By Soizic Le Courtois, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Over the last year I have spent a lot of time in teachers’ classrooms as part of my PhD research. I’m usually just a fly on the wall: I observe teachers and children as they go about their usual activities and take notes. As an ex-teacher myself, I take this privilege seriously; I know it can be scary to have someone in your classroom watching everything you say. I know all too well the feeling that comes with being “observed” and how easily it can be associated with the classroom observations done by Ofsted and head teachers, laden with judgement and labels of “good” or “requires improvement”. One teacher said to me recently about an observation she was due to have from her Head, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it, it still makes you nervous.
So, with that in mind, I try very hard to make my observations very much not like Ofsted observations. I call them class visits. And I try not to judge.
But, of course, I do notice things. I analyse what I see in terms of what I have read in the literature, and I have ideas of what might work better. In other words, I am sometimes critical, even if I keep those thoughts to myself. So, what’s the difference between this and judgement? I’ve been grappling a lot with the distinction between the two, and, truth be told, I sometimes struggle to tell the difference. However, there is a difference, and I think it is an important one: criticality is neutral, whereas judgement is personal and comes with emotional baggage.
Our society seems to love judgement, and judging, if all the “Britain’s Got Talent” and “X Factor” television shows are anything to go by. Sadly, our education system follows that pattern too. Schools, teachers, students – we’re all forever being judged. Throughout the education system there is a lot of finger pointing and labelling, of standards met or unmet and targets to be reached. There are a lot of “shoulds” and “musts”. Ofsted argues it helps teachers improve their practice, but I have yet to see evidence that judgement ever helps. Judgement stops creativity and risk taking. But most of all, judgement hurts.
I think judgement is so damaging because it comes with labels of “good” or “bad.” It comes with negativity and the notion that we are not good enough. It is the voice that tells us we should have done more, or better, or more like the other teacher down the corridor. It is the grade, the contest, the ranking. The feelings of guilt and anxiety, of superiority or inferiority.
Now I’m not saying everything should always be “awesome”, like in the song from The LEGO Movie. Often things could be done better, and in my area of research, looking for ways to improve is essential. So how can we be critical, that is to say, honest about what works and doesn’t work, what could be improved, without also lugging around all the emotional damage that comes with judgement?
The writing process is a good example where critiquing, not judging, is key. When we edit, we tweak, we rewrite, we constantly strive to improve each word, sentence, paragraph. Feedback, when it is done well, is not judgemental. It’s targeted at the writing, not the person; it simply shines a spotlight on areas that need work or that already flow, and perhaps offers suggestions. This doesn’t mean receiving such feedback is always easy. When we write, we put ourselves out there, whether it is our inner thoughts or our research process. We make ourselves vulnerable, and critique can easily feel like judgement. Even the best-intentioned feedback can wound the ego. As my PGCE tutor used to say, “it’s tricky”.
So perhaps when it comes to critiquing, neutrality is not enough. Perhaps what we need is what the French call bienveillance– roughly translatable as goodwill or benevolence, it literally means “good watching over”. I consider it a mindset where judgement is replaced with compassion and well-wishing. I think that, where there is empathy, there is little room for judgement. If a child falls down because their shoe laces were undone and they hurt themselves, we can help them up, comfort them, and help them tie their shoe laces, without labelling or pointing a finger. Bienveillance is just that, being the adult who comforts the crying child and helps them solve the problem, not the one who tells them they should have been more careful.
Being critical is also different from judgement in that it can be inspiring – yes, mistakes can be exciting. Just watch Ken Robinson’s TED talks on how schools kill creativity. He is very critical of the education system, but he makes us yearn for a better one. Knowing things can be better is not so far a step from trying to make them better. But striving is not judging. It’s pulling up, not pushing down.
So where does this leave us? To start with, I think that schools would be better places if our school leaders tried a little more bienveillance and a little more inspiration, for a little less judgement. I think this also applies to all aspects of our lives, from the students we supervise to our self-talk. This doesn’t mean that we should throw out our critical analysis skills with the judgement bathwater. In order to change things (like teaching practices), we first need to be open to the fact that they can be improved. But compassion, I have found, is a much healthier way to seek to improve than judgement.
Soizic Le Courtois is a PhD student in the PEDAL centre at the University of Cambridge. A former primary school teacher herself, Soizic is interested in helping teachers foster a love of learning in children. Her work is split into two main areas: working directly with teachers to help them make changes to their practice, and looking at how we can measure children’s inner motivation. Before joining the world of education, she wanted to be an entomologist – if you like random facts about ants, she’s the person to ask – and worked in conservation to try and save the planet. She decided working with children was the best solution. You can follow her on Twitter @soiziclc