The destroyer of weeds, thistles, and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not.

Robert Green Ingersoll

Every now and then, someone pops up (usually a relative!) to tell me something I’ve written is crap. This is wounding. Like everyone else who blogs, I’m convinced of my own genius and sagacity. Anyone who’s critical is clearly a fool. Except sometimes someone like Andrew Old comes along who, despite his many and various failings as a human being, is no fool. As an example of the kind of arguments we used to enjoy, take a look at the comment thread on this blog post. I decided early on, that since Andrew wasn’t a fool, he must just be ignorant. Clearly he had no idea of what went on in secondary schools.

When he proved he did, in fact, know quite a lot about what went on in secondary schools, I assumed the problem must be that since he was ‘just a maths teacher’ he really didn’t understand the complexities of teaching English. Patiently, like a great, grey glacier, his implacable persistence wore me down to the point where I accepted that he knew at least as much as I did about teaching and probably a great deal more.

At that point it became clear that he was evil. Obviously he was some sort of right-wing, child hating monster whose only object was to ruin the lives of young people. This is as far as many people get. Andrew’s criticism is tenacious to say the least. I remember a few years ago when a weary opponent attempted to call a draw by saying, “I think we’ll have to agree to disagree,” he would respond with, “OK. I’ll agree to be right, you can agree to be wrong.” This drove people crazy! They’d get so angry that here was this intractable, relentless obstacle who would not back down or compromise an inch. Eventually, they’d descend to mud slinging and that would be that: an opportunity to learn lost.

Learning can be hard. We all want to be courted and complimented, teased, seduced into maybe considering there may be another way of perceiving the world. We don’t like someone coming straight out and telling us we’re wrong.

This is something I’ve learned the hard way. Sometimes, whether from exasperation or impatience I’m just a bit too blunt. This was a low point for me. Then the emotional response is just too great to be able to hear what I’m actually saying, and my words get distorted into caricature. When I wrote my provocatively titled book, I thought as carefully about the tone as I did the content. What I really wanted was not so much to convince readers that what I think is right (obviously it is) but that I wanted to make people consider what it might be like to be wrong. In retrospect, I regret Chapter 3 which was just too polemical for some readers to get past.

I’ve got better at being criticised. Today I wrote a post criticising Michael Rosen’s views on grammar and, naturally enough, he was a bit critical of my criticism. He may well have felt a little stung. I’ve tried hard not to get emotional in response. Recently Daisy Christodoulou pointed out that my ideas on assessment weren’t as great as I thought they might be. Instead of sulking I went away to rethink, and, as a result, have learned something new.

So, how should we deal with criticism? For what it’s worth here’s my advice:

  1. Try not to take it personally. The other person will have feelings too and it’s ridiculously easy to escalate a disagreement into mutually ensured destruction. Resist the temptation to see others as trolls. Once I got so upset with Colin Goffin’s criticism that I took the unprecedented step of blocking him from commenting on my blog. Now that we’ve met and had a pint, everything is fine.
  2. You might be wrong: see what you can learn. Always seek to explore rather than confirm your biases. Look for evidence that you might be wrong, rather than just attacking the other person’s view. Argument – the clash of ideas – leads to learning. There is always someone who knows more and is cleverer than you. Don’t feel threatened by this: arguing with knowledgeable, smart people means you’ll learn faster. Dylan Wiliam has been a wonderful role model for me in this regard.
  3. The people who take the time to critique our ideas are the most valuable resource we have, cherish them. I spent many hours arguing with Ian Lynch. I still feel his loss keenly. Here’s a taste of his abrasive, but useful contributions.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Try to laugh at the insanity inside yourself. You can get away with so much more with charm, humour and self-deprecation. Tom Bennett is the master at this.
  5. If it all gets too much, you can always switch off. If you’re determined to check your notifications while strolling through a park with your loved ones, you’ve only yourself to blame. And for Pete’s sake, don’t moan about it. There’s nothing duller than reading about someone else’s wounded pride. If all else fails, the MUTE button on Twitter can be a God send!

And just so we’re clear, this advice is as much for me as anyone else. Carry on.

Oh, and by the way, once you realise Andrew’s not evil, you get to see what a sensitive flower he really is. His true complexity only begins to emerge when you learn that not only is he a Labour party activist, he’s also a teetotal vegetarian and a practising Catholic.