Education Opinion

Collaboration, Critique, and Classroom Culture

By Contributing Blogger — October 02, 2018 6 min read
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This post is by Juli Ruff, 9th Grade Humanities Teacher, High Tech High

Eight years ago, I did my graduate work, focusing on the question, “How can I use critique to improve the quality of student feedback and student work, and create a culture of collaboration?” I usually re-read my research before each school year to remind myself of what I figured out once. But this year I didn’t! I also didn’t do my tone-setting lessons that I’ve done every year since my graduate work.

It’s now week four of school, and I planned the first peer critique tomorrow. When I told the students, I was met by a chorus of student panic: I’m not comfortable: what if people see my mistakes, what if they know I’m not smart, what if people are mean, what if what if what if.

So this evening I re-read my work on collaboration and critique. In the spirit of my research, I’m remembering mistakes are a great opportunity to try again. I’m holding off on our first peer critique; instead we will do tone set lessons and a self-critique tomorrow. And when the girl who already stands out as the most scared and self-critical calls me over, or she hides her paper to pretend she did not do her work so others can’t see, these are the lessons I’m going to keep in mind.

Critique is a matter of culture, not simply an activity

Many teachers employ some form of what they call critique in their classrooms. Many have also run into the same problem over and over of how to get students to make simple changes and not leave work half done. My research convinced me that in order for collaboration to grow and critique to be effective in the classroom, it cannot be treated as simply an activity to be done on this or that day of the week. Rather, one must approach critique and collaboration as issues of culture.

For collaboration to grow, students must be convinced of three things. First, they must believe that they truly are living resources for each other. This can be achieved through many activities that seemingly have little to do with critique. This was the point of early activities in my classroom (seating charts, sharing skill sets, looking at a first grader’s drawing of butterflies). These activities did as much as anything to convince students that they could benefit from each other’s knowledge and feedback.

Second, collaboration must be so ingrained in the classroom culture that it is hardly recognized as such. Frequent practice helps students see critique, not as an activity, but rather as a necessary step in a process. It is part of the product, not just something we do to make a product. We followed a critique cycle in my classroom: students generated their own criteria for quality work through exemplar critiques; they self-assessed their work using those criteria; and they gave each other advice in many forms including pair critiques, gallery critiques, group critiques, whole-class critiques, and informally throughout the day.

Lastly, students must learn to see mistakes as natural. This helps them take risks and understand that reworking is normal. Otherwise, the students can never be convinced that reworking their products will actually benefit them. Fail early and fail often is a great classroom mantra.

Look at models

By critiquing exemplary models with students, I gained a more nuanced view of when the teacher should teach and when it is important to let the students teach each other. Lisa Soep’s work with peer critique led me to see the importance of students negotiating the standards by which their work would be judged. Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence led me to use exemplar critiques as a way for students to identify those standards. However, my increased understanding in this area came primarily from my experiences with exemplar critiques. The successes and failures I experienced when I provided, or did not provide, opportunities for students to identify criteria for excellence underlined that this step is one of the most important when conducting critiques.

Whenever we did exemplar critiques I put up three columns on the board. I labeled each column with a particular quality on which to focus when looking at the models. For example, when looking at model websites, before students created their own, I labeled the columns Layout, Design, and Content Organization. These columns allowed me to designate what types of things were important without telling students what to do, and proved to be invaluable. Without such columns, students did not have enough direction to be successful, and each time I tried an exemplar critique without them, it failed. Once students understood the foci, they could teach each other, and it became my responsibility to let them do so.

Value of multiple drafts and embrace mistakes

When students accepted the value of reworking their products, their work showed considerable improvement. After reading about a study in which students who were told they must have worked hard took greater academic risks and attempted more difficult work than their peers who were told they were smart, I thought a lot about how students often perceive drafts as something you do when you didn’t get it right the first time. This moved me to talk a lot with the students about the value and inevitability of mistakes.

Engaging in various activities between drafts helped emphasize the usefulness of reworking. Models helped students realize what was possible and to set goals for what they wanted to achieve. Student-generated criteria provided a map to get there. Self-reflections and peer critiques gave students opportunities to look back at the student-generated criteria and remind themselves where they headed. All of these activities combined helped even the most fearful students. Sitting and not talking in activities did not always signal disengagement. For students who felt unsure about what made for a quality product, and even less sure about speaking in front of their peers, quietly watching and listening to each of their peers’ draft critiques provided another chance to figure out how to complete an assignment.

Let go

Students can assume more control in the classroom in many ways. They can define criteria for quality work instead of teachers handing out pre-made, teacher-generated rubrics. They can advise peers about how to achieve quality work instead of teachers spending endless hours writing notes on papers. Students can facilitate critique sessions instead of teachers always keeping order. They can also advise teachers how to fix critique sessions when they seem broken. With a solid protocol, students can help police each other to ensure that sessions remain effective. Through all of these methods, students gain ownership over the process of work. They begin to see their work more as something they do and less as something that a teacher makes them do. As a result, they often rise to the occasion and take on the challenge of creating higher quality work.

One of the beautiful things about teaching is that it is a marathon, not a sprint. While it is difficult sometimes as teachers to cede control of our classrooms, especially to a mob of youth, it is comforting that when an activity does not work there is always the next day in which we can try something new again.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.