Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Tread softly because you step on my beans

I’ve been sent the above image by a reader of an earlier post. The image is by a young schoolchild - let’s call him Al – who has evidently been asked to produce a drawing and write a sentence to accompany it. Below his sentence is the teacher’s translation, presumably from Al’s verbal description.

Al’s character; Kasper, is rendered as a catlike being with whiskers, pointed ears, two spindly legs and arrows for arms. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that this image and accompanying sentence indicate that Al is thinking about what it means to nurture something: to sew a seed. It’s about cultivating a small grain of potential with the hope of seeing it blossom and bear fruit. As yet, the bean is simply an unassuming nondescript thing, but, as every child knows, beans should never be underestimated because someday they will become beanstalks. Kasper plants a bean. Al draws Kasper. Kasper is a cat. Cats are pets which, like beans (and children) need to be treated with care.

In a brilliant essay on adult paternalistic stupidity in the face of children’s passionate fascination with cartoons, Dave Hickey explains why the “spectacle of ebullient, articulate, indestructible animals” was such a vital antidote to the incomprehensible frailty of pets:

“What we did not grasp was just exactly why the blazing spectacle of lawn-mowed cats, and exploding puppies, talking ducks, and plummeting coyotes was so important to us. Today, it’s clear to me that I grew up in a generation of children whose first experience of adult responsibility involved the care of animals – dogs, cats, horses, parakeets – all of whom, we soon learned, were breathlessly vulnerable, if we didn’t take care.” (Air Guitar, Essays on Art and Democracy)

Kids feel these things. They grow to understand that they’re part of a chain of care and responsibility. They have to learn to attend to things which respond, often in very subtle ways, to their care. Children in turn, are cared for and it is the ways they are cared for which, in turn, model and influence their own acts of caring.

I realise that I’m laying it on pretty thick here but I think it’s important to acknowledge the huge disparity between what Al is talking about in his own simple way and his teacher’s utter lack of sympathetic awareness (tact). Sure, his sentence construction is poor but the response from the teacher is simply deplorable: a “well done” (praise) and an admonishment to think about his targets, when what he clearly needs is constructive suggestions and encouragement – after all, he has attempted to use a past participle when a wiser child (or more compliant one even) would have chosen to write in the present tense: “Kasper plants a bean.” or “Kasper kicks a ball.” or easier still: "Jack kicks a ball." You see, that's one of the risks with imposed targets: they discourage risk taking and encourage devious corner cutting. At least deviousness requires some inventive creativity, but then, such teachers soon stamp out this tendency at the first opportunity too.

But let’s be fair. Perhaps this teacher was overworked. Perhaps s/he had very little experience or confidence in interpreting children’s drawings. Perhaps s/he felt that legibility and grammar was the paramount objective (“target”). All of these things are probably true and ultimately, let’s face it, it’s only a brief comment in a notebook, it’s not going to have any lasting influence on Al – he probably can’t even read it anyway. But to think thus is to entirely miss what education is all about. As John Dewey once wrote: “The effect of an experience is not borne on its face.” In other words, we can’t know the true consequences of our pedagogic actions, and to presume therefore that something will have no lasting effect is simply irresponsible. As Al’s little story deftly illustrates: we can plant our beans, but we’ll never know quite what we’ve planted until they grow up.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Prejudice of Grading Painting Students

Image Credit: Calum MacLeod

Thanks to James A for sharing a link to an article entitled: The Justice of Grading Painting Students”.

With barely concealed smugness, Professor Laurie Fendrich discusses how she works with and grades "beginning painting students". Any teacher who uses terms like “natural talent” without the slightest hesitation has made a fundamental mistake, in my view, by assuming that some students have it and some just don’t. You don’t have to know anything about the Pygmalion Effect to realise just how self-fulfilling such prejudices can be.

Whilst frequently using the possessive form (“my students”, “my course” etc), Fendrich begins by describing how she found it difficult to grade her students this semester. However, as the article progresses, it becomes quite clear that she doesn’t find it particularly difficult at all, and certainly not because she perceives any problems with the nature of grades.

