In praise of criticism

As a teacher for 10 years, The Cornerstone’s Angela Watson got pictures labeling her “BESTEST TEACHER EVER” but virtually no feedback from supervisors on how to improve.

In most schools, the unspoken rule amongst teachers is to maintain the status quo, stay under your principal’s radar, and assume that no news is good news.

. . . If teachers receive suggestions for improvement, it’s typically from someone far removed from the classroom context who walks in for 5 minutes, tells her everything she’s doing wrong, and tosses out a list of new mandates that must be in place by the next unscheduled visit. Or, perhaps worse, doesn’t give feedback at all.

Now working as a teaching coach for an educational consulting firm, Watson  receives “constructive criticism” from colleagues.

There’s a steady stream of praise, as well, but there are always suggestions for improvement which take me completely out of my comfort zone. It’s certainly harder on the ego than receiving crayon drawings that testify to my awesomeness, but the end result? My professional practice is improving ten times faster than it would have without the constructive expert feedback.

U.S. teachers need feedback, she writes, but many are afraid to expose their work to scrutiny. “This produces a culture of mediocrity which cripples professional growth and prevents teachers from innovating and being recognized for their accomplishments.”

About Joanne


  1. I used to like the idea of more feedback, but it’s started to dawn on me that most of the so-called experts (consultants, principals, and even many teachers) in this field don’t know what good teaching looks like. They just know what they’ve been TOLD constitutes “best practices” –which are sometimes, in fact, worst practices. What good is feedback from such people? I get the same feedback from my principal all the time: have kids turn to each other and discuss the question (think-pair-share) –an overhyped, often inappropriate “best practice”. Oy.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Ben F is absolutely right. Aside from the obvious, we know almost nothing about “what works” and “what doesn’t work”–or perhaps more precisely: what works in some situations and what works in others.

    At a more basic level, we can’t even agreee what it means for something to “work”: what we want school to accomplish.

    It’s as if lots of experts were telling you how to design a plane, but no one had ever built one and no one could agree on what they should do: go fast? go far? be quiet? hold a lot of people? not use much fuel?

  3. I have often been instructed on best practices for a math classroom during professional development. Usually the people giving the professional development are administrators from a language arts or elementary background. The advice is almost always the new fad of the day.

    Currently we’ve been instructed to use summarizing in every lesson as our main strategy, because “research says” its the best thing for students to do. Several math teachers spoke up and tried to explain how summarizing is not an appropriate strategy for every lesson, and that other techniques, such as distributed practice be much more effective. Unfortunately, this disagreed with the current fad, and the administrator simple restated that summarizing was the only appropriate strategy for us to use.

    All to often I’ve seen the experts giving criticism where they don’t understand the subject, methods, or that there isn’t a magic one size fits all technique that works for everyone lesson, student, and teacher. Until education actually becomes a true academic discipline, instead of political idealogy and opinion disquised as an academic discipline, I doubt constructive criticism will ever occur system-wide.

  4. Angela Watson scores a bull’s eye.

  5. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    I’m continually caught between thinking of teaching as an art or a science. (Clearly there is also an identity crisis with regard to whether teaching is a profession or a trade, but that’s a matter that concerns primarily teachers, as opposed to teaching itself.)

    On the one hand, you might be inclined to think that children are uniform in some important way, and that thus there are “things we can do” that will objectively be better than other things we can do to encourage learning outcomes. On this view, the particulars of the teacher are less important than the methods and content of the lessons. We don’t usually care, after all, whether the physicist running the experiments is a blonde or a redhead, because the experiment is supposed to be indifferent to such things.

    On such a view, feedback and professional instruction is critical, because it is how teachers come to greater efficiency and performance.

    On the other hand, you might be inclined to think that teaching is fundamentally interpersonal — something that takes place between a teacher and a student on an individual level. On such a view, the particulars of the teacher combine with the particulars of the student to determine the educational outcome. Not every teacher makes a good lecturer, for example, and not every student will be comfortable with a lecture even if the teacher is fantastic. Feedback, then, is of a far more limited value; a particular piece of advice is only useful insofar as it accentuates that particular teacher’s art. (That is not to say that some bits of advice will not have more general applicability than others, only to say that the efficacy of the advice is instructor-dependent.)

    I don’t know which is the proper way to view things, or if the truth is actually some messy combination. Maybe there are universally applicable bits of advice that can be given — but such maxims of educational perfection will surely be far fewer and far more limited in scope if the second view is correct than if the first one is.

    I just don’t know. And I suspect that most other people don’t really know either.

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    I’m continually caught between thinking of teaching as an art or a science.

    Perhaps it is a craft, like carpentry.

    -Mark Roulo

  7. Math Teacher says:

    I welcome constructive feedback when: A. I have respect for whomever is giving the feedback and B. when that person has credibility.

    The easiest thing in the world is telling someone else how to do a job you don’t have to do yourself, particularly in the realm of classroom teaching.

  8. Tom Linehan says:

    Several years ago I read about a study by the Gallup Corporation on the characteristics of teachers. One thing they found is that great teachers consider criticism and questioning as the sign of an inquisitive mind. Less than great teachers and educators look at questioning and suggestions to a challenge to their professional status. It was in the book, First Break all the Rules.

    Secondly education research, as some have suggested here, varies widely in quality and relevance. Just read Whatworks Clearinghouse. But the best research is really quite consistent. For instance, research on how schools beat the odds or even asking educators who beat the demographics consistently contains many common threads. Listen to Ben Chavis and to Michael Block on why their schools are so successful. The main differences are in their personalities not in substance.

  9. I’ve had excellent coaching for the last couple of years and it has improved my teaching tremendously. I’m also a much better cooperating teacher for my student teachers. Lots of dividends, but like anything else, it has to be done well to work.