Critique, c'est chic

7th February 2014 at 00:00

Feedback. It's the new black on the educational catwalk. Like legions of other teachers, I've abandoned last season's comfort-fit targets and started lacing my students into leaner, meaner corsets in my efforts to raise their grades. No longer are their books full of plush praise and loose-fitting adjectives. "Delightful", "lovely" and "convincing" have been replaced with haute couture instructions, involving buttoned-down assessment objectives and an exhortation to redraft.

The redrafting process is great because a) students improve their grades by revising previous work, and b) even the most inept school inspector can't miss the forensic trail of progression that a redraft leaves behind. Particularly if you foghorn it by getting the children to write "MY HOMEWORK REDRAFT" on the front in humongous letters.

Students respond well to feedback. You tell them what they can do to improve and they take it on the chin. However candid your criticism - and I've let some stingers go in my time - they rarely let wounded egos get in the way of their learning. The same is not true of adults. In my experience, our ability to accept criticism wanes at much the same time as our eyesight. It's as if we have a finite capacity for self-improvement. You start nearing the brim at 40 and by 50 you've reached saturation point, so that any new advice poured in your ear comes straight out and down your leg. And just as we stop taking advice, we start dishing it out in spades.

My husband and I, for example, spend a great deal of time pointing out each other's vast inadequacies. His latest target for improvement is my cooking. Thanks to his recent supporting role in preparing the Christmas dinner, he thinks he's God's gift to gravy and wants me to perk mine up with white wine, tarragon and the zest of the ancient lemon that's been languishing in the fruit bowl. But, as his culinary prowess entails setting off the smoke detector every time he makes toast or ruining a perfectly good leg of lamb by studding it with anchovies (I'm not making that up), I feel justified in ignoring his advice.

He, in turn, is deaf to my suggestions: that his driving skills would improve with at least one hand on the wheel; that removing tissues from his jogging pants would be easier before they are washed; or that shoulder-charging his laundry into the machine causes the powder stains on his sweaters. I suspect we ignore each other's comments because we recognise each other's failings. And, much as I want to heed his words, it's hard to take guidance from a man who forgets to fasten his flies.

Fortunately, my students haven't yet learned that I have feet of clay. And long may that continue. I suspect that if they could see the books cascading over my floor, the parlous state of my fridge or the skeins of tights tangled in drawers, my instruction to "organise your work effectively" might lose its punch.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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