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


Tamsin said...

This is a very strong and thoughtful post. Hope some teachers are reading it! That thing about judging what level of criticism a student can take can be very easy to get wrong. I remember being demolished on my first teacher training course because the tutor apparently thought I was very/too confident and 'needing taking down a peg or two'. In reality I was holding on with my fingernails, and the criticism made me feel (and I remember saying this at the time) 'as if someone had pricked me with a pin, and since then all my sand had slowly been running out' (as in imagining myself as a sandbag, for some reason...). It was very hard to come back from, as I felt so insecure in the first place. But no-one could see that.

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