Culture of Critique

This post follows from an Ignite talk I did this morning on a Culture of Critique and has been brewing for a while. My own reflections over the past 2 terms have now been influenced by my most recent read – Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull, the Head of Disney Pixar.

We have a mantra at HPSS that we use regularly – Warm and Demanding (see this earlier post about Warm and Demanding). I feel we are getting the Warm great, the demanding happens from time to time but I question whether we utilise the warm AND demanding enough in a way that pushes us forward as a school.

For me, this links with an analogy I loved from Creativity Inc: imagine an old heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by threads.

The handle is a pithy statement such as ‘21st Century Learning’ ‘trust the process’- a statement that stands for so much more than 3 words. You will have one of these sayings at your school. The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle. Too often we grab the handle and without realizing it walk off without the suitcase. What’s more, we don’t even think about what we have left behind. After all the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.

Is this what we have done with Warm and Demanding? Do we throw the handle around but not really engage deeply, correctly with all this phrase stands for? Are we truly warm and demanding with each other? Or is it a meme that we just say disconnected from what it really means?

To truly build a sustainable creative culture here at HPSS (or at your school) we can’t just pay lip service to things like warm and demanding, honesty, personal and academic excellence, communication, innovation we need to be truly committed to them no matter how uncomfortable it makes us at times.


This doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes or failures along the way (these are a part of creativity) but when we do, we need to face them with a willingness to learn from them rather than from an angle of defensiveness. To do this effectively we must be able to separate ourselves from our ideas. If we identify too closely with our ideas, we are far more likely to take offense when they are challenged.  Healthy feedback will focus on the problem not the person.

Constructive criticism: is timely, what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense, checks against the vision and values of the school, may illustrate potential solutions to be considered, is specific. Constructive criticism does not make demands and does not prescribe an answer and does not attack the person behind the idea. it’s most definitely not sarcastic and cannot hide away from the open, honest truth.

Truth and honesty are difficult but we have opened these doors long ago while at the primary school. Honesty leads to trust and trust is what builds relationships. Has the trust from last year been eroded? Do we need to rebuild this to be able to move forward? We do not want to become one of those workplaces where the honesty occurs more in hallways and behind private closed doors rather than in meetings where honesty influences our important decisions.

 Cultures take a long time to build but it’s something we are getting good at – starting from scratch. Here’s how I think we can build a healthy culture of critique at HPSS:

  •  Applying my Design Thinking lens – we need to get back to treating our ideas as prototypes. We need to share our ideas early and often. The feedback from others will improve the ideas. We did this really well last year but we need to keep doing this if we want to keep innovating, keep improving our practice.
  • We must be able to question each other and be able to question ourselves. Within teams, between teams and between individuals. Both on an informal level but also on a structural level.
  • Disney/Pixar have a “Brains Trust” that tests out movies as they are developed – can we create a forum for testing our team’s ideas? Or even just a wall with ideas for feedback via post-its?
  • Have a question wall – what are the questions that are floating in our heads right now? Somewhere visible so that we see these questions regularly.
  • Gather feedback from all these visitors coming to see us in action. Rose, Bud, Thorn – What did they like, what opportunities do they see that we may be overlooking, are there gaps between what we say and what they see us doing?
  • Once a term we could have a self-critique session: here’s something I really feel I need to work on right now. This may be uncomfortable but it will be honest and opening up for others to help us.

And in the nature of starting this culture of critique I asked staff to fill out a Rose, Bud or Thorn post-it about the ideas I had ranted about in the 5 minute ignite talk. This is what they had to say:


Next Steps for me from here:

Create a Question Wall and a Help Me! Wall in our staffroom.

Work with Senior Leadership on developing a feedback mechanism for visitors to the school

Schedule a regular self-critique spot. Am thinking of blocking in my calendar once a fortnight to do this.

Build a similar mechanism into our Specialised Learning Leader team schedule for twice a term? Also look at building in a once a term critique from outside the team?

Gather more regular feedback from students about how they are finding my teaching.


How else are you developing a culture of critique at your school?



8 thoughts on “Culture of Critique

  1. Insightful post, clearly it would have been an interesting presentation to attend. I can picture many organisations, including in my other life, where the suitcase analogy is quite appropriate. Your own journey with critique is similar to many I’ve heard before surrounding reflection, integrity or critique. I think many of us get lulled into confusing these terms with our own personal worth or ego. Honesty is an admirable goal that many organisations seek, but when our decisions, efforts or ideas are critiqued we can confuse this as a personal attack. No doubt your journey will be worth paying attention to and I think the post-it wall approach will act as the low hanging fruit (small accessible changes) you will need implementing this change.

    • It was a thought-provoking presentation, Steve, and I admire your thinking and your tone of challenge and of humility, too. I don’t fully agree that we have the “warm” totally sorted either, always, and this too needs examining, I think – but I do think you are right in the need for consistency and honesty in both the warmth and the demands of ourselves and each other. I feel that often what we value is what we put our time and effort into…perhaps we need to look back at the ‘whys’ of warm and demanding (or manaakitanga/whanaungatanga and mana motuhake) for staff – we are clear and committed about the importance of this for students in our pedagogy and our restorative practice.
      So, I am happy to work with you on a ‘warm and demanding’ audit, if you like; I feel it works well with my role of co-ordinating critical friends. As well as the post-it wall idea which I love, I’ve been meaning to create an ‘unconference’ whiteboard (and/or google doc?), too, where the timetable is up and people can highlight when they’ll be trying something new or using a strategy other people might want to see in action, or just keen for some feedback. I also think this could fit well with the requests for ‘open to learning’ conversation PD. I’d like to do some stuff around how to be a good critical friend; I feel I’m only just getting the hang of that though so will facilitate rather than lead! As usual, your blog has provoked an essay-length mini-blog from me. Thank you. I think it’s pretty special how honest we all are about our journey. Maurie was certainly right about High-Viz school! Let me know if you’re keen to have a buddy on the warm and demanding audit (Copyright!)

      • Thanks Ros, absolutely love the idea of the whiteboard to ask for critique or feedback on something you are trying in class! This could be a great step in building our culture of critique

    • Thanks for this comment Reid. A big part of being able to listen to critique is being able to separate yourself from your ideas. Although am now asking questions about what this means for your passions. If your passion is who you are, are you able to make that separation effectively?

  2. A great read as usual, Steve. The point I’d love to pick up on though is the ‘warm demander’ concept. As you know, we try and live this at ASHS too, as well as ‘teaching with intent’. Like you, I feel I have ‘warm’ – and ‘demanding’ is certainly a feature of my specialist subject teaching. (A recent comment from one of my students: “My brain is hurting, I didn’t realise I’d have to think so much!”) But in tutorial time – the equivalant of your hubs, I don’t think I am as deliberately intentional about teaching the skills needed for students to build their own learning power. Keen to share thinking and strategies around this in the near future.

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