Who wants the cold hard truth?

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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?”

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

4 responses to “Who wants the cold hard truth?

  1. I think your friend is a very special person and you shouldn’t make the analogy between him and your students. He’s highly committed to what he is doing and very confident that he really wants to do it.Your students are vulnerable and exploring what it is they think they can do. With your criticism, you’re not only showing them what good reasoning looks like, you’re sending them a message about whether they can — or want to! — do this activity. I always try to find the good reasoning buried in my students’ work, if I can, and mention that first. They can be very fragile! In college, I have to deal with many students who are absolutely convinced “they can’t do math” and wooing them away from that (surprisingly comfortable) stance can be a long and challenging task.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe. I think we agree for the most part, especially when it comes to the vulnerability of learners. (see my last post.) We also seem to agree that what we say about student work can all but shut them out of something they aren’t (yet?) fully committed to. I wouldn’t say my friend is “very special,” but he is certainly highly committed. That’s my point exactly.

      Once a student is fully invested in their work, they are past this point. They’re ready for the candid opinions so long as they can trust it is directed towards their goal. How often does school allow them to set goals they value?

      Finally, the “I’m not good at math” thing is not a college problem. By the time they finish elementary school, many kids have developed deep-seated anxiety and inferiority with regards to math. I think it’s for exactly this reason. We require them to follow a prescribed and dictated developmental sequence, and in so doing we often prevent them from working on the mathematical curiosities they already possess.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  2. Another critical component on getting feedback is whether or not there will be an opportunity to revise and improve your work based on these comments. Often on a quiz or a test, students are not given the opportunity to correct and clarify their work–the test is basically set in stone. So why bother to make any changes?

    One of the things I love about the classes I inherited this year is the culture of revision that has been established. Students do practice quizzes, quiz recycles, and give one another peer evaluations on their POWs, all as part of an ongoing process to improve.

    • Totally agree. Feedback should always be formative, keeping the student and teacher connected in a process of growth. When a grade is meant to represent the sum of a term’s work or a simple performance, it is essentially non-actionable, and hence pointless to the students.

      It’s nice to hear you’ve got a good thing going with your students this year. That’s all we need – teachers and students on a roll together.

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