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The Necessity Of Self-Criticism In Education

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The Utility Of Self-Criticism in EducationThe Desperate Need For Self-Criticism in Education

by Terry Heick

To grow, teachers must be able to reflect critically on their own performance.

Education is ‘actuated’ by teachers.

It makes sense, then, that education should also be able to reflect critically on its own performance as well. 

Currently this occurs through the comforting precision of analysis and numbers. The language of math, data, and statistics provides a universal language that (ideally) resists rhetoric and insists on facts. This also provides a footing for research, and a natural anchoring points for the kinds of strategies we use to improve our schools. 

To be whole, however, this critical reflection–this self-criticism–needs to be qualitative as well as quantitative. Which means right now we’ve only got half the picture.

A Self-Aware System Of Education

Criticism is a harsh sounding word, but its close enough to the word critical to see that they belong together. To think critically is to result in “criticism” of some kind, but note that criticism can happen without thinking critically. This seems to be where education gets itself in trouble.

Self-awareness is a precursor to self knowledge; self-knowledge is a precursor to context; context is a precursor to understanding.

Applied to education as a whole–as a system–self-awareness seems awkward. It is a uniquely human trait that depends, in part, on being able to isolate one’s “self,” and dissolves once one person becomes two.

To be self-aware requires that you can see around “yourself” without missing anything. That you see all the parts from their beginning to their end, and in a scale that doesn’t obscure their function. Otherwise you’re not self-aware, but fragment-aware. Piece-aware.

For a school system, whole awareness would mean every school, cafeteria, classroom, athletic field, assessment, textbook, IT policy, grading policy, bus route, parent concern, committee, federal guidelines, and budget item. Every course, course title, bell schedule, class change process, and school mascot.

And students too–their history, their interests, their reading levels, their affections, curiosities, habits, sense of self-efficacy, and their own patterns of living in native communities. Every book they loved and book they hated, bah habit, source of academic apathy, and reason for intrinsic motivation.

And teachers. And higher ed. And technology–and each of these can be scattered into ten thousand pieces themselves.

So many moving parts obscure the whole, and the whole obscures the parts–which means that self-awareness and self-criticism remain beyond our reach. The best we can muster is survey.

It’s clear that a self-aware system of education is impossible, as currently designed–which means then that a self-correcting system of education is also impossible as currently designed.


Instead, awareness for education–and educators within education–tends to come in a series of glimpses, and corrections in a series of jerks. The broad vision that leads to day to day, semester to semester, and year to year continuity is replaced by artificial streaks of agitation, enthusiasm, and trend. Glimpses and jerks aren’t leading to the transformation that our funding, technology, and collective expertise and passion might otherwise be capable of.

To create a self-aware system of education that is capable of iterating and transforming itself through baked-in mechanisms that actually work, scale will be a challenge.

Let’s create this huge thing that care-takes the intellectual and creative growth of millions and millions of little human beings, and then be surprised when the results are mediocre and the students are anonymous.

For education to become self-aware, it will have to see itself and all of its own gears. If we insist on a national system that is monitored at the state and district level, it will depend on national, state, and district efficacy and efficiency. We’ve designed, then, a system of teaching and learning–of human improvement–that is unmanageable by that very design. A system that, incredibly, wants to globalize itself.

Whether this is a challenge of size, scale, hubris, or design, “whole” self-criticism isn’t possible. As long as that’s true, neither is anything but minor spurts of serendipitous improvement.

For now, in your classroom, school, or district imagine what self-criticism and self-correction currently look like. It’s probably a mix of data teams, PLCs, and meetings. But these are just the mechanisms. Forms.

What are you doing to get a full picture of who you are, how you’re doing, and the kinds of corrections your craft as an educator demand? If we can’t come up with a good answer for this, we shouldn’t be surprised when other people (purposefully vague) come in and do it for us, stop believing in what we do, or design and fund alternatives that have thinking and design of their own.

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An underperforming teacher eventually gets replaced. Underperforming schools, districts–and most critically, learning models–are perma-funded and untouchable.


Adapted image attribution flickr user vancouverfilmschool and cybrarian77; The Desperate Need For Self-Criticism in Education

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While I agree that more self-awareness and honest constructive criticism is desperately needed within the field of education, and those things that are already in place – PLCs, data teams, meetings, evaluations, etc. – are meant to force us to do that and fall short. I think what those things have done instead is force teachers and administrators to become more and more defensive of their own practices, which is exactly the opposite of what is needed for honest self-reflection and improvement. How can a safety net be created to allow educators to be evaluative of themselves without the consequences… Read more »

Joel MacDonald

Criticism is a part of but also different than being critical…brilliant!

Great post. As a field, we must be willing to understand what works, why it is, and what’s not working. Too often in Education, we settle for Good. Our kids deserve Great.