Last winter, I took a course on pedagogy here at the University of Chicago. One of the assignments was to draft a philosophy of teaching statement, a 1-2 page document that is an important component of any academic job application. In class, we peer edited these essays, and the first thing our professor asked us to do was to point out a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that we found particularly effective in someone else’s statement. Two things about this were interesting: (1) The authors of the statements were generally surprised at what was chosen; that is, they didn’t know the good parts of their statement were good; (2) I don’t remember ever being asked to put the positive aspects of a critique before the negative ones.
This experience led me to rethink the power and utility of positive feedback. Often, critiques (especially of writing or presentation skills) focus exclusively on what didn’t work and what needs improvement. Obviously, these are useful things to know, but it can be equally useful to know what not to change. Indeed, anecdotal observations of myself and my colleagues and friends suggest that people are often already aware of what they are doing wrong – but much less certain what they are doing right.
Sometimes in academia it feels like positive feedback is equated with coddling or hand-holding. Rigorous critique is vital to every field of intellectual endeavour, but too often in practice it seems to be equated with abrasive negativity. But far from being some sort of unnecessary concession to the weakness of human ego, I think positive feedback is a powerful tool for improvement.
At this point I’m going to take what at first might seem like a jump to a completely unrelated topic, but stick with me. On November 14, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) announced an initiative called the Green List. Quite possibly you are familiar with another ICUN initiative, the Red List. Since 1964, this list has tracked the conservation status of species worldwide. It places species into categories ranging from Least Concern through Critically Endangered, as well as providing information on species known to be extinct.
As the name suggests, the Green List serves an opposite function. Considering sites instead of species, the Green List highlights the best-managed protected areas in the world, using a set of criteria including quality of conservation programs, management of tourism, and interactions with indiginous peoples. The first set of Green List sites includes 23 areas in 8 countries.
Why is the Green List important? First, the Green List highlights that good conservation outcomes are possible. They are not inevitable, as should be clear from the fact that most protected areas don’t meet Green List standards. Nevertheless, the existence of the Green List shows that human action in the face of environmental threats can make a difference. But the Green List is important for more than just morale.
Just as governments and NGOs depend on the ICUN Red List to determine current or potential negative effects of action or inaction, they can look to the Green List for global standards of conservation success. Obviously, lessons learned from any particular site cannot necessarily be applied elsewhere – complexities of the biological, political, or social environment always make this a challenge – but the creation of global standards of excellence provides an important way to measure conservation effectiveness in concert with human needs. In other words, to improve, we need to know what we are doing right as well as what we are doing wrong.
Here is a Nature article about the Green List: http://www.nature.com/news/green-list-promotes-best-conservation-areas-1.16350
(Citation for above: Gilbert, N. Green List promotes conservation hotspots. Nature 515:322. November 20 2014.)
And from ICUN:
“Green is the new gold” 15 November 2014 http://www.iucn.org/news_homepage/?18624/Green-is-the-new-gold
Lots more information: http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/gpap_home/gpap_quality/gpap_greenlist/