“Yet the moment of a final grade in a course is not a small matter. It generates anxiety for students as well as for professors who take the act of judgment seriously. Rough and imperfect though they are, grades function as a form of justice, the meting out of which is a solemn occasion.”

What? ...grades function as a form of justice.” Does she think she's some kind of high priestess who meets out judgement to praise and punish her minions?

“After all the friendliness and soft competition in a studio course, students are often shocked when it’s time for judgment. […] The answer is that the time has come. A final grade must be given. A judgment must be made. This, dear students, is life.”

That last patronising sentence had me instantly reaching for the comments box:

That’s the voice of unexamined orthodoxy speaking. Yes this is “life” as you call it (or “the real world” as others think of it too). However, the point that needs to be scrutinised very carefully is whether it could be different, or even better? The creation of art is very much an expression of this belief (faith even) in the power of creativity to transform experience. If we are simply to accept the status quo, as your article seems to suggest your students should, then what point is there to make art at all?

Rewards and punishments (of which grades are a common form) of all kinds are corrosive to creativity. This has been shown in numerous studies conducted across cultures and generations (lookup intrinsic motivation or check out the research and writings of Alfie Kohn).

Your article says more about your own acceptance of grades as unavoidable (“a final grade must be given”) than it does about your students naïveté in the face of life. They, on the contrary, seem to understand, if only intuitively, that there’s some hypocrisy at work in the way they’re being treated. You’d do well to examine your “dear” students’ shock a little more carefully. Perhaps then you’d realise that it is not “life” they are dealing with so much as 'an institution' and there is nothing inevitable about that, only what we unquestioningly accept as being so.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Lifelong Learning

Joseph Beuys, Untitled (Sun State), 1974

“As a society becomes yet more technical, there is no longer a separation from actual doing, and education begins to take up a larger and larger proportion of the lifespan; indeed, education becomes part of the way of life. More and more time is given over to telling (usually in print), to demonstrating out of the context of action.” – Jerome Bruner

…or of studying for teaching qualifications instead of teaching, or researching instead of practicing.

“Because the job of teaching is often insular, it is easy to fall into familiar routines. Such routines are not conducive to professional growth. For professional growth, we need, as I suggested earlier, feedback on our teaching. In even broader terms, we need to treat teaching as a form of personal research. We need to use the occasions of our performance as teachers as opportunities to learn to teach.
In saying to experienced teachers that we need to use the occasions of our own teaching as opportunities to learn to teach, I am really saying that, like any other art, learning the art form is an endless venture. In the best of all possible worlds, it never ends until we do.” –Elliot Eisner

It’s the difference between living an examined life and a life of examinations. And as Socrates might have said: a life of examinations is not worth living.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


Security panel at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, which houses Piero Della Francesca’s famous Legend of the True Cross. ©Jim Hamlyn

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Critical Tact or Punitive Feedback?

Jenny Holzer, Abuse of Power comes as no Surprise with Ladypink, 1983

“The real question as to whether someone is a good or bad educator is simply this: Has this person developed a sense of tact?” –Johann Friedrich Herbart, 1802

Most teachers will be familiar with the situation where a student complains about feedback they've had from another member of staff. Most of these complaints concern confusing or de-motivating criticisms which have been made about their work. I don't think we need to take such expressions of dissatisfaction as an excuse to go on a witch hunt, but I do think it’s important not to dismiss them. It is only when we fully appreciate the power of critical feedback, not just to motivate, but to confound, confuse, de-motivate and on occasion to entirely alienate, that we are likely to realise just how important it is that teachers use critical feedback intelligently and tactfully.

Many teachers, and even some students for that matter, believe that harsh criticism is sometimes justified, but why might this be the case? Whilst students might benefit, to some extent, from becoming a little more thick-skinned regarding criticism, since in the ‘professional’ field art critics are frequently far more scathing than art teachers, it might nonetheless be worth taking a moment to consider exactly how people become thick-skinned in the first place. Practically all teachers and students who advocate harsh criticism are confident individuals already, who feel able to absorb criticism and thereby profit by it. However, there remain a substantial number of students who are a good deal less confident and, not surprisingly, these students also tend to be a good deal less vocal about valuing harsh criticism. The truth is, you don’t make a more confident individual by undermining their confidence. Confidence has to come first, then you can think about being more firm with criticism. This is where tact comes in. Tact is the ability to accurately judge a student’s level of confidence and pitch criticism appropriately so that the level of challenge becomes neither stressful nor boring and confidence is promoted rather than crushed.

