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Home > Teaching > Critiquing New Student Performance
by Jim Zimmerdahl <Send E-mail to Author> - April, 1996

"Wow! That's great! You must have been practicing a lot! Now that's what I want to see! Try it with a slightly smaller step next time and I bet it's even better." The instructor goes to the next student and the smiling student who was the target of the praise continues only with a little more focus and a bit more determination.

You weren't patronizing. You weren't giving false praise. You really were pleased and you really did see the improved performance. But you could have just said, "your steps are too big," and withheld the praise. Or you could have asked, "how can you keep screwing up so much when I have already told you to shorten your steps?"

You have the choice of criticizing or critiquing. You can evaluate the person or the performance. You can be subjective or objective. You can teach for your sake, or for your students' sake. You always have these choices.

The correct choice is obvious, but we don't always make the one obvious choice. Sometimes, we want to be in control. Sometimes, we ant to impress. Sometimes, we just run out of patience or bring our own baggage.

We're human too, so we have to watch for human flaws in our teaching methods. There aren't very many opportunities in life that give us more control over other people than when they ask us to teach them. They give us their mind and body and trust us to help them. They have become vulnerable and we must honor that trust. This is a huge responsibility.

One way of being sure that you're treating students appropriately is to realize that they are the most important resource we have. They are valuable. We need them or our art will wither and die. If we allow our ego or mood to drive even one student (who may have become the next Ueshiba) away, we are all poorer. The greatest opportunity for miscommunication is when we are trying to communicate complex or abstract ideas.

Remember this rule and you will find your criticisms are taken in the way you intend: Always critique the performance, never criticize the person.

Even though the difference between "you're stepping too far again" and "your step is still too long" is slight and would not be noticed by the advanced student, the beginner may still be fragile, afraid of failing. At this point you would achieve even more by a positive suggestion such as "try taking shorter steps." This gives the student something specific to try, shifting the focus from person to performance.

The shift from person to performance also teaches the student to look at performance as an accomplishment. Something that can be displayed and evaluated; a thing apart. Self-evaluation soon follows. Accomplishment is the new goal and you and your student can work on it together.

Next time you are teaching, listen to yourself from the student's point of view. Are you listing mistakes or suggesting changes? Are you describing a personal fault or a performance fault? Do you want to change the performance or the person? Check out your own performance and see how you are doing. Critique yourself. See if you can be a little more clear about your expectations. See if there is room for more student praise and encouragement. See if you are earning the trust and respect of your students (or if they are just respecting your belt). If so, praise yourself. If not, make some personal suggestions on performance improvement.

Reprinted with permission from Jiyushinkai's "Budo News" Newsletter, April 1996 (Issue 11).

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