Monthly Archives: February 2013

Guest blogger Emily Cutts: Constructive criticism is a gift

I am happy to publish this thoughtful post by my friend and colleague Emily Cutts,  an independent thinker whose studies and experience in the teaching, research and practice of Positive Psychology creatively and deeply inform her writing. Emily is also very much involved, along with her husband Quintin and many other community activists, with our campaign here in North Kelvin, Glasgow, Scotland, UK, to save our local Children’s Wood for community use. 

Emily says: I was surprised recently when a close friend of mine told me her reason for leaving a secondary school teaching position in a prestigious private school in Scotland.  One of the parents didn’t like the critical feedback she was giving their daughter, saying that it was damaging and un-motivating. In reality it was constructive feedback: factual, and given with the intention of improving performance.

Criticism is a gift: Carol Dweck pictures

Criticism is a gift: Carol Dweck pictures

The parent was blaming my friend for their daughter’s poor performance in this particular science subject. Another parent, a psychiatrist, was complaining for similar reasons, but also demanding to know why their son wasn’t doing well at science – blaming the teacher for their son not ‘getting it’.  My friend was disciplined by the head of department. From then on, she was required to put less‘negative’ feedback comments on work and to be more positive.

I have heard that this type of behaviour from parents has been increasing in schools across Scotland – parents blaming teachers for their child not doing well or not getting what they want.

Why would parents put pressure on schools not to give a child accurate feedback during the learning process, instead wanting them to paper over the cracks in understanding with positive praise? Why would schools take them seriously?

The answer could have something to do with feelings:

(an argument most clearly put forward by Dr Carol Craig at The Centre for Confidence and Well-being(1))

We don’t want to hurt a child’s feelings because we falsely believe that doing so will undermine their confidence and consequently their learning.  This causes teachers/parents to modify their behaviour in various ways to make sure that feelings are not damaged: restricting critical ‘negative’ feedback; reducing standards to make things easier; avoiding certain tasks for fear of hurting a child’s feelings should they fail – and unwarranted praise for tasks which the child can already do and for meaningless activities.

The problem with these behaviours is that they undermine the learning process, sending an important message to the child that they cannot cope with failure: failure is to be avoided. Another message is that they can’t handle challenging tasks.  If we thought they could cope, then we would allow them to hear the constructive feedback.

How could anyone learn if they lived by this philosophy?

Think about learning something difficult, and receiving feedback after you didn’t do very well on the task. Would you rather someone told you what you wanted to hear eg  ‘Well done you did really well, you are going to be the next Nobel Laureate’.  In this case you would gain no useful information – only a good temporary feeling…and could you ever trust that person’s opinion again? Or, would you rather find out about where you went wrong and how you could rectify it?  You might not like it at the time, but the feedback would help you to learn and do better in the future.

The first type of praise (currently widely applied) has been criticised by some psychologists because of its capacity to undermine learning (2,3).  It is thought that people praise in this way when they want to boost a child’s self-esteem, and protect young people’s feelings (1).

However, if you praise a child for activities that they can already do well, this sets up behaviours which undermine learning and paradoxically decrease self-esteem. The other aspect of this is to praise young people for being clever or smart (85% of American parents think that it is good to do so).

Praising for talent in this way sends a message to the child that you, the adult, value intelligence – since children are very sensitive to the messages they receive – they then want to demonstrate their intelligence to prove they have the talent.  The highly negative consequence of this is the avoidance of anything challenging which might show up weaknesses, or hiding/avoiding failures and sticking to things they do well.

In addition to this, people become more likely to blame others for failure, rather than taking ownership of their own setbacks and learning. This is salient in the example at the beginning of parents complaining about my friend’s teaching i.e If they believed their child to be smart, but yet they were not understanding science – then it must be the teaching at fault and not the child.

Our culture has an obsession with natural talent. However, there is a problem with this fascination:we cannot predict who will succeed and who won’t. Someone could start out seemingly talented at science, for example.This does not necessarily mean that they will always be successful – research demonstrates that people need to work at growing their talent or else they do not reach their full potential.

