On Risk-Taking, Constructive Criticism, and Gratitude
Yesterday at the end of class, students voted for a little informal Friday therapy, a chance to reflect and share. Silence followed when they were asked about challenges or concerns that they faced this week, but they lit up when I invited thank yous. Student after student mentioned teachers and peers, and they expressed gratitude for extra help, for hours spent after school, for encouraging behaviors and casual praise, for chances to retake quizzes and for keeping them on task. They were grateful for classmates helping each other, and two different students cited that they felt that everyone has come a long way in learning how to work together.
I believe that gratitude is an important and healthy component of an effective community, and studies reveal that when students “[practiced] more gratitude when they studied, they experienced increased engagement, greater connection to the subject and teacher, a deeper understanding of content, and increased motivation.”1 More than just building optimism and happiness, gratitude can be a catalyst for change.
However, gratitude is more than saying thank you. It requires actively using that appreciation for growth and learning, and that is why communities and individuals benefit from a culture of gratitude. Students can translate feeling grateful into motivation.
Gratitude is more complex than discussions of happiness. Happiness can be vital in the classroom, but it can also be confusing and elusive. Few students expect to feel joy over writing a required essay, but they are sometimes frustrated when they cannot get excited over every learning experience or derailed by perceived mistakes. But mistakes are not mistakes in all contexts. In education, learning, revising, and relearning reflect the endless possibilities for experience that exist in the world. Mistakes should be perceived as risks taken as students move one step closer to learning a particular skill or creating a special project. Those are risks worth taking.
There is a certain amount of risk inherent in learning, and students need to tackle those challenges head on. It is part of a teacher’s role to provide feedback, and students need to be trained how to give, receive, and ask for constructive advice. That feedback can help learners gain new perspectives and valuable insights, which will improve their work, but can also shape the culture of the class.
When a student shares a draft of a piece of writing or reveals a project in a state of flux, she is embracing the risks and rewards of self-improvement. In the last week, I saw students approach every teacher, regardless of discipline, for support, guidance, and advice on their literary analyses. Students helped each other find quotations, revise wording, or restructure for fluency. When I pull up chair for a conference, I try to honor the writer and the craft, while helping the student see the potential in what he has created. We are building a better model – constructing a stronger version – which is why the term constructive criticism is apt.
When you are genuinely open to constructive criticism, you are truly committed to learning and growing. Students are often more ready to experiment with trial and error or struggle independently than they are ready to listen to and incorporate constructive criticism into the framework of new learning. Because, paradoxically, it requires a certain a humility and bravery to use criticism effectively.
When experiencing constructive criticism, the recipient often starts from a position of perceived weakness. Once in this mindset, it becomes difficult to take in new information and even more difficult to change. However, if it is approached from a mindset that constructive criticism is actually about building on one’s strengths and that the recommendations are from a teacher who genuinely cares, negative reactions like fear and aggression can be reduced, and integration of new learning can be encouraged.
However, it can be difficult to convince a student that participating in constructive discussion is a risk worth taking, even though it makes the student and the product more effective. Another challenge is that it also can be frustrating to have to let go of some of our creations in order to improve. When someone gives you feedback, it can be intimidating or overwhelming, and sometimes the frustration of the process derails students. But obstacles shouldn’t halt the process of creating; they are at the heart of it.
In her TED Talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius” author Elizabeth Gilbert bluntly explains that ‘the frustration, the hard part, the obstacle, the insecurities, the difficulty, the ‘I don’t know what to do with this thing now,’ that’s the creative process.” And the creative process can be messy and tiring, and exciting and frustrating, all at the same time.
Teaching and learning are creative processes, and inherently challenging. But we, as teachers, must develop, promote, and model the very skills that we are trying to foster in our students. Positive risk-taking, embracing the frustration of the learning process, gracefully incorporating constructive feedback, and practicing gratitude shape the environment that we create.
So, I will add my own: I am grateful for InLab students, colleagues, parent, and supporters, and for the culture and community we have created.