This post is part of a series, When Giftedness Gets Annoying.
Do you have a gifted student who always is analyzing and evaluating everything, offering a barrage of unsolicited critiques? Do you often feel you and students live beneath the hot lamp of “The Critic”?
The critical nature of the gifted mind can be a great gift of some students. Certain students can see problems, name them, and dissect them quickly. They are problem finders and preview the twists, turns, and consequences that people, systems, and organizations could face if such problems are not resolved. Sometimes this gift can feel a bit less like one to others if they are on the receiving end of constant critique, and if the feedback isn’t balanced.
Let’s look at a case study that represent some actual instances of gifted student behaviors. We’ve chosen student profiles where a gift, interest, or talent may present with multiple sides. How do you respond to the “rough seas” of giftedness and do a positive redirect? How do you harness the best side of the behavior and help students develop skills that lead to smoother sailing? These are the gray areas we like to discuss.
How do you respond to the critical characteristic in gifted behavior?
Share with us below!
Every time you introduce a new project or assignment, V’s hand shoots up. “Um, why are we doing it this way?” he often says. “I see a problem…” He might often have a point about your pedagogy, and there was that one when your assignment was missing critical directions that all students needed. You delayed the assignment a day, made some fixes, and everyone benefited. But sometimes you do feel a little embarrassed as all students turn to look at your response to V. His look at you is often quizzical, as if you are maybe beneath his microscope, and not exactly what he was looking for. He is also the one who always finds the comma splice on your handouts. From the picayune to the topics of prime importance, V’s critical eye is forever ON IT.
Sometimes his critiques are so frequent, you’re tempted to reply, “Well, why don’t you take over the class, then?” You might also see other students casting baleful eyes his direction, as in, “Here goes The Critic, AGAIN.”
Some positive redirects
- Acknowledge the gift. When you speak with a critic, share what type of feedback is most helpful to you and students. For example, if V found a problem that does need to be addressed, express gratitude and appreciation. Categorize the type of feedback. For example, you might say: “V, when you saw that three steps in the lab assignment were missing, I was so glad you spoke up! Students need that critical information. Whenever you see any gaps in clarity, I appreciate it!”
- Seek to understand. V has a gift for problem finding. What about that gives him the greatest satisfaction? What does he hope will happen, whenever he shares feedback? What types of problem finding does he do when he’s not in school? Ask.
- Be sensitive to how criticism might be working for V, even if it’s not always working for others. Sometimes critics have strong fears or concerns, and they feel more in control when critiquing a situation, because it allows them to do a dress rehearsal for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Keep in mind that some students who have experienced trauma use criticism as a coping mechanism and self-protection, so a sense of empowerment might be there in being able to tell people what the problem is. If your feedback is too critical (ironically!) that can lead to a situation of two critics facing off, so keep an open mind as to what critique accomplishes for V. Sometimes it feels good to imagine you are the “smartest in the room” (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton), and some of the greatest minds have had–still have!–this challenge in their lives.
- Talk about balance. If you haven’t addressed what balanced feedback looks like with your students, talk to V about what that looks like, building off what he already knows. More on this follows. You might also discuss the difficulty of acknowledging when we make mistakes. The person who can never admit they are wrong is a difficult person, and those who can apologize and acknowledge errors help build relationships. How can you model the ability to acknowledge mistakes, while coaching V to acknowledge his as well?
- Discuss the 3 Ts: Tone, Timing, and Tact. If V’s feedback has been relentless and sometimes less than helpful, reach out for a check-in, analyzing his tone, timing, and tact. How does V do with these three?
- Tone. Ask him: How would you describe the tone of voice you use when giving feedback? What is an appropriate tone to use? How do you know? (If needed, demonstrate multiple ways of delivering the same sentence and ask him to use emotional words to characterize those tones. Neutral, charged, upbeat, gleeful, frustrated, condescending. Note in this scenario, we don’t mention V’s tone, but that sometimes can be the issue with a student.) How do you think your listeners feel when hearing that particular tone?