Other studies show the converse. Those who start off seemingly talentless can flourish later on– the late bloomers – exceeding all expectations and predictions about how well they will do in life.  Some famous examples are: Einstein, Beethoven, Robin Williams, Magic Johnson,(4) – but I am sure you can think of examples of people who you went to school with (or other walks of life) who exceeded your or other peoples expectations?

Overwhelmingly, the research shows (e.g. 6)  that talent is something which requires practice, perseverance and a lot of effort. For example,  Malcolm Gladwell (5) says that to become an expert at something takes around 10,000 hours of practice.  It takes thousands of failures and setbacks along the way and all of this activity changes the structure of the brain (e.g.6).

The brain is like a muscle: Carol Dweck pictures

The brain is like a muscle: Carol Dweck pictures

Young people can develop all of these abilities, as well as resilience, through accurate, useful feedback, and praise for their hard work and effort. Not only will this increase motivation for learning, but by default, performance too. (6)

Going back to the example of my friend being told to restrict critical feedback and increase praise,this does not seem like a good long term learning strategy.  A better method would be to encourage teachers to give students negative feedback, harnessed with the encouragement to take this feedback as a learning opportunity and not as a personal attack.

Learning takes time, it’s frustrating, hard work and effortful – these messages might be more important for the child to hear than more praise and little critical feedback (7). This may also provide hope for the future, to students such as those mentioned earlier who may not initially do very well at some subjects.

Parents need to stop blaming teachers for their children’s learning – it is not all their fault  – and help their children to take responsibility for their own learning. One way to begin this is by cultivating a love of learning, valuing critical feedback, and treating failures and frustrations about learning as anormal and natural process in education and nothing to take personally.

Constructive criticism is a gift, we just need to view it that way more often.



6. and


(First appearing on another of my blogs, this has proved to be its most frequently read post!Check it out to read more of Emily’s well-researched and thoughtful articles)

1200 words copyright Emily Cutts/Anne Whitaker 2010/2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


Help save our local Children’s Wood!

I have written already about the battle to save our local Children’s Wood in North Kelvin, Maryhill, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. I’m happy to say that the campaign is gaining momentum by the day!

To get an up-to-date picture on what we are trying to achieve locally, do read this brilliant article in Glasgow’s ‘Herald’ newspaper a few days ago by Gerry Braiden, Local Government Correspondent.

As can be seen from the article, comedian Frankie Boyle, who hails from Glasgow, is the latest celebrity to have lent his support.

This is not just a local issue. This issue is one of the major challenges of our time right across the world.

Here are some vivid quotes which reveal a great deal about the perspectives, passion and commitment brought to the campaign by people who really care about the importance of contact with nature to children and parents:

Save Our Children's Wood!

Save Our Children’s Wood! 

“It would clearly be counterproductive to build on commonly used land, in the face of a huge public protest. We have to stop at some point and ask how many shoebox flats does Glasgow need? The way the land is currently used is delivering on a lot of the council’s strategies. Why are they putting money before the life of the community?”

Frankie Boyle, Glaswegian comedian

“Wild spaces are invaluable to children, especially those growing up in
towns. They stimulate the imagination and nurture the spirit. Places
like the Children’s Wood within North Kelvin Meadow are hard to come
by in urban settings and so should be preserved at all costs.”

Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo and Children’s Laureate

‘As one of our member groups, SPPA supports The Children’s Wood Playgroup and its provision of outdoor play. SPPA endorses outdoor play and recognises the value it holds for children. The children are very active and engaged in exploring their local surroundings, learning through a variety of activities and benefiting from being in a natural environment.’

 Ian McLaughlan, SPPA’s Chief Executive

“For decades we have restricted children’s freedom to play outdoors and there’s growing evidence  that this trend is damaging their physical health and emotional well-being. We now have to take positive steps to ensure that children have easy access to wild spaces like the Children’s Wood in the North Kelvin Meadow. It would be a travesty if this special place for children disappeared under concrete.

