Must Criticism be Constructive?

There has come into being a widely held view, writes the philosopher Raymond Geuss, that ‘merely negative’ criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It’s not so much that I constantly come across enjoinders about the need to be constructive in my life as an educator. It’s more that I sense it’s just generally pretty well assumed – both by myself and my colleagues – that if we’re going to be critical of a pupil’s behaviour or work, then constructive criticism (insofar as this is possible, and in whatever way we care to offer it) is the best way to go.

What, after all, is the alternative? For any educator to refer to a ‘non-constructive’, ‘deconstructive’, or ‘destructive’ criticism they had just made of a pupil or their work would likely provoke misgivings. Aside from being rather unlovely phrases (is ‘non-constructive’ perhaps the least worst?), each of them suggests the kind of negativity whose supposed defectiveness Geuss highlights. For teachers, being negative might involve offering the sort of comment that is not calculated to build up, inspire or encourage; that does not aim to offer any kind of praise at all; and that is concerned only to illustrate shortcomings or problems.

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I want to suggest three possible contexts in which, contrary to popular wisdom, criticism of a negative sort can make good sense. The first two will, I think, seem reasonably uncontroversial; the third, perhaps, less so. In each context it would be a mistake to assume (despite appearances) that the negative framing of a criticism – and its consequent lack of ‘constructive’ emphasis – is the end of the story. Behind any given ‘non-constructive’ criticism (at least, that is, along the lines considered here) lies a hidden positive intent.

First, simple rule enforcement. The tie is not on; the shirt is untucked; the mobile phone is out; the teacher is being talked over; the chair is being rocked on. And so forth. Simple negative direct commands in such cases can be just that: negative. There’s nothing encouraging, uplifting or inspirational about telling a child to stop pushing into the lunch queue. Aside, that is, from a hidden positive intent: everyone will likely stand to benefit in some way from the relevant rule being followed; the child needs to learn about how to behave respectfully within a community. This point stands also in respect of more serious disciplinary matters.

Second, a sustained lack of effort. I think there must come a point when an alternative to positive encouragement and gentle supportiveness (most teachers’ default setting) is required in such a scenario. This need not take the form of the old-fashioned rollicking, but it could certainly involve pointing out repeated sloppy mistakes, false promises, opportunities missed, or a generally poor attitude – and doing so pretty pointedly. The general intention behind the criticism here will of course be to make clear that the individual in question could and should be doing a lot better. It needn’t follow, though, that an explicit statement to this effect is required. Leaving the point implicit might in fact have more of an effect.

Third, and finally, in the context of a given piece of written work that just doesn’t measure up (even though some effort may have been made and at least some marks have been awarded). This might seem controversial territory. Shouldn’t the point here be to build on what’s gone well and to suggest ways to address the less good bits? I wouldn’t at all wish to rule out the validity of approaching things in this way a good deal of the time – not least because I do just this myself! At the same time, however, I think something can also be said for adopting a more steadfastly negative line.

Sloppy errors of fact, culled from a notoriously unreliable source, that are presented without much care or thought in the context of an essay might deserve a negative response. So too might an assignment which has clearly been completed in a rushed or haphazard manner. So also work which simply sets down on paper a collection of irrelevant comments (or, for that matter, a slapdash summary of what a pupil happens to know already about a particular topic) which don’t engage with an essay question that’s been posed.

In each of these cases, a resolutely negative response often seems to me justified. I hope this doesn’t just show that I’m making good headway on the path toward an increasingly irascible old age. As already mentioned, the motivation underlying a negative criticism, even in this third category, can remain a positive one. Albeit implicitly, such criticism can make the point that better work could and should have been produced; that high standards need to be met and are attainable. Better this, surely, than airy comments that don’t take the trouble to pinpoint the clear shortcomings in a poor piece of work. Or a saccharine avoidance of any kind of reprimand. As long as praise is (or is known to be) forthcoming when exacting standards are met, it makes sense to employ the judicious use of negative feedback when they aren’t.

Completing any challenging assignment (particularly in arts and humanities subjects) ought to be, at least in part, about helping pupils to find their own voice, to wrestle with tricky and even intractable questions, and to read and write with clarity and insight. Negative criticism is a way of trying to jump-start this process. If a pupil is producing work that doesn’t offer anything by way of critical questioning, thinking outside the box, or self-aware thoughtfulness, the jolt of some negative criticism can offer a useful means of redress.

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