Critic vs. audience: which teacher is best?

Kids ask three questions when they do work in our class:

What did I do?

What should I do?


How did I do?

Two of those questions lead to dependence. They lead to grade-chasing. The other question creates self-directed learners. Do these questions sound vague? If so, here’s another look:


The pyramid of student response. Like the food pyramid, a source of much controversy.

What did I do?

This is the question that students don’t ask enough. They might start asking it, though, if we teach self-assessment. When we answer this question, we give feedback. Giving feedback involves this process:

  1. We look at our instructional goals.
  2. Then, we look at the work that the students have done. Does the work meet the goals? To what extent? Were all parts completed? Were some parts missing?
  3. We report this information back to students.

It’s so simple. It feels trivial. But in this case, our gut reaction might be wrong. Feedback is important.

Feedback looks something like this:

“You used three of the five required quotes in your essay. You did not include a works cited page.”

“You spoke without a single ‘um’ during your presentation. You also used relevant images to support your ideas.”

“After you published your review of Ender’s Game, four students checked out the book!”

Notice that the students get a report on their actions and nothing more. The goal is to be a mirror, reflecting back the way that students meet goals.

Just think, feedback is the common, useful response that real writers get. If we publish writing, we see feedback based on its effectiveness. This comes from likes, shares, replies, purchases, or another action by readers. If we speak in a presentation, conversation, discussion, or meeting, we get feedback too. Listeners laugh, nod, fall asleep, ask questions, take notes, or reach out afterwards. This is feedback.

And usually, the audience doesn’t tell us how to improve. That’s up to us. We might overhear or read an opinion about our work, but we don’t have people saying: “Thank you for your cover letter. It probably gets a C-. Make your closing a bit more persuasive.” No. Instead, we don’t get the job. So, we look at that feedback and try to figure out what we did wrong.

Or… in some cases, we ask a trusted mentor this question:

What should I do?

This is advice. Advice is OK, but it should come sparingly. Lead with feedback, then a little advice. The problem is that many teachers (me) often lead with advice. In fact, it might be the only thing students here.  This creates learned helplessness. It promotes a place where the students are trying to figure out what the teacher wants so they can score more points.  That’s not learning. That’s a game.

Again, some advice = good, just advice = bad.

Advice looks like this:

“Try to pause more often in your next speech. Imagine that the audience wants you to speak very slowly. Even if you feel uncomfortable, you’ll be speaking at the right speed.”

“Check out the Purdue OWL site for more information on how to create in-text citations.”

“Next time, you might want to include hyperlinks to the author’s other books.”

These are instructions to help students meet goals.  Of course, teachers are experts, so we guide students toward goals. But, feedback comes first so students know where advice is leading. Then, teachers can practice reducing advice, so students learn to make their own corrections.

Now, I teach in a real school, which requires these pesky things called grades. Our shared love of grades is why students ask one question more than any other:

How did I do?

When we answer this question, we give judgement.  Judgement is like feedback because it describes a performance. But judgement is less specific and less useful. It is the work of a critic.

Judgement looks like this:


“Good work”


“Needs improvement”

No matter how much we tweak rubrics, this stuff is subjective.  It’s important to accept that. Teachers can fall in love with a grading system. It might be well-organized, I’ll give you that. It doesn’t promote learning, though.

If a student writes a “B+” paper, she has no idea how to get better. And, even if I give her feedback: “your analysis partially explained the evolution of Odysseus,” she will ignore the feedback and ask “so how can I get an A?” She is back to requesting advice. Back to dependence.

If, instead, I had responded like an audience: “your analysis of the evidence about Odysseus’s evolution did not quite convince me of your thesis,” then the focus is on the task. The student is compelled to examine her work, reflect, and look for the place to fix.

A creator loves his audience (did you know I love you, dear reader?). Through an objective report, the audience validates the creator’s work and implicitly guides him. But a creator does not love his critics. It’s no mistake that critics get a bad rap in our culture. They are the ones that do not make, but simply judge. I’d like to be less of a critic for my students and more of an audience. I think it’ll help them grow.

Are you more of an audience or a critic? What actions do you do that show this? Let me know in the comments.

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