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.



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(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


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