Sunday, January 3, 2016

Feedback vs Criticism

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions." - Ken Blanchard

Throughout my professional career as a teacher, administrator, author, and presenter, feedback has been and always will be a powerful conduit for growth. There is nothing more vital to our professional roles than good feedback that paints a picture not only of what we are doing well, but areas where we can either become much better or outright improve. It helps us to develop both goals and objectives that guide our work in our respective roles.  As important as quality feedback is to our success the use of criticism can set us back ten fold. If growth and improvement are the ultimate objective it is imperative to know the difference between the two.

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A recent event led me to ponder the role of feedback and how it's misuse often leads to criticism, not of a constructive nature. In late 2015 I presented at a national conference after my proposal had been accepted earlier that year.  This was the fifth time I had presented at this event and I always found the experience to be rewarding. During my session there were about thirty attendees for the two-hour block of time that I was allotted.  In my opinion I started off a bit rocky as Arne Duncan arrived to the event late and his talk caused many attendees to arrive to sessions late, including mine.  It is a bit of a challenge as a presenter to have people rolling in when you are well into your presentation.

Even though I didn't start the way I had wanted I eventually hit my stride and had a great session.  The group seemed very engaged and I received a great deal of positive verbal reinforcement at the conclusion of the presentation. Numerous attendees also followed up with me through email to take advantage of additional resources I mentioned.  A few weeks passed and I received word that session feedback was available online.  I always look forward to this, as many times I never receive feedback from the keynotes I do.  As I logged in I quickly noticed that only one person had taken the time to fill out the brief form, but I was still eager to view the comments.  My eagerness to learn how I could improve quickly turned to utter disappointment as all this person did was give me the lowest rating possible (1 out of 5) for every category. I was particularly taken back when this person said that I should not be considered as a presenter at this conference in the future. 
 “Often those that criticize others reveal what he himself lacks.” ― Shannon L. Alder

My issue here is not that I received a poor evaluation, but that there was no commentary on what I did wrong or how I could improve. As a professional committed to improving his craft, I have absolutely no idea why the person rated me the way he/she did.  My work was criticized and in the end I received not even an ounce of feedback that could be used towards reflective growth. Talk about not only disappointing, but also equally frustrating.  Now think about how a student must feel when he/she is given back graded work with just a letter or number. Or how a teacher or administrator feels when evaluated with a checklist that contains no substantive narrative to accompany the check marks that can guide improvement. To me this is just another form of criticism. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” While constructive criticism can be a catalyst for improvement, nothing is more powerful than targeted feedback. 

Now let's take a closer look at how different feedback and criticism are through their respective definitions:

Feedback - information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.

Criticism - the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.

My point here is that it is easy for people to criticize while much harder and noble to provide quality feedback to enhance professional practice or learning in the case of our students. There is such power in feedback as articulated by Fiona Lang. "Feedback is the cheapest, most powerful, yet, most under used tool that we have at our disposal. Feedback is powerful as it helps people get on track, it serves as a guide to assist people to know how they and others perceive their performance.  Feedback can also be very motivating and energizing. It has strong links to satisfaction and productivity. People like to feel involved and identified with their organization. Feedback can help achieve that state." This synopsis shows the vital importance of feedback to all us regardless of our roles.

If the goal is really to help others grow keep these tips in mind when providing feedback while avoiding the pitfalls associated with criticism:
  • Deliver it in a timely fashion
  • Provide a narrative related to professional goals and objectives to spur reflection that will help others actually improve 
  • Avoid negativity
  • Understand that listening is just as importance as talking and/or telling someone what they can do better
  • Model or demonstrate to illustrate a vested interest in improvement
While we all need to be able to effectively handle criticism, a genuine focus on providing valuable feedback can help move others in a better direction.


  1. Great blog! I too think feedback is so valuable. Of course it's most valuable if the person receiving the feedback is open to accept it and reflect upon it. I always enjoy getting feedback!

  2. Great blog! I too think feedback is so valuable. Of course it's most valuable if the person receiving the feedback is open to accept it and reflect upon it. I always enjoy getting feedback!

  3. Great post, Eric. I really appreciate your sharing your story, as I think it's a great example of how people that are generally considered to be highly effective and much-lauded speakers (such as yourself) can still be on the receiving end of negative, confusing criticism. I think it's a lesson to all of us in roles where we are providing feedback (whether to students or to other adults) that the tone/clarity/content of our feedback is absolutely crucial. Thanks for the reminder!