Barry Garelick recently asked me a very thought-provoking question addressing what I've written about left-brainers and criticism:
In the conclusion chapter of your book, on p. 205, you make the point that compliments are favored over criticism, so students are really ill-prepared for the workforce ultimate, etc etc. Yet, on p. 115 of the book you make the point that left brainers get mediocre grades because they don't "participate" well nor do the "explanations" required, and so forth. Further, in that section of the book you talk about how in some areas, there is a grading system going from 1-4, and that no one gets "4's". This seems to contradict what you say later. There is criticism, some of it very harsh, both for the left brainers who can't play in the right brained world, and in grading systems for which the top grade is rarely, if ever, handed out.Perhaps the conclusion is that compliments are earned for doing superficial and non-academic, non-rigorous assignments, and that in some situations, criticism is so severe that everyone is ill-served.
Barry's question helped me significantly sharpen my question on this matter. So did a TV show I watched during one of my book tours. Here's how I responded to Barry:
I think part of what's going on is giving feedback vs. passing judgment. I most recently found this exemplified by a reality show I watched a couple of times along with some acquaintances during a mini-book tour. The show is So You Think You Can Dance, and the gimmick is that a group of young people each have to prepare and perform (individually) a bunch of different dances in different styles, and then have to stand on stage (here's where the voyeuristic element comes in) and listen to feedback from 3 different judges. Later even more drama ensues as all half dozen dancers stand on stage to find out which two of them are going to be eliminated before the next round.What struck me was how positive the feedback was--the judges (even the British one) seemed incapable of giving much in the way of criticism, and such criticism as there was was couched in so much positive that you barely noticed it. As a result, when they finally passed their judgment, regardless of who they eliminated, it was always a surprise, to all concerned.Not being a fan of reality competitions, I have no idea how common this protocol is, but it instantly struck me as emblematic of what happens in public schools. Tons of judgment (in highly choosy grades; in who gets to take violin lessons, in who gets gifted programming) but very little actual criticism--constructive or otherwise. And, yes, this makes the judgment all the harsher because you don't know the basis. On the other hand, when pushed by parents, teachers will insist that "a 3 is a good grade." (one reason I think they've moved from the standard letter grades to this less familiar number system--though parents now are catching on..) They also tell the kids that 3s are fine.
The second piece of the picture is that such criticism as does occur seems to me mostly not to target academic work, but behavior and social-emotional maturity. Here there in fact is a lot of criticism, as many teachers seem to mistake immaturity for willful disrespect and unkindness (which, in our zero-tolerance classrooms, seem to upstage the concerns about self-esteem that academic criticism raises). When I visited my daughter's kindergarten, I was astonished to hear this experienced and in many ways highly effective teacher call one boy out for turning away from his classmates towards the easel when explaining something to them: she felt he was being "disrespectful" by not facing his "friends" and speaking loud enough for them to hear him, when it seemed pretty clear to me he was just being a typical 5-year-old.
So in short I'd say we have highly hedged judgments instead of criticism, except when it comes to behavioral expectations.