“A tactful person is able as it were to read the inner life of the other person.” -Max van Manen

Art teachers can be an opinionated bunch at the best of times and for similar reasons we also tend to be very passionate about what we believe. But these strongly held beliefs also mean that we’re inclined to hold powerful allegiances to our chosen media, genres, styles and approaches to art making and are equally dismissive or even vehemently opposed to media, genres, styles and approaches which we see as outmoded, superficial, mannered, clumsy etc. However, any criticism that derives from such beliefs, as inspiring and persuasive as it may be, can never be anything more than partial at best, and at worst simply perpetuates the values of the teacher.

“The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence.”
-Amos Bronson Alcott

There are numerous circumstances in the teaching of fine art that call for critical feedback. Sometimes students produce work which entirely misses the point of a project or is founded upon naive conceptions due to lack of awareness or critical engagement. Work may be conceptually or technically flawed, it may be ethically questionable, vague or formally overwrought. At times, it appears as though a particular student may have simply chosen the wrong course of study and lacks the awareness, confidence or resources to remedy the situation on their own. And then there are students who are disengaged, lazy or offhand with work and who attempt to cut corners or, worse still, to pull the wool over their teacher's eyes by evading classes and/or trying to verbally embellish their work etc.

All of the above are situations where students might be seen to be falling short in one respect or another but it’s crucial for teachers to be able to clearly distinguish between such issues of engagement, perceive their underlying causes and, as much as possible, rise above personal preferences in responding to them. If someone is genuinely trying to manipulate a situation, then it’s pretty clear that they should be made aware that this is an unacceptable way of proceeding. However, if a student is simply naive, mistaken, insecure or misinformed, but is nonetheless engaging in good faith, then it is the teacher’s duty to constructively support them, encourage their engagement and to invite critical discussion about what is not working, rather than assuming a wall of unquestionable authority and backing this up through kinds of criticism that are practically indistinguishable from punitive feedback.

"In this direction he must, if he is an educator, be able to judge what attitudes are actually conducive to continued growth and what are detrimental. He must, in addition, have that sympathetic understanding of individuals as individuals which gives him an idea of what is actually going on in the minds of those who are learning.-John Dewey

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Inequality of Nice

"And this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! — It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word." -Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

In two consecutive tutorials last week I encountered the word “nice” being used to justify a decision about the presentation of artworks for exhibition. Should I have been surprised that two final year students should feel so comfortable using such an unqualified term during a tutorial? At one point, I asked one of the students to substitute the word “appropriate” as a means of highlighting the issue. At least when you use the word “appropriate” you have to think about how something is appropriate: appropriate to what?

If we wish to talk about artworks in anything other than the most superficial terms then the word nice has very little to offer. Nice is a nice word, which is another way of saying that it signifies absolutely nothing other than vague approval based upon no other criteria than gentility and convention. Nice demands no explanation. Nice is good and not nice is bad. According to many people, swearing is bad because it's “just not nice”.

Now, I’m all for people being nice and I'm all for nice weather, nice company, nice conversation, nice food and nice wine. But at some point, when we're wanting to understand a little more about what we do and like, we have to begin to think about our criteria a little more deeply.

Recently I've been thinking quite a lot about the issue of swearing and the extent to which our attitudes towards the use of expletives are often predicated upon contextual usage rather than simply meaning. Nice may not be a swearword exactly but its meaning is no less dependent upon user and context (and therefore it can actually be mildly offensive if used inappropriately, as Jane Austen was clearly aware). My nice is not your nice, but we have a tendency to use the term as if we had a shared understanding and agreement about its meaning.