- Tact. Ask him: How do you think people feel when receiving feedback that focuses on what isn’t working? Why might that be? How can the way you give feedback assist with helping people receive it better?
- Timing. How often do you think you give critical feedback? What seems to be a reasonable amount of times to give feedback within a day? A week? What do you think about making one to two suggestions a week, instead of seven? Do you think you can try that?
- Re-use these words as needed–tone, tact, timing–after this discussion about the 3 Ts, especially if V continues to use public spaces to express his critiques and he is struggling to set healthy boundaries. For example, if his critical feedback exceeds a certain amount in a week, and/or it’s delivered with a negative tone, you might respond publicly with a request for him to modify his frequency or tone.
- Find some problem-finding projects. Put V in charge of some problem finding. Is he allowed to pursue an area of research interest, a hands-on, break-it-down project, or other types of rabbit holes where he can emerge with a list of flaws? That type of critical eye is just what’s needed for so many industries and professions. Is there a mentor he can be matched with to pursue such interests?
- Make V the Critic in Chief. In activities of peer review and fish bowl discussion, V can take the lead on critiques. More ideas appear at the end of this post.
- Ask V what critiques he has for himself. Sometimes critics are toughest on themselves. Maybe V might be willing to share something he’s working on? (Keep in mind that if you tend to model this openness and vulnerability, V might feel safe enough to follow suit.)
- Set goals with V. Challenge V to come in the next week and give one compliment and to also ask himself one question about self-improvement. Perhaps in another week, he might offer an acknowledgment of a time when he wasn’t the “smartest person in the room”?
Sometimes, students are simply following our lead. And if you are not the type of teacher to give praise, is there a way to change that? To encourage students to do that for each other? If you are a person who gives more praise than critical feedback, how can you become more like The Critic you are coaching? Helping all your students be better at critical and constructive feedback is a valuable goal, and classroom tone also matters for coaching students like V.
- How can your classroom feel like a safe place to give and receive feedback, where people can be vulnerable enough to want to grow and take suggestions? Sometimes, it’s a matter of celebrating what’s working. Begin class with celebrations. Not everyone has to speak up every day, but if you set the tone of “it’s the little things,” students might be able to express gratitude for things that are working and the gifts in life.
- Model and request that students give specific praise during any feedback sessions or peer review. Specific praise is evidence: it can include statistics, quotes, examples, anecdotes, and other proof.
- Ask students to begin a reporting in (post groupwork or pairwork) with a shout-out to a partner.
- Model and request that students give specific criticism that is constructive. For example, constructive criticism notes the specific area for improvement and the rationale for changing things. It offers clear steps for fixing things, not generalities. It also might talk about an area of skill strength a person has that can be harnessed to remedy the skill gap. For example: “Jada, in your history paper you give too few examples, but if you were to give more like this very detailed one here, you’ll be set.” “Elliot, you don’t list the steps in the correct order, but you do understand all the steps you need to take. How can you go through our assignment checklist to make sure you bring that awareness to this part of the assignment?” “Vida, your topic sentence here doesn’t connect to the overall thesis. If you make sure to check all your topic sentences before your finalize a thesis statement, you’ll be good to go.”
- Model and request that students use questions in their critical feedback. Asking a good question that coaches the person to take some action, while also explaining why you are asking, creates an invitational tone.
- Talk about balance in feedback. There is the model of the “compliment sandwich,” which privileges praise, but you might also talk about equal parts of strengths and gaps.
- Keep track of positive feedback you give to students that is highly-specific praise. “Keisha, I appreciate how you referred to something Evan said when explaining your point. When we connect to others’ ideas, we help construct knowledge together.” “Emmet, thank you for holding the door for everyone. That little bit of consideration goes a long way!” If you find yourself struggling to give specific praise, consult colleagues. What strengths do they see in this student elsewhere? How can you help this student shine in your space? Or even just repeating that, “I heard nice things about you!” is a great start for a new habit.
