A culture of criticism

Today is the first official day of summer vacation. The last several days I've been spending time reflecting back on my first year teaching in a new district. Though my primary concern in my reflection and personal improvement centers around my own curriculum and instruction, I've also been analyzing the new system and school culture I joined this year.

Unfortunately, the existing school culture isn't one that fosters excellence among the staff or students. There are many critiques to be made of the current system, but far and away the biggest criticism I have is that the school lacks a culture of criticism.

In general (there are definite exceptions), criticism in any way shape or form is not welcomed. Even minor, soft-spoken constructive criticism is often responded to as if the criticism were a personal attack. As a result, criticism has become extremely rare in any form. This, in my opinion, may be the single most detrimental characteristic of the school.

Criticism is important and should flow freely at any institution that wants to improve its effectiveness. Let me suggest a few ways that a culture of criticism should evidence itself:

There should be regular (I'd say weekly at minimum) observations of classroom instruction both by teachers and administrators. These observations should be viewed by both parties as opportunities to improve existing practices and learn new methodologies.

The decision-making processes should be open and transparent. For example, if a committee is formed to interview and select a new administrator, it should be clear to all stakeholders how the members of the committee were chosen and what qualities they're looking for among the candidates.

Procedures and policies should be open for suggestions as to how they might be improved to be more effective or more efficient. While constantly changing procedure and policy can be detrimental, they should be regularly questioned: Why do we do things this way? Is our current method helping students/staff/the school accomplish the stated goal efficiently?

If the school culture is not open to crtiticism, how can we ever hope to improve? The worst thing we can do is continue old practices simply because "that's the way it is." Constructive criticism from a variety of viewpoints drives reform and is a hallmark of robust and rigorous institutions. As educators, we expect our students to take constructive criticism from us. We also need to learn to take that criticism ourselves.

On a personal note, I've tried to offer gentle constructive criticism many times this school year. The responses have ranged from a simple blow off to downright unprofessional behavior. Through it all, I keep telling myself that eventually some people will realize that I'm trying to improve their lives, not get them fired. What is the best method to create a culture of criticism? I'm looking for any help (or criticism) you might have.

Creating stories in chemistry

Our brains lock onto stories. Our experiences are one story after another, each contributing to the long story we call life. As such, our brains are used to comprehending things presented in the format of a story1. Using a story format to present information to our students seems like a natural way of engaging students in what may otherwise be pretty dry content.

I recently re-did a couple presentations that go over some basics of chemical reactions. I decided to try crafting the information into some sort of story format. I won't say this presentation is a great story, but I think it's a definite improvement on simply throwing the information up on the screen and saying, "This is how it is."

I'd like to continue the meme (of sorts) started by Darren2 and continued by Damian of opening up these presentations to public comment and critique. What would you do to improve upon them? What stinks? What works?

Chemical Reaction Basics

Types of Chemical Reactions


  1. I thought I had several articles speaking to the brain's special liking for stories cached away, but when it came to write this, I couldn't find them anywhere. If you know of any please leave a link in the comments.(back)
  2. and thanks to Dan for bringing it to my attention. I notice this meme has a pretty strong correlation with names that start with the letter "D." (back)

Interesting (SSOL) stuff 2

While I'm not sharing these with my students anymore (yahoo for summer!), I'm still finding good stuff that I'm tucking away in my personal files. Here's a sampling of sites that made me SSOL (say "sweet!" out loud):

The Big Picture

Part of the Boston Globe's online space, The Big Picture posts amazing high quality images of recent events.
Particular posts I found moving/incredible/inspiring:

Typography as art

I only recently realized there's this culture of utilizing typography in a wide variety of artistic ways. Some of my favorites:

Kinetic typography

The art of using spoken text to create animated text which extends, adds to, or changes your perception of the original text.

Who's on First?

V is for Vendetta

Typographic animation

This short animated video utilizes only letters, numbers, and symbols right off the keyboard to tell its story.

Death and Taxes

I just ran across this yesterday thanks to BoingBoing.net. It's a graphical depiction of the United States federal discretionary budget (i.e. where you income taxes go). Incredibly detailed yet incredible to look at, it's quick way to visualize the priorities of the government based upon how they fund the various departments. You can zoom and pan around the image at their site to get a better look. If you really like it, you can buy it as a 24-inch by 36-inch poster (that's roughly 61-cm by 91-cm for those world citizens out there).

Wow! SSOL!

The best commercial evar

This commercial gives me goosebumps. I think it sums up my thoughts on the world quite succinctly: "The World is Just Awesome."

My favorite parts: "I love hot magma!" (0:44) and of course you can't go wrong with Stephen Hawking actually singing along (0:53)! Now only if it had Neil deGrasse Tyson (my favorite astrophysicist)...