It might be worthwhile to consider the idea of connoisseurship in this context. I have some serious reservations about the idea of connoisseurship because I think it tends towards exclusivity and critical stasis, however I'd be very wary about telling a wine connoisseur that they can pick up a nice bottle of Rioja from Asda for £3.99. My nice isn't their nice, but I'd certainly be keen to test their nice and to know the criteria they were using to form their opinion, and in the process, I’d hope to refine my own version of nice. The point is an important one I think, because it goes some way to explaining an unavoidable inequality in the way that experts and novices use commonplace language in relation to their specialist field. If a wine connoisseur tells you that your local supermarket is selling a nice Rioja for £3.99, it's probably worth a trip to buy a whole case.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Perishability of Language and the Self

“But there is one other crucial thing to be mentioned. The tumour that will destroy me is in the proximity of my speech area. But I am also a word-earner. I have been doing this all my life as an adult. And I still survive as a language-user – speaking, listening, reading, writing – over the past two years. Or, rather, I survive in fluctuating ways.”

I’ve been reading and re-reading Tom Lubbock’s haunting and bewildering account of his gradual loss of language to a glioblastoma multiforme tumour, published 10 days ago in the Observer and subsequently on the Guardian website.

“It's not possible to get any distance from my project: being alive. Objectively, from the outside you might say, my life is terrible, unbelievable. And it's true, I hate this. I hate the way I am at the moment. But there is no objective view, I am here, in it, and there is nothing else, and this fact brings with it many things that make it of course easier. And beyond that there are many other things to think about.”

I’ve met Tom on a few occasions, being somewhat distantly a friend of friends. Even so, we’ve barely exchanged words, although we once had a brief discussion when a friend brought Tom by my studio and he showed a genuine interest in a couple of postcards I was working on. He even took some away with him.

Tom was a speaker at a conference at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh some years ago along with Nathan Coley (“The most boring artist in Britain”) and Tom Eccles. The theme of the conference was the Monument in Public Art, and he spoke memorably of the distinction between monuments which are built to endure and monuments that he described as “perishable”, which he suggested offered a more fitting way to mark the passing of the people and things which claim our affections. In order to move on with our lives we often need to forget. Our memories are porous and our lives are likewise transient, so it makes little sense to ossify memories that might distract us from new and equally important experiences and encounters. In many ways the richness of life is this very exchange between memory and forgetting. But, of course, this is the preserve of us for whom memory is a resource which is relatively easily accessed and utilized. As Tom’s article shows, our commonsense notions of the unity of memory and recall are far from providing us with a revealing picture of how memory actually works.

During one of the breaks in the conference, as people were busy networking away, I noticed that Tom had disappeared. He returned just as the presentations were due to recommence and when one of the organizers politely enquired where he’d been, he replied: “For a walk around the grounds. I don’t really feel comfortable in these situations.” This characteristic combination of humility and an unflinching willingness to explain his alternative perspective has always marked Tom out as an exceptional thinker and it’s all the more disturbing to literally see the signs of this ability ebbing away on the page before you.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Only Artists Make Art

Joseph Beuys famously repeated “Everyone's an artist”, thereby acknowledging that creativity is a universal human tendency. It’s a liberating idea, but in spite of its egalitarian directness, which can be traced back at least as far as Novalis (from whom Beuys reputedly borrowed the idea), the familiar old hierarchies continue. It's almost taken as a given that printmakers and painters are artists, but when it comes to photographers, opinions are less certain. According to one of my old student notebooks it was the gallerist and curator Graeme Murray who, during a group tutorial at Glasgow School of Art, once said: "Painters make paintings, sculptors make sculptures, printmakers make prints and photographers make photographs, but only artists make art." It's a little pedantic perhaps, but for a young fine art student working with photography, it struck me with the force of a revelation.

