I have had great difficulty in embarking on this little piece; how can I write about criticism without being critical, when I find being critical so difficult?  Of course, I come home from work and complain, and from lots of other places and complain, but in the safety of my own dinner table and in the knowledge that my grumblings will not leave the room.  What is it that prevents me from sharing my expert knowledge with colleagues and other professionals – is it simply my own diffidence, or do we lack the culture that might encourage robust criticism of one another?  As teachers we have ingrained habits and attitudes, the way we always do things, and often assume other methods are either inferior or simply wrong.  (Actually, they may be better ways of doing things, but we lack the skills of doing it that way.)  And to compound this we may be doing things in the way we were taught ourselves – we who succeeded in the education system now relying on the methods that brought us success.

By way of example I will take one of my pet hates – the taking of the mouse.  As a learner myself at a local university I was following the teacher’s instructions to load a programme, but getting somewhat lost I asked for assistance. The teacher came over, took hold of the mouse, and proceeded to do the thing for me.  ‘Get off my mouse!’ I shouted, and explained that I was doing the learning, not her, and it required me do to the thing.   More recently a variation on the situation happened.  I was in the process of interviewing a prospective learner. I had given her a set of simple instructions to follow to undertake an online diagnostic test and asked a colleague the password to get on the local system.  My colleague immediately took the learner’s mouse, logged her in, selected the options, and set her off on the test. Inside I’m shouting ‘get off!’ but I can’t say it, then or later, for whatever reasons I still can’t fathom.  From the first meeting my aim is to empower my learning, and when I stand back to do so, and someone else jumps in, I get rather irate inside, but keep it inside.

Going back to the same university teacher, on a course for teachers, she had us cut out a triangle, tear off the corners, and arrange them to make a ‘straight line’, thus proving, she said, that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees.  ‘No we haven’t!’ I cried ‘you have demonstrated, rather roughly, that it works for this specific triangle, and in no way proved the general rule.’  I’m not confident that she grasped the difference, but why is it we find it so easy in a hierarchical order? I’m always happy to criticise someone teaching me, and someone I’m teaching, but never fellow teachers.

Online forums and resources seem to exasperate my feelings.  One of my managers often suggests that I look at something that has been recommended to her at some training session, or that she has read about, and I’m quite happy to write a page of thoughtful criticism.  When I see things that I think are a waste of money, considering the huge amount of free resources available, then I simply ignore them.  But sometimes I see free things that so offend my pedagogical beliefs I want to offer that criticism. And often those things have been willingly shared by other teachers who, like me, spend hours preparing resources they are glad to share.  If it is something that is based on a sound idea I’m happy to steal the idea and build upon it in my own way, and I hope people do the same with me.  But what if the principles are at odds with what I passionately believe in?

Should we keep it bottled up, being the best place for it, or should we share our thoughts in the hope that all of us can learn from one another, and that the listener or the reader will hopefully appreciate the place that criticism is coming from – a deeply held love of learning?


About Colin Billett

Maths teacher, among other things. View all posts by Colin Billett

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