Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Criticism ≠ Teaching

The last post was laying the groundwork for this one. I thought starting with the universally acknowledged evils of micromanagement would make this post more palatable. Instead, Danny Martin gave a very capable defense of an unpopular and nearly indefensible position. Truly well done.

Jumping into this anyway, because it is important.

Criticism is a shitty teaching paradigm. Telling people they are doing things wrong, even telling them what they are doing wrong is literally worse than useless: Useless teaching would leave students unimproved. Criticism actually makes the students worse.

This will probably be a hard sell. When I came up through the (primarily Japanese) traditional martial arts, stern criticism was the standard teaching method. I've even had an instructor say, "Only perfect is good enough." And I was cautioned not to praise students because it would make them lazy. In the law enforcement world, right after I was promoted a senior sergeant told me, "Do you know why you'll never be a good sergeant? Because you don't understand that everyone is lazy and dishonest and our job is to catch them and punish them." Her crews were consistently poor performers because they spent more time watching their backs around her than doing the job.

But it's only a hard sell because we are all so used to it. When something is shitty, being the norm doesn't make it less shitty. We know criticism is poor teaching methodology.

Why is it bad? Let me count the ways.

  1. It's all brakes, no engine. Criticism stops behavior. If that behavior isn't replaced with a better alternative, improvement can only happen by luck.
  2. Criticism almost always works off the wrong metric. The instructor judges a strike (for instance) by whether it looked right. In striking, looks don't matter for shit, it's a kinesthetic skill.
  3. Criticism, especially of the wrong metric, is usually arbitrary. The coach may be looking at foot placement one minutes and hand position the next, may focus on a minor problem in stance and miss the big problem (something that would result in injury) in the hands.
  4. The instructor's reaction becomes the student's metric. Not whether the technique worked, not how much energy was delivered, but whether they got yelled at or not. Getting better, when you are measuring improvement by the wrong metric, is nearly impossible.
  5. When the student is anticipating the instructor's reactions, the student is thinking. Cognitive processing is too slow to use effectively in a hand-to-hand conflict and thinking about irrelevant things is worse. Excessive criticism makes your students slow.
  6. When the students are driven to avoid criticism, it pushes them from a gains maximization to a loss minimization strategy. In other words, they are no longer trying to win, they are trying not to lose, and that is usually a very weak, passive and reactionary strategy when the shit hits the fan.
  7. And to compound point six, the game they are trying not to lose isn't even the right game. They are worried about what sensei will say, not working to put the bad guy down.
  8. At the extreme end of this, when everything is criticized, the only strategy left to the students is to do as little as possible, to become as passive as possible. The condition is called, in psychology, "Learned Helplessness." Constant criticism creates passive people, which is another word for victims.
And we know the answer to this. From behavioral psychology or modern teaching theory or MBWA (Management by Walking Around.)

  1. Reward even small improvements. It doesn't have to be anything big, just a "Good job" or a nod. Just as people decrease behaviors that are criticized (punished) they increase behaviors that are rewarded. Rewarding small improvements creates a vector toward further improvement.
  2. Tell the students what to do. Avoid telling them what not to do. "Avoid telling them what not to do" is only seven words but because of the double negations 'avoid' and 'not' it is tons less clear than "Tell the students what to do." Positive statements are clearer than negative statements.
  3. Don't criticize bad techniques, replace them. Instead of telling someone her stance is wrong, show her where her feet should be and explain why.*
  4. Use the right metric. If you are teaching strikes properly, it will show on the heavy bag.
  5. Let nature judge. A lot of the wrong ways to do things hurt. That's why they are the wrong ways. Improper hand positioning hurts your wrist when you punch the heavy bag. A canvas bag will teach you when your punching angles are off. All the wrong ways to do a break fall hurt. If you use the right metrics, you almost never have to criticize because the world takes care of that for you.
One of the most annoying training scars I see are students that are so used to being constantly criticized that they criticize themselves. They handle a scenario brilliantly or snap into a counter-assault technique against multiple simultaneous attacks, and you can see it in their eyes, sometimes even their lips move: They are chewing themselves out for some tiny detail that didn't even effect the outcome. They are so used to being criticized that they have a tiny sensei in their heads telling them they did it wrong. No matter what 'it' is. No matter whether it was wrong or not.