It’s not your medium that defines you, but what you do with it.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Something for Nothing

Trap (after MD), ©Jim Hamlyn 1990

One of the most extraordinary things about art making is the degree to which serendipitous, unexpected and illuminating connections and discoveries occur unbidden. But can we really claim authorship for things which are not wrought by determination, vision or technical mastery? Is this not a deception of both ourselves and our audience and is it not, likewise, a duty of all creative individuals to fashion significance from the raw materials of their craft and to prove themselves worthy of all they conceive? If so, then surely no discovery, of any kind, can really be claimed or attributed to the ingenuity of human agency. Most artists would argue that it is the sensitivity which they have sharpened over years of practice that allows them to "see" the connections and make the discoveries for which they claim ownership. This sensitivity then, is one of the principle skills of the artist: the ability to perceive and to ensnare the fleeting fortuitous miracle of chance - the intangible breath of inspiration as it glides almost imperceptibly by.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Utter Bollocks - An Essay

I've had another online essay published over at It's on the subject of swearing. I'll post it on this blog too sometime, but for the moment you can only read it by following this link.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Pleasure of Knowing

“I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like”

This phrase juxtaposes two kinds of knowledge: knowledge about something and knowledge of something. I may know of your best friend but this doesn’t mean that I know about them. If I knew about them I might like them, but I can’t really like anything much (apart perhaps from the most primitive pleasures) without further knowledge.

The implication of the phrase is that knowing is somehow opposed to liking or that liking precedes and is superior to knowing. This isn’t just anti-intellectualism but a privileging of sensory pleasures over cognitive ones. There’s knowing and knowing. The more we know, the more refined our understanding and the greater the scope for pleasure.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Aesthetic or Anesthetic

I've just started reading The Arts and the Creation of Mind by Elliot Eisner. In the introduction there's a short section which deserves to be shared:
"Efficiency is largely a virtue for the tasks we don’t like to do; few of us like to eat a great meal efficiently or to participate in a wonderful conversation efficiently, or indeed to make love efficiently. What we enjoy the most we linger over. A school system designed with an overriding commitment to efficiency may produce outcomes that have little enduring quality." (My emphasis)
I'm looking forward to reading more of these insights.

On a related note the following RSA Animate video has just been made public. It's of 'Sir' Ken Robinson. I've been critical of Sir Ken in the past - he tends to err a little too far toward hyperbole for my liking. I'm also rather skeptical of his acceptance of a knighthood since, to my mind, it goes against all that he professes to stand for. Still, this makes some important points, so I'll leave you to decide for yourself.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Why Bother? (Effort, Achievement and Risk)

Lucy Gunning: “Climbing around my room”. Video, 1993

"...effort is nothing more, and also nothing less, than tension between means and ends in action, and that the sense of effort is the awareness of this conflict." -John Dewey

I was involved in a really interesting series of studio discussions with some of the Photographic and Electronic Media students last week. They were sharing experiences from over the Summer break as a method of reintroducing themselves to thinking about how these experiences and observations might be placed within the context of reflecting upon, discussing and working towards art making. One thing in particular struck me amongst the many fascinating things we discussed - this was the extent to which almost everyone, myself included, had invested time, energy, money and especially expectations in the pursuit of specific experiential encounters: holidays, weddings, childbirth etc. Somehow almost all of us (though there were some exceptions) had bought into to the conventional notion that only these kinds of experiences are worthy of aspiring towards, making an effort for or sharing with other people, whilst everything else - jobs, relationships and a multitude of other 'commonplace' experiences - are merely a necessary part of - or, at best, a pleasant distraction from - our striving to acquire money or opportunities to achieve these other more 'unique' experiences. By way of contrast (though I didn’t mention it at the time) I was reminded of Xavier de Maistre’s extraordinary, but at the same time extraordinarily modest, expeditions:

“…in the spring of 1790, a twenty-seven-year-old Frenchman, Xavier de Maistre, undertook a journey around his bedroom, later entitling the account of what he had seen Journey around My Bedroom. Gratified by his experiences, in 1798, De Maistre undertook a second journey. This time he traveled by night and ventured out as far as the window ledge, later entitling his account Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom. […] …it was not Xavier’s intentions to cast aspersions on the heroic deeds of the great travelers of the past: Magellan, Drake, Anson and Cook. …it was just that (de Maestre) had discovered a way of traveling that might be infinitely more practical for those neither as brave or as wealthy as they.” -Alain de Botton