Dr Carol Craig, CEO of The Centre for Confidence and Well-being

“North Kelvin Meadow is a magical oasis and the Children’s Wood offers a unique space loved by the local community and all who venture there.”

Tam Dean Burn, actor

“The Children’s Wood is a wee gem of natural wild space in the heart of the west-end.  In it, children can connect to nature in a way that isn’t possible in most manicured areas; digging, den building and so on. As a parent of two young children I can appreciate how important it is for young children to connect to nature. Glasgow should be proud to have such a wilderness for the community to flourish in and should do all they can to save it!

Colin McCredie, Actor, Wolly and Tig CBeebies

“We’re keen to help people of all ages reconnect with nature. North Kelvin Meadow is a precious area of greenspace within Glasgow, a green and peaceful place in a crowded city. We’re fully supportive of the campaign to protect it and helping local people see the benefits of spending time surrounded by nature plays a big part in gaining support for its protection.”

Iain Moss, The Woodland Trust

“The availability of a woodland setting immediately accessible to our children and staff, on the doorstep of the school, is a real living experience. This naturally beautiful and exciting environment is alien to many city centre children and which is impossible for schools to replicate in their playground such that has taken decades to evolve naturally – a real wood.”

Gillian Kulwicki, Head Teacher at Belhaven Nursery School

Several short films have now been made celebrating our Children’s Wood. Please watch the latest one HERE, and do circulate it round your networks. We need your support!!

AND: last but not least, sign OUR ONLINE PETITION!



700 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


ask an astrologer a question….

….and who knows what the answer will be!

Astrologers are always being asked questions. By clients. By students. By interviewers for various media outlets. By open-minded members of the public. By closed-minded-members of the public. By one’s friends and family. The list is endless, the questions multifarious, the answers….? Well, that depends….

If you want to find out, drop by The Mountain Astrologer Blog, where I am guest blogger this week, presenting several of the most typical questions asked of me over the years – and some of my answers. Enjoy!

And – for those of you who have not yet discovered it,

The Mountain Astrologer

is recognized as the best astrology magazine in the world. Each issue has a student section, articles by and for professional astrologers, a forecast section, daily aspects, the astrology of world events, astrological data and more.

Feb/Mar 2013

Highlights of this issue:

  • Silent Spring and a Frankenstorm Fall
  • Beyond Compatibility: What Really Makes Relationships Work
  • Preparing for a Relationship Analysis Consultation
  • Pluto, Uranus, and the Financial Crisis Part II: Collapse in the West?
  • Fortune and Spirit: Reclaiming Astrology’s Lost Archetypes
  • The Centaurs Part 2: Okyrhoe….and more
  •  200 words copyright Anne Whitaker/The Mountain Astrologer 2013
    Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

  • ___________________________________________________ 

People you never forget….


Grandpa Donald

It was a very stormy day, as is frequently the case in the Outer Hebrides in winter. The ferry was tossing alarmingly, the passengers were very scared. Some were lying being sick in the toilets. Others, white faced, were on the cafeteria floor, clinging to the table legs for comfort and support.

Grandpa Donald’s nerves were steady. Despite being over seventy, he was  dapper, and had never lost the sea legs he developed sailing between South America and his native island before the First World War. He made his way with a calculated stagger into the cafeteria full of screaming children and whimpering adults, serenely advancing to the serving area.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a cup of tea?”

He was on his way to South Uist to do a spot of lay preaching, and saw no reason why a force nine gale should come between him and his afternoon cuppa.

Donald died when I was eleven and he was eighty three. Typical of the man, chasing hens up the street was the last thing he did before taking his leave of this world, serene in his faith that he would be re-united with his departed loved ones in the Life to Come.

He used to babysit for me. I have no memory of those occasions, but according to my mother he used to say, every time my parents returned home, 

“My goodness, that child. What questions she asks, what questions!”.

About the stars, and God, and where we all came from, and what life was for, apparently.

