It Doesn't Help to Hear What's Wrong

When I took the Dale Carnegie coaching, the most useful thing I learned was “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.”  This is really hard advice to follow.  A lot of people just can’t believe it’s true and I haven’t always been able to convince them. 


Recently I’ve been directed to a remarkable article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Feedback Fallacy” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.  The article explains why the idea of giving “feedback,” touted by a lot of businesses as a great tool for developing learning in their workforce, in fact has the opposite effect.  Telling someone how we think they should improve actually hinders their ability to learn and grow because it operates from faulty ideas about learning.


The authors point out three mistaken ideas that have led to this kind of feedback:  The first is that other people are more aware than you of your weaknesses, and the best way for them to help is to show you what you can’t see yourself.  The problem with this idea is that research demonstrates that humans are unreliable raters of other humans.


The second idea is that feedback about our weaknesses contains useful information which will accelerate someone’s learning.  In fact, however, the research demonstrates that we learn better in our areas of strength than our areas of weakness.  Calling attention to someone’s weaknesses has the effect of smothering learning, rather than encouraging it.


The third idea is that “great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is.”  But in fact, each person creates excellence in their own inimitable way.  The authors demonstrate this with the wonderful example of how no two stand-up comedians have the same approach to making someone laugh.


Obviously one must understand what ineffective things one is doing in order to improve.  The question isn’t whether feedback should be given, but how, and on what principles.  The authors suggest an approach where those who are giving feedback keep their words specific to their own experience (“Your presentation made me feel like…”).  They also suggest focusing on the moments in which a person has succeeded rather than failed, and calling attention to things that made the success possible.


I was delighted to read this article because it reminds me of the way we teach piano at my school, the Grant Park Academy of the Arts.  We work with players on recognizing the outcomes they are hoping to achieve, rather than focusing on their shortcomings.  We teach them to monitor their own successes and learn from them, rather than relying on us to report the ways we believe they have failed.


The article also explains so clearly why the standardized test movement has not only been largely useless for learning, but also detrimental.  SImple-answer right-or-wrong tests are bad enough for critical thinking skills.  Spending all our instructional time on test-prep is even worse, because it keeps everyone in the negative feedback zone, hindering instead of helping their learning of the subjects they are supposed to master.


I’d like you to come away from this blog knowing why it’s important not to criticize, condemn or complain.  Even more, though, I’d like you to have solid evidence-based arguments for why arts instruction is so powerful, especially when it’s presented in a way that is as far from standaradized models as possible.  And if you have feedback for me on this blog, you can leave a comment!!!



News From a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books 


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