Much as I love this idea of a unique journey amongst the commonplace and familiar and much as I admire artworks that transform our understanding of such experiences, I’m nonetheless tempted to think of this particular case as an inventive but somewhat extreme example of the Principle of Least Effort. Indeed, De Botton goes on to say of De Maistre that: “He particularly recommended room-travel to the poor and to those afraid of storms, robberies, and high cliffs.” This seems a form of travel most suited to the risk averse, the unadventurous and the lazy:

“The most indolent beings won’t have any reason to hesitate before setting off to find pleasures that will cost them neither money nor effort.” -Xavier de Maistre

But is this really laziness? The great beauty of this idea (though it was patently intended as a parody) is it’s wonderfully unconventional simplicity, but would it be true to say that no effort is required? Effort has nothing to do with the grandeur of the ends but rather, as Dewey suggests, the conflict or tension between ends and means. As the games of every child clearly attest, it’s quite possible to create a genuine and engaging challenge even with the most meager of materials or environment. The effort in this instance then, becomes entirely a labour of the imagination: to embark on the journey anew, as if never before travelled and to voyage over each encounter, savoring every intricacy with the curiosity of the most inquisitive and observant tourist.

So what correlations may we draw between effort expended and our sense of achievement?

In psychology there’s a process known as Effort Discounting, which describes how our sense of reward diminishes as effort increases. We naturally tend to prefer low-effort routes to rewards. An analogue of this effect has also been observed in a neurological study published in 2009 by Botvinick, Huffstetler and McGuire. From a survival perspective, effort discounting makes evolutionary sense since there’s very little point in pursuing food, for example, if the resources expended in order to acquire it outweigh the benefit gained. But human tastes are far more complex than this alone would suggest. We often expend inordinate quantities of energy in seeking things to satisfy all manner of strange and exotic desires, despite the fact that these things provide very little in the way of energy return. It’s the promise of pleasure which drives many of these desires - desires that are essentially aesthetic in nature: food, music, art, literature, dance and even holidays. However, even with these unique experiences, we almost always have an underlying sense of how much effort is deserving of the end result and we quickly tire of what we anticipate to be unrewarding pursuits. Equally, when we gain something with unexpected ease the pleasure is often multiplied.

These observations strongly suggest that, as beings, we’re very highly attuned to the economics of effort and reward - to our own individual cost-benefit analysis. But there’s one further set of experiences for which we’re frequently prepared to exert ourselves physically or cognitively and these are processes that are in themselves pleasurable - that provide stimulating feedback or the release of mood elevating endorphins. Many areas of human endeavor exploit this tendency, from sport and exercise to art and craft. There’s little doubt though, that many of these pleasures are acquired tastes and to expect them to arise spontaneously or to be appreciated as immediately gratifying is frequently unrealistic or frustrating. For example, the pleasures of exercise are relatively easily acquired by comparison with the pleasures of creation which require skills and sensitivities that take time and practice to develop:

“Children who have not learned that drawing skill is based on practiced observation will be very frustrated when they reach the next developmental stage. They will wish they could draw more realistically. As they get older, they mistakenly believe that they lack talent while others are gifted in drawing. They give up because they see others who can do better. Art educators refer to this as the "crisis of confidence." -Marvin Bartel

In all this talk of effort and reward there is one further consideration that demands our attention: risk. I’ve written about risk previously, but in that instance it seems I neglected a vital aspect which has only become clear to me through a recent exchange in which I was asked if a grade for effort might be a legitimate method of encouraging students to take risks “particularly in the creative arts, where the "willingness" to fail is such a hard thing to encourage?”

The important thing to bear in mind in relation to effort and risk is that the teacher and student both need to understand, and agree upon, exactly what is being assessed (the "ends" for which effort is being expended and risks taken) and this ideally shouldn't be set by the teacher but rather negotiated between tutor and student (though, of course, this isn't always possible, especially when there's a fixed curriculum to follow).