I do remember his serenity and good humour, and his kindness. I adored him and was devastated when he died. Donald had always made me feel safe, secure and valued. No one else in my childhood years had done this for me in quite the same way, as I struggled to grow up and get away from my parents. They loved me, but were too damaged in themselves and their unhappy relationship to support me in the ways that I needed.
After Donald died, until I left home, I asked questions only of myself and my books.

Most of us have someone inspiring/challenging we’ll never forget. Who comes to mind for you? It would be interesting to hear.

             400 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


Writers! Join the e-revolution via Kawasaki and Welch….

Review: APE: How to Publish a Book by Guy Kawasaki & Shawn Welch

Author-Publisher- Entrepreneur

The energy for revolution is with us, all across the world. A chip of it has lodged in me. Fed up with traditional publishing – my first book’s publication having been a less than satisfactory experience – I recently decided to take up a colleague’s offer to publish my next two books in electronic form via the upcoming publishing arm of his established Web business.

Right on cue (were you guys spying on me?) an email with a free review copy of the above book popped into my box.

It is a real gift to any writer embarking on the e-journey. As the authors put it:

Ebooks and tablets are rearranging the publishing landscape….”

This being the case, writers of all levels of experience need help and guidance in navigating territory with which Kawasaki and Welch are thoroughly familiar. They have brought extensive experience together with considerable expertise, honesty, humour, clarity and practicality, pointing out that

“…a successful self-publisher must fill three roles: Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur—or APE…..”

Having done so, they spend twenty-nine easy to read, well laid out chapters covering with great thoroughness and at times brutal honesty (don’t flinch! Trust me, we need this at times) the processes of writing a book, editing it (their advice: don’t do it yourself alone. Get objective, quality outside help), financing it, distributing, selling, pricing, marketing, and promoting. No stone, as far as I can see, is left unturned.

I followed their advice by doing a fairly quick initial read-through. I then cut and pasted a brief ten-page summary to print out, so that I could see at a glance which chapters are most relevant for future perusal. My colleague will be dealing with the more technical aspects of publishing my books – thank goodness! I would rather boil my brain in turpentine than have anything to do with page dimensions, etc….

The section most immediately useful to me personally is the Entrepreneur section. Although I have happily been running a blog for more than four years, and can see that a wide range of articles continues to be read and commented on favourably, nevertheless I am not much good at bothering to do a great deal of interacting on social media. I know that with a bit more effort I could build a much bigger platform.

So – can Kawasaki and Welch turn me into a more socially interactive person than my temperament seems to dictate? That remains to be seen. But they have certainly provided all that is required by way of strong impetus to do so. I cannot in fairness ask any more than that.

And I do LOVE the quotes with which they head up every chapter. The final chapter’s quote is this:

“When you’ve worked hard and done well and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you.” Michelle Obama, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

This is a first rate book which enables and encourages writers to walk through the doorway of opportunity provided by the e-revolution which is already upon us. Do acquire it for your virtual bookshelf!


500 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


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Desperately Seeking Annie

Where does the longing come from?

Early memories may carry clues – tucked up in bed, cosy and warm, safe and sound, listening to the winter North wind tearing the world apart. Night after night after night. Other nights, clear cold, wintry, still. Standing on the concrete of the garden path, gazing at the clear night sky above the roofs of the houses at the top of Ellison Road hill, awestruck with delight at the blaze of radiance dancing in the heavens. The Northern Lights, heavenly dancers.

(I have never seen them since childhood. It is my keen wish to see them again before I die.)

I used to ask myself : what vast Power generates the destructive energies of the wind, the visual delight of the Northern Lights? What are they for? Who performed the long, hard labour of setting upright on a Hebridean moor that great Neolithic astronomical calendar, the Callanish Stones? Why did they do it? What rites were performed there? What gods were honoured ?

Where does the longing come from?

For as long as I can recall, I have longed to know  why we are here, why the world with its staggering diversity of  teeming, turbulent life is here. I have tried to find out what our presence here may mean, whether it is random or not.