That's bullshit, and if you have that little voice in your head, kill it.

*Quick note on explaining. I find it very useful to explain the underlying physiology or physics that make something work. If the principles are true, they apply everywhere and if the student understands the principles, he or she can adapt them under stress. That said, the principles work. They have visible effects. If you have to explain that something worked when it clearly didn't, you're wrong. You aren't explaining, you're attempting to brainwash.


Unknown said...

First of all, thank you for the compliment. I appreciate it. Second, and this is why I think my position in the previous post is so important, I agree completely with what you are saying here. ESPECIALLY the part about praising and replacing. That is essentially the most important part of teaching technique that I have found. I will however, because defending popular positions is easy, take the unpopular side of this as well. Criticism in the proper context, while not the most effective teaching tool, is WAY better than nothing and I would say that good criticism from a good instructor is better than praise from someone who is NOT a very good instructor.
With the following caveat to it: You MUST be training in an alive manner so that you can immediately see the results of corrections in an actively resistant environment. Without that aliveness, criticism creates the learned helplessness you describe, WITH aliveness AND a good coach, it creates the trust and coachability that competitors need to succeed in their chosen field.

Unknown said...

Dear me, that is very good. Thank you.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

The conditioned self critisism that many of the people we teach is deeply ingrained... something they have recieved from an early age through parents. School peer groups and all combined.
It can take a long time for people to overcome it if at all.. and watching some people fight to preserve that persona l

barbara said...

great post, thank you :-)

in my work as a private tutor, I realized that most - almost every - student has a certain degree of learned helplessness. almost everyone! this is crazy. this is sad.

the classic case is maths.

the student solves a maths problem, I see that he did not get the correct result, and I tell him "I'm not yet entirely happy with your answer. Please read the problem again and check your work to find the mistake"

What they do at this moment - which is rather weird, but most students do it - they start staring at my face, especially my front, as if the correct answer will appear there in magic letters. (no it does not)

The idea to re-read the problem in the book, and analyze the text, to look at the details of the problem - comes not easily for most.

I believe school does that to most people, teach them certain kinds of helplessness, except to the very few who have an independent spirit.


it is always a happy day for me, when a pupil tells me for the first time "but Ms. barbara, you have made a mistake here!" - because it is proof, that they a) think for themselves, getting the correct result and b) are confident enough to speak out their thoughts.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

This may be only how you wrote it and not how you'd say it ... but the words... not... entirely... happy... mistake.

That sets a pretty strong message.. perhaps subtly, in how we use language, regards what the student needs to do for you... make you entirely happy.
these people are children, or young adults? What I'd believebheybwere doing.. which isn't weird IMO. Is to read from your face and body language is what what would make you happy..if you arent now.

Most of us... want to please the teacher... we have to be careful that we aren't reinforcing that need... unconciuosly at least.

People will also generally.. unless they have already stated their helplessness/incompetence etc believe that what they have done is right or appropriate.. telling someone they made a 'mistake' will cause them to review mentally where there may have been an issue looking at you is as algoid a place as any.. people genealogy don't go back to the work straight away.. that's something they learn or get conditioned to.

Again I'm only responding to what you wrote here.

barbara said...


my pupils are in general 10-20 years old.

it is an interesting idea that the pupils might have the need to make a teacher happy. I never thought of that. thanks for the valuable input :-)

But thinking about it, this is not necessarily a bad thing, wanting to please a teacher. If it is good or bad thing depends on what makes the teacher happy...

I'm happy when I see the light of understanding in his or her face. When they say "but I never knew it is so easy! why has nobody ever told me?" When they discover, that it is not about some incomprehensible magic where you have to learn bizarre, absurd, pointless rules by heart, just because the teacher says so; but there are concepts you can understand, things you learn to judge for yourself with a solid reasoning behind; things with a potential to affect the world, things you can control and manipulate and evolve and discover.

I'm happy when they ask questions, because it shows that they try to integrate different details in a whole. Often these questions lead to new discoveries for myself. and as I love to learn new things, and learning never stops... this makes me extremely happy.