Much as it might appear to make intuitive sense to grade students on their effort, their “willingness” to expend effort or to take risks should never be c0-opted by the temptation or threat of a grade but rather by the aim of improving what they do to the greatest possible degree. Success should therefore not depend upon an artificial extrinsic reward, but rather on achieving what they set out to achieve or, ideally, even more than they set out to achieve. This is the value of self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation, as opposed to fixation upon rewards, or conversely, being continually reminded of others' “evaluation” of how much effort needs to be put in. Ultimately it comes down to establishing what exactly the student is aiming for, so that the teacher can support them to achieve this - or, if they're aiming for something unrealistically difficult, to encourage them set their sights on something a little more achievable and to help them to see how this is something genuinely worth working towards instead.

Willingness to fail can only come about when students (or anyone for that matter) feels secure enough to take risks. So it's the teacher's - indeed Education's - duty to ensure that every possible measure is taken to alleviate pressure upon students and certainly not to add a little extra in the form of an intimidating or distracting grade for effort.


BARTEL, M., Teaching Observation Drawing to Young Children. Goshen College Publication.[Online]. Available from:

BOTVINICK, M. M. & HUFFSTETLER, S., McGUIRE, J. (2009). Effort discounting in human nucleus accumbens. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 9(1), 16-27. [Online]. Available from:

DE BOTTON, A., (2002) The Art of Travel. Penguin. p.243-245

DEWEY, J., (1897). The Psychology of Effort, Philosophical Review 6: 43-56. [Online]. Available from:

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Tact of Leaders (an essay on criticism and how to take it)

How do leaders and people in authority gain an accurate picture of what’s going on around them and how sensitive (in both senses of the word) should they be towards criticism?

There’s a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled “the Autumn of the Patriarch” in which a decrepit and beleaguered but ruthless dictator finds himself without any close confidants to whom he can turn for a truthful description of what’s happening in his country and how he’s perceived as its leader. He finally resorts to visiting the servants’ latrines in the basement of the building in order to read the descriptions and see the caricatures of himself scrawled in graffiti across the walls. Thus it’s possible for him to gain some kind of perspective by juxtaposing these representations with the ridiculously fanciful distortions presented to him by his aides who are terrified of uttering the slightest word of negativity or criticism to him.

It has always been the case that leaders have intimidated their subordinates but it has also been the case, on occasion and sometimes for generations, that certain cultures have developed in which criticism is positively encouraged. In his 1958 essay “The Beginnings of Rationalism” Karl Popper traces the progress of the “tradition of critical discussion” back to the Ionian School of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales:

“I can hardly imagine a relationship between master and pupil in which the master merely tolerates criticism without actively encouraging it… At any rate, there is a historical fact that the Ionian school was the first in which the pupils criticised their masters, in one generation after the other… It was a momentous innovation. It meant a break with the dogmatic tradition which permits only one school doctrine, and the introduction in its place of a tradition that admits a plurality of doctrines which all try to approach the truth by means of critical discussion.” -Karl Popper

How might we create a culture in which criticism is not only tolerated but positively encouraged? Criticism is such a vitally important component of any discursive environment because it has the potential to identify and articulate genuine weaknesses, problems and difficulties and raise them for discussion and debate in such a way that they may be overcome, or that improved solutions might be developed and implemented. Criticism has a deeply powerful role to play in all aspects of culture and society but it can also be significantly intimidating for the same reason. Criticism has the potential to undermine and disrupt situations and conditions which may have been reasonably workable, if not wholly perfect beforehand. It can divide people, cause acrimony, suspicion and long-lasting distrust. Criticism often makes those who are criticised feel insecure, and when criticism is made of superiors they're very likely to interpret it as an affront to their authority or professional position. It's necessary therefore that all criticisms are proffered with a generous helping of tact in order that the person making the criticism doesn't undermine the very ground on which they stand, not to mention the value of the criticism offered. In 1848 John Stuart Mill was well aware of this necessity when he wrote:

“In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground…”

Such tact can take the form of considerate, well timed appropriately toned comments but in certain circumstances even this doesn’t guarantee open approval. In group situations the process of offering criticism can be even more complicated and often puts the individual making the criticism in a very vulnerable and uncomfortable position. In such group situations the tendency towards groupthink is very strong indeed and may even lead to individuals being ostracised if they’re seen to express what might be interpreted as dissenting opinion.