During my lifetime, the vast scale of  the Universe has been visually confirmed by the explorations of science far beyond the boundaries imagined by Darwin or Einstein. I have the Hubble images on my wall, and gaze at them every day. Their beauty, and the vastness they invoke, goes beyond the power of words to express.

We now know that our Universe is one of  many, that there may be a vast Multiverse: matrix from which arise countless Universes. We are so minute, here on planet Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, home to millions of other stars. Why am I standing here, wondering why we are here and what it all means?

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula


It’s a long way from the Metaverse to the eccentric Rev. Dr. de Sousa in his green plus fours and his rusty bicycle, teetering precariously from his gloomy rectory to his sombre church during the late nineteen fifties.The small island town in which I grew up, a place of some five thousand souls, was remarkably well served for churches in those days. There was no shortage of  Christian establishments in which I could place myself in an attempt to find some answers to my big WHY.

The Episcopal church was regarded with suspicion because of its uncomfortable perceived closeness to Rome.

There was the United Free Church, where Popery would have shrivelled to a cinder had it ever crossed the threshold. Serious Christianity was practised here. No flowers, no music (apart from precenting), definitely no graven images. An old testament God hung out here. Fun and laughter were not encouraged.

Then there were the Seceeders, whose precise denominational and doctrinal position remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. I knew they had split off from some other lot, and therefore regarded themselves as “a cut above” – but above what, I never quite established.

Then there was the plain old Church of Scotland. The minister, a mild, thin, bookish looking soul who had been at school with my father, bore the distinctly uninspiring nickname of “Optic” which had stuck with him since his very short-sighted schooldays. His spectacles, I was convinced, really were made out of the bottoms of milk bottles.

I used to attend his sermons with hair rollers under my Sunday hat as a mute and invisible but satisfying form of protest. He had had a charisma bypass, and took boredom to punishing levels. However, I always liked the Benediction at the end …...In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” it always seemed to come from somewhere other  than him, although he was saying the words. This sense never failed to confuse me…..

We went there on our intermittent forays to Church, depending on whether inertia or guilt dominated my mother’s frame of mind on a Sunday evening. Trips to Church were usually minus my father, apart from hatches, matches and despatches.

A spiritualist medium, describing my father’s wayward character to me with remarkable and eerie accuracy not long after his death, said he was a man “who knew his God.” Wherever Dad’s God hung out, it was not in any of the establishments on offer in our mid-20th century small Scottish town.

Personally, long before my encounter with the medium, I always thought my father’s God was out there in the distant hills where he went to poach deer, or in the eye of a storm at sea.  Not that we ever talked about such matters. The only time we ever discussed my spiritual life was when, aged twelve, I realised that I could not face replacing the utter tedium of seven years of Sunday School with the probable continuing tedium of Bible Class, which is where you went on entering secondary education.

An epiphany prompted my nervous and tentative approach to my father. We had recently aquired a Readers’ Digest World Atlas, a huge book which I could barely lift. I was riveted by a double page spread of the whole world, with countries coloured in according to religion. I realised that day how many world religions there were.

Although Christianity appeared to hold its own across the world, it was visually clear  that the great majority of the world’s population – which was a mere two and a half billion in total when I was doing my big religious sums – believed in something else altogether.

I then looked for the tiny isles of the Outer Hebrides, coloured Christian pink. Next, the top island where I lived, barely discernible in the context of the whole world. A wave of inescapable logic washed me away that day. It simply did not make sense that a few thousand members of eg the Free Church of Scotland considered themselves to be right and saved, leaving almost the total remaining population of the world wrong and damned regardless of the integrity and sincerity of their differing beliefs.

My mind buzzing with this powerful realisation, I told my father that I didn’t want to go to Bible Class. I now wanted to do some of my own reading and work out religion for myself.  “Fine” he said. “Don’t go, then.”

At the age of twelve, that was it for me and Christianity, for a very long time, although I continued under pressure to attend church intermittently and always enjoyed singing the hymns at hatches, matches and despatches.

The longing, however, continued, like a barely audible ghost of a sound, echoing my heartbeat….


1300 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page