And as stated above, I'm very happy when they start correcting my mistakes, because it is proof that they understand the concepts we work on, AND they have enough confidence to speak up in front of me, their teacher; knowing that they are in no danger when they do so. Knowing that I value their input. Knowing that I am driven more by the love of learning than the love of being right, of being told "you are right". I lose no influence or autority when I say "you're perfectly right and I was wrong, well done!"

I'm happy when they show independence of spirit, maybe a certain rebelliousness, the will to find out how things REALLY are; when they are not content with superficial explanations, but they want to know precisely what all this is about. I feel many of the young people today are too obedient, too well-behaved... as if there were no real life in them, just a zombie-like, robot-like automatic movement. I'm very happy indeed if they resist to a zombie-robot-life; if they are proud and tall and gentle an thoughtful and strong.

Im very happy, when, over time, a shy and awkward child grows to be a radiant, strong, competent, confident human being. it is always a miracle to observe this. and it makes me happy when I can contribute a little bit to this evolution.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Nothing wrong with you being pleased or with the student being glad you are pleased.. but they are secondary rewards... not least if the student does already have that list you made... they will be imagining what pleases you... on a subconscious level.. and much of that will be things they have been conditioned to do to please other teachers.. authority figures parents etc.
Also what often happens in my experience is that 'please the teacher' also means 'don't piss off the teacher' which generally translates to not doing something that has not be stated by the teacher as something they can do. It can stop creative thinking
A big factor is the we as educators or trainers are receiving people with baggage.. we have to figure out what hey have with them.. and then use what may be use full and get them to unpack that which is not.
Even when one works hard to keep things open and set the what but not the how.. people will still expect the 'rules'

barbara said...

yes, that's the point - pupils come with a baggage. some of it is useful, some of it is a hindrance. If I can bring to check their baggage, and pack differently - better, if possible - it's ok with me, if in the beginning they only cooperate to please me.

They discover their own mind and will fast enough. It's not that I make a secret out of the things I want them to do...

hjkl said...

cannot wait for the instructors manual to come out! ... is there an eta on that?

Drew Rinella said...

I wrote an article based on my similar observations of how flogging EMTs and paramedics does not result in education or correction.


I have never ever ever seen embarrassment and negative criticism result in a positive change... it only causes people to begin making decisions based on what is least likely to get them into trouble again. Punishment (in whatever form including negative criticism) and education cannot be the same.

Perry Nixon said...

"They are so used to being criticized that they have a tiny sensei in their heads telling them they did it wrong. No matter what 'it' is. No matter whether it was wrong or not. That's bullshit, and if you have that little voice in your head, kill it."

How? I'll try it, whatever it is.

Anonymous said...

Perry asks a valid question. Would love to hear Rory's answer.

hjkl said...

Perry Nixon & Anonymous, I think there are different approaches for different people. I personally view the negative sensei as a part of you that wants to help but often doesn't know how/ what its talking about. a type of person I'm all too familiar with.

In silencing the 'tiny sensei' mechanism, what works for me (and maybe no one else) is that I try the articulation drill.

I try to articulate WHY I feel that way, if I verbalise something constructive ('I didnt distribute my weight properly', 'that guy misinterpreted what I said', etc..), I review & find a way to learn from it. If its something that does nothing to help me ('never forget you said XYZ back in 1999?', 'you looked stupid', etc...), I politely ignore it like it were a raging homeless man who's just going off at me on the street. The negative sensei ceases to have power over my performance when I realise he doesn't have my best interest at heart

Jonathan Metcalf said...

Truly excellent article

Unknown said...

My approach to leadership was to find something about people to admire. There's almost always something (it has to be real, the admiration cannot be faked). That respect communicates itself verbally and non-verbally. In my last corporate job, as someone who was senior but without authority I could get many people to do things for me, like stay late, that they would not do for supervisors.

They were happy to do extra work for me, because I respected them, I made sure to praise them to others, and I never shirked extra work myself.

Most people never get honest respect or praise from anyone, including their families. When they do, they will do almost anything for those who give it. (This can be abused. Don't.)