Groupthink can arise just as easily within egalitarian peer groups as it can within the hierarchy of groups with identified leaders. However, it’s only within hierarchical groups that leaders are likely to unwittingly dissuade critical input:

“For example, subtle constraints, which the leader may reinforce inadvertently, may prevent a member from fully exercising his critical powers and from openly expressing doubts about a risky course of action when most others in the group appear to have reached a consensus.” - Irving L. Janis 1982

In the book “Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes” from which the above quote derives, Janis describes how amiability amongst small groups of leaders can actually lead to unquestioned reinforcement and implementation of ill-formed decisions with potentially disastrous consequences. He therefore advocates a nine-point list of checks and reviews which are intended to counter groupthink and to arrive at thorough and fully considered outcomes. What I find most interesting here is that Janis’ suggestions are universally discursive in nature and place a great deal of emphasis on the leaders’ active promotion and “acceptance” of critical opinion.

In ideal circumstances the counter-opinions of others can be extremely useful to ensure that all avenues have been fully explored, but even within the solitude of our own thoughts there’s a constant process of give-and-take occurring between judgment and critical analysis which allows us to make more informed decisions about the experiences that we encounter. In 1996 the neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran put forward the hypothesis that the right and left hemispheres of the brain react differently to unexpected experiences. Whilst the left hemisphere of the brain seeks to maintain rationality and the continuity of belief, using a variety of cognitive processes and self deceptions; the right brain acts as a kind of devil’s advocate or “anomaly detector” that registers, and responds to, inconsistencies. The right brain (the side most commonly associated with creativity) therefore challenges and counters the left brain’s tendency towards superficial or unexamined answers.

So whether it is within group situations or the confines of one’s own mind, critical input is a vital tool in arriving at informed decisions. But who stands to gain the most from such decisions? In the case of individuals the answer is obvious but the case of groups it is less so. Everyone in a group benefits from the positive actions of the group, but the leader of any group always benefits (or suffers) the most. Despite the energy, vulnerability and tact which is necessary to giving criticism, it’s always the case that the person who stands to gain most from critical input is the leader of the group. This is a useful observation because it allows us to recognize something about what we could call the “economics of criticism”: something is given and something is received; something is sacrificed and something is gained. But, of course this isn’t always the case. The person making the criticism might not be doing it for purely altruistic reasons. Sometimes criticism is offered simply as a reprimand or retribution for some perceived injustice or incompetence. In this case it would be better to think of such criticism as defiance. Defiance is an expression of non-co-operation or counter action whereas criticism, when extended in the fullness of its potential, offers the hope of positive change. The obstacle to genuine criticism then, is that it’s too easily mixed with, or mistaken for, defiance.

It will be clear by now that there’s certainly a need for a high level of tact in the delivery of critical opinion to ensure that it’s taken in the spirit in which it was intended. But if we think further about the economics of criticism we can see that there’s also an additional emphasis on leaders themselves being willing and able to sustain criticism and engage it meaningfully, since, if they fully understand what they may have to gain through their acceptance of criticism, they’ll realize that such gifts also come with responsibilities. It might be useful here to develop this formulation of criticism as a kind of gift which needs to be packaged very carefully, but in addition to this careful wrapping there’s also a significant imperative, on the part of the receiver, in having the humility to understand that whilst not all gifts are things which are desired, they nonetheless represent a sacrifice on the part of the giver and the promise of a positive gain on the part of the receiver. The respect which this demands is a vital from of tact and one which all leaders would do well to cultivate.

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” –JS Mill

This essay was originally published on here.


David Miller (1983). A Pocket Popper. UK: Fontana.

John Stuart Mill (1848)1988. On Liberty. London: BPCC Paperbacks.

V.S. Ramachandran, The evolutionary biology of self-deception, laughter, dreaming and depression: some clues from anosognosia, Medical Hypotheses, November 1996, 47(5):347-62.

Irving L. Janis (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. London: Wadsworth