Receiving Critical Feedback
I remember the critical feedback of others in so many respects were uninvited, imposed, and unexpected, as well as scathing and nasty. Harsh teachers that would ridicule your answer they demanded you to provide even when you did not know the answer. I once had a teacher at George Brown College teaching web design who would lecture the students, asking questions as challenges in a condescending tone, and then wait impatiently and petulantly and stop the class for a moment or so for someone to volunteer an answer, and then mock the student who tried to offer an answer. I had a colleague teaching IT in Terrace visiting a few years back asking what I taught at the local college campus in Prince Rupert, and when I replied, he mocked me with his friend standing by, saying that “I guess someone should do it for the low literacy learners”, and they laughed together at his nasty joke.
I always hated having to write the first paper for a new course during my undergraduate studies; I never knew how the professor would mark the paper – there was never much guidance for what to do. I got one chance to get it right. One time I wrote an English paper and the Teaching Assistant was really arrogant and condescending, providing a scathing criticism of my written assignment. I wrote back an equally scathing criticism of the TA’s marking, and handed it back to the Professor, asking him to discuss it with the TA, and criticizing the whole process of allowing an untrained, arrogant TAs an opportunity to mark and provide feedback to first-year students’ writing assignments… I was so annoyed I dropped the course and it has stayed with me as how not to provide feedback on student writing.
What about the times I remember of others giving me nurturing feedback? Tough but fair feedback? I have received a lot of positive feedback. There was a Professor that gave me an option to re-write my essay after giving me a grade of C+, with a list of improvements to implement. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and re-wrote it, trying to account for his feedback. I was able to upgrade my grade to an A-. It was a pivotal moment in my experience as a learner, and it influenced me greatly on how I provided writing instruction as a literacy practitioner and ESL instructor in the future.
How I respond to criticism depends on a number of factors: did I expect it, or did it come out of the blue? Was the person doing the criticizing have power over me in some way? Do I respect and like the critic? Does the criticism match up with what I already think (my inner critic)? Does the way the critic provides feedback trigger an earlier memory that floods me with shame and anger and defensiveness? Is the feedback I receive matching up with the learning context?
This learning context typically requires the role of dependency and trust for the learner. It is the assumed base of all learning transactions that require voluntary adoption of a learner mindset, which is evident in many learning situations in a classroom or workplace setting. The student or worker is supposed to be ready to be obedient and be ready to listen and follow instructions, believing the instructor’s expertise will help them. The student or worker needs to be open and willing to listen to an expert and is supposed to provide permission to receive criticism in order to learn and develop skills. In return, the student or worker expects to grow and transition from a state of dependency and a novice state with a lack of skills and knowledge to more of an expert.
This learning context provides a set of roles and expectations, an implied contract, or code of conduct, and key to that is the role of feedback flowing from the learner to the boss/instructor and back again. As well, the boss/instructor is supposed to be responsive to cues from the learner/worker to alter or modify the learning experience. The boss/instructor is supposed to offer feedback in a balanced fashion, offering a feedback framework and schedule, stating explicitly this is what the instructor/critic is looking for as a critic, and this is how the task or knowledge/skills will be evaluated for a learner/worker. The boss/instructor is supposed to be clear in the methods for how the feedback will be offered, and give reasons why.
So, this is ultimately where the learning transaction breaks down: our own set of expectations as learners, whether in the workplace or in the classroom, don’t usually match the reality in a workplace or formal classroom setting. More often than not, we are shamed, criticized, put down, harassed, and bullied by co-workers, peers, bosses, supervisors, fellow classmates, and teachers in one form or another. Constantly ranked and found wanting against others, as well as devalued, invalidated, ignored, taunted, teased and shamed – this is the reality of our workplace and formal learning settings. This is why many opt out of the learning offered by formal institutions altogether.
The truth is that learning seldom takes place as expected; however, we are very resilient; we learn in spite of the many crappy ways we receive feedback and the lousy learning contexts we find ourselves in.