My life feels overly full at the moment, with college recommendations, uninteresting graduate work, having to look for a new apartment, and on and on, but my mind is teeming as well, so I need to get some thoughts down.
Richard, a friend of mine, has taken on the massive project of writing a screenplay, and this Friday I took part in a reading of his most recent draft. Something got me thinking. When are we ready to hear the cold hard truth about our work? Can we ever get right down to it, without all the fluff?
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I loved the reading for so many reasons!
My parents were both actors, and I was really into theater in high school, but in college I was sort of intimidated and never took part. Reconnecting with myself as a performer was really exciting and personal. Secondly, I loved the spontaneous creativity of it all – coming together in one room to create something live. Most of all, I loved that Richard was willing to share something so personal with us. I know too well how daunting it can be to open creative work up for critique, so when he asked for our “candid opinions,” I felt I should be careful.
For over two hours, we sat there reading out the parts and narration, from start to finish. Once the applause died down, Richard announced he would use the bathroom, but then he really did want our feedback. (“Save the psychoanalysis for another time”, he said.) We were mostly silent in the interim, reflecting on the experience, but what happened next sort of shocked me.
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Paul, another friend, who read for the main character began with this, “first of all, you can’t write a screenplay like this. It’s completely exhausting! You’re doing everyone’s job and it has to be cut down.” Without saying more than a word of praise, Paul went on to call the math “so undergraduate,” (Heisenberg and Einstein appear) as part of an unflinching and frank analysis of the work. Everything was on the table.
His comments came off as rather harsh, to me, but then I saw Richard. He focused his eyes on the floor and listened carefully to the critique. Richard nodded, but when it came time, defended a few points and rethought a few others. He was by no means phased, stunned, hurt, or disheartened by the criticism. Richard really wanted this. It was the reason he had called us here, and he took Paul’s comments seriously.
This set the tone, and for the next twenty minutes, we got very involved in breaking down the screenplay. Did that make sense? Was that unmotivated? Was that bit comedically cheap? What’s missing? We took turns attacking and defending the work, focusing on the specifics of the writing and experience we had shared, confident that Richard was undeterred and would use this information to improve the screenplay. This was the thing we all wanted and were now a part of.
As I listened to Paul, I started to wonder if students want to be talked to this way. Does it ever make sense to say, “you know, I don’t think this is very good at all, and here’s why?”
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When you require a student to take your test or complete your homework assignment, also subjecting them to harsh and condemning criticism can be cruel and unproductive. When is criticism helpful, and when is it just salt in the wounds?
I think the difference is personal attachment and investment in the work.
If I don’t care about the test I’ve just taken or problem I’ve just worked on, then why should I care what you have to say about it? On the other hand, when I’ve worked hard to create something worth while, something I really care about, something I want to be great, when anything less than awesome will be unsatisfying to me personally, then I need the truth. I can deal with the harsh reality, because I need your help to get where I want to be.
On the other hand, if we’re talking about something I only did out of obligation or requirement, then I’m not likely to receive your negativity very well. How well does this description fit students who see themselves as “not really a math person?” How can blunt, borderline scathing criticism help in that case?
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Justin makes a really good point. If you want to know what kind of feedback your students would appreciate, then ask them. I continue to think it’s all about personal attachment to growth and creation.
How do we get our students to make their education significant and meaningful? How do we make our feedback really impactful? In both cases, I say “help them work on personally significant and meaningful things.”
Let go of requirement and see the wider spectrum of learning. Help them follow their interests and make something great. Something they care about.