It’s not as bad as you feel it is!

This morning, awake too early and browsing twitter, I read Nathan Hall’s tweet expressing an all too familiar response to student comments.

Nathan's tweet

It brought to mind Stephen Brookfield’s (1995) notion of the ‘perfect ten syndrome’ and the desire to get positive evaluations from all our students. We want to be good at what we do so it’s important to know that our students think we are doing a good job. But, it seems we don’t weigh all evaluations equally because, as he points out, ‘All those evaluations that are complimentary are forgotten, while those that are negative assume disproportionate significance’. (p. 17)

Why is this? Do we believe that the negative ones are written by students with ‘heightened powers of pedagogic discrimination’ and the positive ones by ‘students who are half asleep’? No. But it still seems that feelings of incompetence and guilt win. I’ve since found out that we might naturally have a negativity bias where negative things affect us more than positive things of an equal nature do. (It’s a survival thing!)

Nevertheless, we can try to remember, as Brookfield points out, that given the diversity in many classrooms, taking into account personalities, backgrounds, previous experiences, learning preferences and so on, ‘no actions a teacher takes can ever be experienced as universally and uniformly positive’. Stephen Kemmis and Tracey Smith (2008) highlight that it is a difficult task to always work in the best interests of each individual, “What it might be good to do in the interests of one student may be different from what would be in the interests of another. (Should I move on to the next topic because Jenny is bored, or wait until Johnny has understood clearly?)”. (p. 18)

It’s good and useful to get feedback from students. It can highlight areas of our practice where we have misjudged something or been misunderstood. We can learn from it. Unfortunately, while we might know that we shouldn’t let the one less favourable comment get us down or worry us too much (and I’m not saying that Nathan has!), it’s not so easy to actually prevent it affecting us negatively. As Stephen Brookfield goes on to say later in the book, ‘Even after several years of collecting, analyzing, and reporting back students’ critical incidents, I still die a hundred small deaths each semester as I read descriptions of distancing moments and unhelpful actions.’ (p.139)

But, perhaps it’s good to know that it happens to others too and that we’ve this thing called a negativity bias to deal with as well. It helps me, I think.  So, thank you, Nathan 🙂

Update: Many thanks for Mike Griffin for sharing this cartoon as a perfect illustration.


Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher

Estroff Marano, H. (2003) ‘Our Brain’s negative bias: why our brains are more highly tuned to negative news’ in Psychology Today

Kemmis, S. and Smith, T.J. (2008) Enabling praxis: challenges for education

Negativity Bias. Wikipedia article.

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