Praise plus a backhander

26th October 2012 at 01:00

I'm sick of targets. Whatever you do, however hard you work, however many hours you put in, someone will always tell you how you could have done it better. In fact, a whole lexicon of acronyms has been specifically designed to let you know that however good you are, you're not quite good enough.

In my school we've just adopted a new feedback system: we now use three WWWs (what went wells) and one EBI (even better if). I suspect other schools have been using these for years, but when it comes to the latest pedagogical fashions our senior leadership team is dated.

EBI is a tool used by senior managers after lesson observations. You could have spent hours laminating the Amazon rainforest and have the kids shuffling their card-sorting activities faster than a Vegas croupier and the phrase "even better if" will still pop up in feedback. And then all the nice comments get flushed down the pan, leaving that one turd of criticism bobbing on its own. Why can't they just say: "Well done, have a biscuit"? Just for once it would be refreshing to be praised unstintingly without that pinching caveat for improvement.

Other professionals don't have to put up with such relentless performance management targets. In my husband's world of theatre, for example, actors are rewarded with standing ovations and huge bunches of flowers. A particularly canny performer can even curry a few more compliments from the grey-haired audience stragglers who hang around the bar. Old ladies lavish praise like my husband sprinkles talc, mindlessly scattering it in every direction.

Whenever I see my husband perform, I've learned to give good praise. Like a dutiful theatre wife, I reassure him that his timing was marvellous, his rhetoric divine and his codpiece three inches bigger than anyone else's. Eventually I slip in a tiny target for improvement, but not until he's been home for a week and fixed the leaking shower. The trick is to drop it casually into the conversation. So just as he's wedging the chopping board into an already over-stacked dishwasher, I might let drop that his Richard III would have been more convincing if he hadn't alternated the limp.

There's no such mealy-mouthed abeyance for teachers. We are imperfect practitioners and we need to be told right away. It doesn't help, of course, that the tools we use are continually being discredited. As today's teaching strategies have the shelf life of freshly picked spinach it's easy to criticise lessons for being a tad stale. Nor does it help that we change our taxonomies as often as our socks. My school's latest pedagogical craze is SOLO. We have abandoned the conventional Bloom's triangle for a whole heap of hexagons. Somewhere, I suspect, a consultant with a Spirograph is laughing all the way to the bank.

But it's not just teaching staff who face neverending targets. The kids do, too. Whenever we mark work we never just say "Good". Even when it is exactly that we always add some nitpicky point for improvement. I've marked work that's been so impressive I've struggled to identify any targets, but rather than flout our A4L policy, I've made up a fatuous new goal. "Develop a more conceptualised response" invariably means that I haven't the faintest clue what to suggest.

It's time for this quibbling to cease. Let's have a moratorium on making half-cocked suggestions for questionable improvements. Instead, when you see fabulous work, just tick it.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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