A Critical Friend

It’s very interesting to see feedback getting so much attention as a concept in education at the moment. It’s lovely to see so many examples of teachers using critique in such complex and intelligent ways. Unfortunately for me, though, the word feedback always makes me think of that moment when you go too close to a speaker with a microphone, and you hear that awful whine of sounds being bent out of shape. Feedback has the potential to be positive, but it also has the habit of being negative. We should take care not to forget, in all the talk about feedback, that critique can be hurtful. If you look around yourself on the Internet you will often see adults upset because someone said that something they did wasn’t good enough, or true enough, or worth the words it was written with. When feedback turns into pure criticism, it has the power to destroy. So I reckon we need to be really careful about how specific our feedback is to individuals in front of a whole class. Not everyone in the world wants their work put on the stage.

One of the things I think about writing is that you need a bit of space to do it badly. To figure out how to do it by yourself by making mistakes and then repairing them. For sure, you need a teacher to pick you up on technique, and accuracy, but you also need time to understand what you want to throw away and what you want to keep. If you are going to be a writer, eventually you have to find your own voice, rather than having one given to you. Writing is both deeply personal and horribly public – it takes courage to put your words out into the world where people might not like them. And feedback can be the thing that makes the difference. Years and years and years ago, I wrote a story called Palomino, Little Horse. My teacher wrote a comment on my story that made me feel that she liked my writing. I liked it too, and I still have the exercise book. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that feedback doesn’t have to be a loud noise, in a public place, with immediate impact. It can be a moment between child and teacher – a moment when one is a writer, and the other is a reader. Because maybe what you most needed just at that point wasn’t someone to critique you publicly, maybe what you needed was a critical friend.

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