- Model self-reflection and self-critique. Consider beginning classes or mini-lessons where the focus is feedback and improvement by sharing a quick observation about something you are working on. It might be getting better at lifting weights or crocheting; it might be about exhibiting more patience with a toddler or a parent; it might be about nutrition or health. By sharing a quick anecdote, you can open the floor to students sharing or journaling on improvement, growth, and other goals. You can pivot to how that applies to addressing skill gaps in your particular subject while discussing the opportunities and challenges of pursuing a growth mindset and lifestyle.
Tips for critiquing during COVID-19 times
During these unprecedented times, online collaborations can bring out some ideal ways to collaborate synchronously and synchronously, coaching students in the art of giving great critical feedback. Here are some quick activities to consider in online activities.
- Peer Review Pairings. Assign students to be Complimenters and Critics, and trade off as partners working in a shared document or in a fish bowl discussion. (For example, instead of two students doing peer review, have them team up as two per document, or four total.) Reflect after the activity what is hard or easy about playing these roles. Make sure students switch for the next assignment.
- How Does It Feel When…? As an icebreaker before any peer review activity, provide an asynchronous bulletin board space (such as a Padlet) or a whiteboard (in a synchronous web conferencing space) to allow students to comment under two columns: How Does It Feel When I Receive Praise? How Does It Feel When I Receive a Critique? Then here’s the million-dollar question for discussion: How can we as critics get to the place of helping folks feel more like they’re receiving praise when they get a critique? How can a critic deliver critical feedback in ways that build others up and help them grow?
- Fish Bowl Finale. During the fish bowl discussion process in live web conferencing sessions, give the observers (who can work in a Google document back channel during the live discussion) some very specific guidelines about what to celebrate and what to critique. Keep it focused so that the feedback is scaffolded and not a free-for-all. For example, maybe the very first discussion has observers only focusing on the highlights and gaps in giving evidence for a claim. The observers will report after the discussion regarding which claims demonstrated specific, substantive evidence to support a claim. The observers will also report on which claims lacked specific evidence. Note that the observers will be recording not the “who said” but “what was said,” which changes the focus.
- Padlet Gallery of Praise. Whatever bulletin board tool you like to use to get students sharing work, you can change the focus to students giving shout-out to each other’s projects. Every student who joins must make sure they focus on a project that hasn’t been complimented yet, and the rules for specific praise apply.
- If I Were in Charge: A Discussion Board. This can be an optional current events and get-things-off-your-chest discussion space. Assuming you have a clear digital citizenship agreement and expectations for how to participate in a discussion, let students choose a news event and talk about the way they might fix a problem. They should refrain from partisan language, political insults, or blame. Instead, they must a) find a problem and b) highlight instances in the article that show what needs fixing, using very specific strategies. For critics who need to show their strengths, this type of sharing may be enjoyable. Responses should focus on what is helpful, effective, and/or insightful about the fix. How are ideas for fixing things strategic, innovative, or creative?
- Growth Mindset Gallery: If you are modeling self-reflection and self-critique, and embracing challenges to admit mistakes, the need for growth, and opportunities you have to change, why not encourage students to do as well? Make an infographic or a metaphorical image of yourself in this process, and share it with students on a Padlet or another gallery space in your learning management system. Invite students to do the same using Thinglink, Venngage, Canva, or other tools to represent growth and its opportunities and challenges. If students are not keen on sharing personal information, ask them to find role models in your discipline who challenged themselves to grow. Students can share a post with a picture of the individual and a historical anecdote, perhaps also with a caption as to why this person is inspirational to the student when it comes to modeling growth.
Listening to our inner and outer Critics can be a great thing. It’s all about context and consequences–and compassion. Helping both students and ourselves get a better sense of that helps the learning community as a whole.