Is it wise to criticize?
A few years ago I taught Andre Perry’s class of fourth and fifth graders in order to give Andre a break so that he could plan with another teacher. Easiest and best teaching I ever did. I couldn’t fail because he had designed the class so that the students would educate each other. Criticism was the essential design element.
Each week the students had to learn nine words. Andre gave them the words on Monday. They looked them up, learned the definitions, and used them in sentences. They came to know these words—in some cases intimately—as they discussed their different meanings in class and the different roles they can play in sentences, so that by Thursday, when I taught the class, they had each written a story using all nine words.
I presided, as they took turns standing in the center of the room, all poised and proud, reading their pieces. After each one, the hands went up. Here are some of their comments:
“I really liked the story. I mean, it’s a real story. I would like to learn more about the character. The only word that seemed forced was ‘communism.’”
“That was a very nice piece. I want to know what happens. I think you should finish it—I mean not for homework—just, you know, finish it.”
“I liked the efficient way you used ‘tragedy’ and ‘catastrophe’ right at the beginning by using them dramatically.”
“Yes, that was good, but we are supposed to use them so that it is obvious what they mean from the way we use them, and I don’t think tone of voice counts.”
“It has a good plot; I am interested; I want to know more. But the part about ‘rural’ and ‘urban’—that seemed just stuck in there.”
The students were so disciplined that in half an hour we had read and criticized five stories and one poem. The class almost ran itself. The only thing I “taught” was: “When you use ‘but’ in giving criticism, it erases the part of your sentence that comes before it. Say it again using ‘and.’”
I was impressed both by their disciplined approach to literature and by the quality of their talk. Criticism seemed to strengthen rather than hurt their relationships. Defensiveness reared its ugly head only once and then only slightly and quickly corrected. One of the last comments was from someone who hadn’t had a chance to read: “This is for everyone. We were supposed to take nine very hard words…”
“Only seven were really hard,” interrupted a friend.
“Yes, seven hard ones,” he continued, “and force them into a story. It was really good—well, like, we couldn’t tell that you were doing that. They all sounded like real stories. I couldn’t tell that it was an assignment.”
He was observing that his classmates had done two things at once—learn the words and write from the heart.
Andre was not teaching as if some of them might be authors some day; he was teaching as if all of them were already authors, and that giving and receiving criticism is an essential educational objective. Of course! To become a good writer you have to get good at giving and receiving criticism.
But criticism isn’t just important in writing. If making good decisions requires an accurate perception of reality, then criticism is essential for all human endeavors. If we want to make something good, do anything well, or have good relationships, we have to get good at criticizing.
What are the key design elements of cultures that support criticism? Andre showed us some of the assumptions that underlie his design:
- Truth and beauty are achieved through a process of collective successive approximation.
- To maximize achievement focus on learning rather than achievement.
- Useful creativity springs from relationships.
- Good relationships are built on the free flow of useful and accurate information between people.
- Arrogance, perfection, and defensiveness are learning disabilities.
- Delivering feedback that is hearable, seeable and doable requires practice and everyone is practicing.
We may not insist that our kids grow up to be authors, but we do want them to be authorities. Trustworthy authorities know, and know they don’t know, both at the same time. Delivering criticism that can be heard and learning from any criticism however badly delivered is essential to this enterprise. To be truly educated, a person must be as interested in what he did wrong as what he did right.
Besides, criticizing so as to build rather than hurt relationships is the secret to a happy and successful life.