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This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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Destructive Criticism

Tonight I attended a music competition at my daughter's school. We were truly blown away by the standard of all of the acts which had been organised, choreographed and written by the pupils themselves. Genuinely talented, nice kids lifting the spirit with their energy and commitment.

Then came the adjudication. One of the most inappropriate responses I have seen in years. Every comment on every item had to have the obligatory "could try harder" element which of course ended up being delivered with more relish than the rest of the feedback.

Goodness knows what motivated the woman but her behaviour struck me as a classic case of being given authority and assuming that that means keeping things in check and being in a position of knowing better - even if you don't. You can stack it up alongside the price of pomposity as one of those so, so damaging, and unnecessary, aspects of authority that we could well do without.

Reader Comments (14)

This notion that has infected schooling that students must be "dragged down" in some way so as to make everyone in the class "equal" has to stop! The net effect is to take students with talent or ability and turn them off exploring and using it, while doing nothing useful for the laggards.

Good thing I wasn't there — people like that deserve a public dressing down.

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Stewart

Imagine how hard the woman will be judging herself - continuously throughout her life - and what fruits that will bear

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMartijn Linssen

What a shame. I suspect she thinks she is doing good and justifies her actions as "speaking the truth" and "being transparent" in an attempt to "get the most" out of the students. Perhaps she even likens herself to Simon Cowell, who has gained huge popularity for his harsh criticism.

July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRex Lee

The June issue of new free online mag - http://fearlessstories.com/ - includes an interview with Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander who takes the approach of giving his students an A at the start of the year, then teaching & treating them like they are already that. He also is on Ted Talks.

July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClaire O'Boyle

Great link Claire - thanks. And yes I have seen Zander's talk and it is very much the reason for annoyance at this woman.

July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

"You know, you could try harder" was my father's refrain during my adolescence, and when I objected, he of course turned to "That's what your teachers tell us" .. and all because I wasn't right at the top of the class.

That "constructive" criticism from my father has stayed with me much (or all ?) of my adult life, and been more of a hindrance than a help.

It's open-ended, a recipe for wondering about and doubting yourself, I think .. insidious.

I've talked about it with him a number of times as an adult .. I think my father gets it now, although many deep beliefs remain embedded in people. My guess is that he'd probably still fall back to that perspective ...

July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJon H.

Great comment Jon and just the point I was trying to make. The attitude is so deeply ingrained that people assume it is the right way to be.

We're not talking here about promoting some namby pamby alternative of everyone being told they are wonderful when they are not but just resisting the systematic put down.

July 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

I had close to the same experience as John H. with my father. He was simply incapable of recognizing the positive things I did and consistently pointed out, and dwelled upon, those things I didn't do right.

When I was only 19 years old he (believing I was on the road to becoming a "bum") bought me a small snack shop in downtown Los Angeles. I was excited at the thought of being a small business owner, but really had no idea of what I was up against.

Every day he would come in and the first thing he would do was look for something I didn't do or something I did . . . but wrong (by his lights). It was exceedingly frustrating, ended in my asking him to sell the business, and affected me negatively for many years.

This woman's approach is very nearly child abuse IMO. I was lucky enough to work things out with my father a couple of years before his death. Otherwise, I might still have more neuroses than currently plague me. It's highly unlikely these children will have the same opportunity though, hopefully, the damage won't be as pervasive.

July 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRick Ladd

Some people, especially those in authoritative positions are never satisfied with "just good" outcomes on anything I fear. In the event of not having anything constructive to say, silence becomes so precious!

Hope the kids didn't take her too serious.

July 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterclaudio alegre

What got me really annoyed was that one of the sixth formers who had been responsible for organising the whole event so well, and so graciously, ended up in tears!

July 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

As a traditional musician, I cannot even fathom how music and competition ever became connected. It says a lot about a culture that one plays music for prizes. You might as well have a competition for best induction of a psychological flow state, or nicest appreciation of a sunrise.

Competition is unnecessary to artistic quality. Of course many artists choose to compete anyway as a way of honing and edge, but competition is not the point of music. To be submerged into that context at a young age is harsh. I hope dearly that these young people, both the organizers and the performers (all of them artists) survive this episode, but the sad truth is that many of them will report in the future that THAT evening, something ended for them.

And this is not about everyone levelling quality. This is about providing experiences and opportunities for children as artists to discover their own creativity and hone it to a fine offering for the world.

Those who would assert their egos as judges in this format are little people indeed, and would be better advised to spend time alone working with their own minds rather than inflicting their insecurities on children and tender, developing artists.

July 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris Corrigan

"Those who would assert their egos as judges in this format are little people indeed." Oh, hear, hear. My hackles are rising at the thought of that sixth former in tears.

I was briefly a secondary school teacher - most rewarding job I ever did, by a long way. The kids were full of enthusiasm, fun, a deep desire to please and to have a go at anything . In how many workplaces could you experience that? Don't get me wrong - they were wee monkeys. That's the way I liked it, though.

Political correctness, a stifling National Curriculum and a system that worked against the interests of children drove me way from teaching.

July 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Trouble is, being negative is an easy way out.

You can choose whatever standpoint you like, and dismiss something for not measuring up to it. To be constructive requires an appreciation of what that person is trying to achieve and building on from there.

However, this was a competition, and I'm sensing a bit of a parallel process going on here with the above comments: just as we're all castigating this woman for her negative / destructive remarks, how healthy are we for being critical of someone who is doing her job as a judge in what is clearly billed as a competition?

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Trust me Mark - she misjudged the situation (pardon the pun). The headmaster actually apologised publicly to the whole school.

July 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterEuan

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