October 9th, 2014
In other cultures, constructive criticism is accepted without emotional offense
One of my first activities as an Outstanding Educator in Residence with the Academy of Singapore Teachers two winters ago was to observe elementary school students using laptops in a “hands-on” digital storytelling activity. At the front of the classroom stood a twenty-something teacher, only six months into her profession. At the back of the room were 20 observers–yes, 20–led by the principal of the school and including department heads, curriculum leaders, and several Singapore Ministry of Education representatives.
As I watched this young teacher work in front of this large group, I thought about how I had never been observed by a total of 20 educators in my entire 15-year teaching career. Yet, despite the size of the group and the potentially intimidating presence of the principal and Ministry of Education admins, this energetic young teacher showed no noticeable signs of nervousness, or signaled that this was some unusual event.
Because it really wasn’t. Foreign visitor aside, regular classroom visits by colleagues and formal discussions of pedagogical practices are the norm in the Singaporean system. In each Singaporean school, classroom visits and pedagogical analyses are often led by the principal of the school, who, in each and every case, has been a classroom teacher. As such, this gravitas earns them almost immediate respect and recognition from their faculty in pedagogical matters. It’s telling that Singaporean teachers will refer to the principal of their school as their institution’s “instructional leader.” It’s an apropos title that denotes the primary responsibility of the head of any Singaporean school.
Yet, even more striking than this large congregation of observers was the conversation that ensued afterwards. All of the observers, as well as a few additional participants, gathered in a room immediately after the class to discuss it. The principal gave a brief opening evaluation of the lesson and then asked us to critique it point-by-point. (We all received a copy of the lesson beforehand.)
And critique it we did: the teacher’s stated instructional goals, her preparation, her instructional strategies, her pacing, her interactions with the students, her technology guidance, her wrap-up, and other facets of her lesson. While we were impressed with this young teacher’s poise and skill, we identified many areas for improvement. Furthermore, the educators in attendance were quite pointed in their criticisms of the teacher’s performance, while always measured and objective in tone. As the “special guest” of the day, it also became clear that they expected me to critique her lesson in detail.
Then the teacher showed up. Whoa. If this were an American school I’d be hesitant to critique a colleagues’ work out of fear that they would take the criticism personally. I’d be concerned that it might damage our working and personal relationships and create an awkward situation for years to come. I’d likely be obtuse in leveling any criticism at the teacher’s practices and instead spend most of the time lavishing praise on the teacher’s pedagogical strengths.
Actually, this is what I sometimes did when I served on my former school’s teacher evaluation committee. Each time I had to deliver a 45-minute face-to-face performance evaluation, I would nervously anticipate how the teacher might respond to a few minutes of constructive criticism. I’d take out as many sharp edges as I could and hope that I wouldn’t offend my colleague.
But here in this Singapore classroom, the air was totally different. This teacher–younger than my eldest stepdaughter–did not look particularly anxious when facing me. Since the other observers were not retreating from the criticism they leveled before she arrived, I also told her what I honestly thought of the lesson. I extended deserved praise, but I also delivered pointed constructive criticism. At the end, she appeared genuinely appreciative.
Could we in the United States create school cultures in which instructing colleagues on how they might improve performance is not a rare and emotion-laden event, but rather an accepted and valued mechanism in the development of desirable professional practice?
Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organization.