You wrote; “he had a difficult and negative interaction with a professor who was always inhibiting him with permanent corrections.” I can easily imagine this situation. The professor had failed to identify a necessary technique for building on this particular student’s abilities. Instead, the professor ended up squashing them. I think, though, that there may be a difference between constructive criticism and bad teaching.
This week’s readings promoted the technique of constructive criticism. The Latin roots of constructive are illuminating: ‘con’/ ‘with’ and ‘struere’/ ‘to build’; participants work together to build something new. Note that the action is that of building not creating, the materials are already present from which to mould the new. An important principle in teaching is to find out where, cognitively speaking, the student is and lead them from that point towards a desired target; that is, teachers search for the building materials that are already present in students’ output. In social constructivism, leading and following are done socially with at least two participants present.
The metaphorical building bricks in the reading are emotionally positively laden. We as students are encouraged, nay required, to be positive, forgo criticism in the colloquial sense of the word and generally adopt a pleasant attitude while perceiving the starting point, the building blocks, of the writer of the report we review and build from that. Without wishing to be contrarian, I would like to ask others about the possibility that we are misreading two vital elements in the learning process.
The first is the necessity to be nice, and the second is the lack of model. Imagine if you will, a sports trainer coaching a boxer for an upcoming fight, or a cram school teacher preparing candidates for a very tough university entrance test. Neither niceness nor bottom-up pedagogic processes will be in evidence here. Rather, the trainer will shout, goad and terrify the athlete into a higher awareness and ability. The cram school teacher may put the fear of failure and what that entails into the students. Both will state very clearly what the target level is and what the protégé must do. These are normative positions, and the gap between the student’s current level and the target is something that the student must understand and minimise. As the role of the coach/ teacher is to work with the athlete/ student to build them up to the level of the model, these situations are also constructivist, not simply as handing down of the target level as information.
[Here I will use hyperbole rhetorically to emphasise the point.] Is there no place for anger, for criticism, for insult in the educational process? Stress is known to be helpful to push individuals faster, higher, better; can it also be used to illicit the production of a better report among us? The lack of model in these fora is laudable, but as Moon (2005, following Perry 1968) makes clear, we are not all at the same epistemological developmental stage. A forceful, “Hey you, here’s an example report. Make yours somewhat similar.” may actually produce better results than an all-too-careful, over-nice, almost fearful review that we’re asked to do currently.
The term constructive has been taken over wholeheartedly by the nice brigade. However, the roots of the term do not necessarily support this position. And from what is known about positive and negative psychology, niceness may not be the only plausible method available. (I’m using niceness as a catch-all phrase for the set of attitudes that characterise the required sensitivity this week.) Appropriately for a forum dedicated to critical thinking, I feel that we need to address the notion of constructive by embracing more of its potential.
The choice of approach (gentle or harsh) must be choice that we can make intelligently and appropriately to the situation. It must be one of our teaching tools in our bag of techniques. To ban the choice of being harsh is pedagogically and theoretically a weaker position. Personally, I’m gentle all the time, but my wife may disagree.
Moon, J. (2005). We seek it here … A new perspective on the elusive activity of critical thinking: a theoretical and practical approach. Bristol: Higher Education Academy.