I started this post about 6 months ago and after observing the to-and-fro between Audrey Watters and Stephen Downes I went looking for it. I found it laying in a drafts folder, something started but not finished. Over the last couple of days other posts have come out, Debbie Chachra & Mike Caulfield, and it’s highlighted for me again the importance and role of critique. So I decided to push it out as the sentiments can perhaps add to the conversation but also explain my deep admiration for the work that people who don’t “make”, but instead think, care, connect and give.
I’ve written a few critical blogs and tweets in my time. What’s interesting is that they’ve been read, shared and replied to more than any of my positive, happy and (perhaps) thoughtful pieces. I think I am often at my sharpest when being critical, but being critical is not necessarily being negative. I am not an overly negative or pessimistic person – in fact I feel I’m the complete opposite. I’m a happy, optimistic, positive and passionate person. It’s this passion drives me to do better, to transform, reform, rebuild and create – not for their own sake but to be better than before. I’m an optimist that’s based in reality. I need to understand what is wrong in order to make it better. I think I have a talent for rooting out causality and seeing past the obvious, and perhaps that’s why those particular posts resonate more strongly with people.
It’s for these reasons I am such a fan of Audrey’s work. She has a way of clear communicating her insight to a broad audience and of explaining the nuance of quite complex themes and ideas. Her work is well researched and often provides the missing historical perspective from many of the deep conversations we’re having around EdTech. She has a talent for clearly communicating complexity, unveiling the hidden and asking questions that have been left unasked and unanswered. Her critique is sorely needed in educational technology where hype and hyperbole are the mainstays of communication. I often think that maybe the problem some people have with her work is not the criticism, but the fact that it’s all been done before (usually by more talented and progressive people a decade or more ago).
My education in art and design which baked in the critique as part of the creative process. I’ve learnt to appreciate it deeply because when it’s done well but someone who knows what they’re talking about it can change your life. It’s opened up my eyes to a different way of working and creating that is less self indulgent and more rigorous and defined. You see critiquing isn’t a review where you let fly with your opinion, no the purpose of the critique is to make the work stronger, better, and more fitting.
To be effective doesn’t just entail listing all the mistakes. Instead it requires a deep level of empathy and understanding. There must be understanding of the subject but also an empathy of the person and context to make it a critique and not an attack. One cannot simply critique the work, you must understand where it comes from, what is it’s context, and what is its purpose so that you can offer something back to the work. For this to occur critique requires work, and it’s damn hard work! It requires rigour not just an opinion. In the critique your not entitled to your own opinion, you have to actually earn it.
Critique is so important that it’s what good creatives leverage to do & be better. It’s how you grow, learn and change. It’s how you get better and actually improve. For that purpose alone a good critique is more important than the act of creating itself. Doing something wrong (repeatedly) or making something is not good or better because it’s “creative” – it’s stupid. Both the work and the critique have equal importance. They are symbiotic and by themselves ultimately futile.
The creative work might exist, but the critique is a plan for where it can go and how it can evolve. That might mean starting again from scratch, tweaking or taking an idea in a new direction, but it is not a dismissal of the contribution or the effort of making it.
The art of a good critique is a fine line but it can be guided by one sentiment – what are you offering back to the work?
- If it is nothing but criticism, it is not a critique.
- If it nothing but your opinion of what you would have done without any mention of the works context ,it is not a critique.
- If it is criticism aimed at the person, it is not a critique.
Critique is important for any practice because it is a tool that improves that practice. Despite the old saying, practice does not make perfect – it simply makes it permanent. Critique is one of the most effective way of learning and improving.
From reading Audrey’s work for some time I find her critique of Educational Technology valuable and important because they demand we pay attention. They demand those that do make, to make are better things. They demand that we ask questions about ourselves and what we do to, for and with others. This critique asks us to do better and provides insight into where we go wrong and where we can do better.
We should want Educational Technology that addresses real problems, not manufacture new ones or answer a need we never, ever had. We should want EdTech that’s more authentic, more caring, more open and more free. Technology that humanises.