I have always experienced critiques in a near identical way in all of my educational experiences. It was long, dry and high stakes. I would work hard to have the best work I could make and hang it with a sense of dread for what was to come. A room full of people would pick apart every flaw that had gone unnoticed by me until then. Then, the critique was over. We collectively licked our wounds, held on to grudges, and moved on to the next assignment. The project was never looked at or discussed again, relegated to some hidden space under a bed or behind a dresser, only to be seen the next time you moved or if you were looking for canvases to reuse. This was the same in high school, undergrad, and graduate school. So, of course, when I began teaching I adopted the same practice unquestioningly. As a new teacher, I had way too much to do to begin questioning tradition. Obviously this was the right way to do things, or else why would everyone be doing it this way?
Well, it’s not the right way. Not for high school students, and probably not for anyone else. The problem I was seeing is that the students kept repeating the same mistakes even though I had expressed quite clearly that an issue needed to be addressed. The problem was my actions didn’t back up my statement. I said, “This work needs more (contrast, texture, movement, whatever),” but then I followed it up with, “The project is over, let’s move on, you’ll get it next time, this needs to be graded, this needs to be done, the AP Portfolio monster needs to be fed!” So my students saw that what I had communicated couldn’t be that crucial, or else I would give them time to do it, right? Plus, they never had the experience of solving the problem I informed them of, they just had the awareness that it existed. They never learned how to solve the problem through actually working to resolve it.
My first attempt at solution was to do a midway critique in addition to my final critique. Half way through the project, we would take an entire day to discuss where we were, where we needed to be, and the many ways we could get there. The AP voice inside my head was screaming, “WE CAN’T SACRIFICE AN ENTIRE WORK DAY!” But the problem had to be fixed; I had so many students who needed to take a moment and reflect on their work. Any working artist takes time to reflect while working. We need to treat our students like working artists. This moment helped, and the work improved, even without that extra workday. I found the students worked more efficiently once they had a new vision of where to take their artwork.
I had found the real problem. Students waste time being uncertain. They lack the confidence to make bold moves. They are so afraid to make that next brushstroke out of fear it will be incorrect. I believe this is a direct result of the high stakes, winner take all critique. At the end of the day, with those high stakes critiques, I was telling my students that what they had done was wrong, and I paralyzed them with fear. Fear that they would be embarrassed, fear that their work would be devalued (and by extension, themselves), and fear they would get an undesired grade. Inadvertently, I was crippling their inner artist.
In contrast, they left the midterm critique with direction, excitement and hope. The result was so transformative that I decided to alter the final critique so that it is not a firm endpoint. Our final critiques are now towards the end of the week. I try to do it on a Friday. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, students are naturally talkative and energetic on Fridays. They want to interact and move around the room, as they get excited about their weekend. I use that energy to improve my critiques. Secondly, after our critiques, I tell them to take their work home, and make the adjustments the class prescribed. We won’t work on them in class, but they can take the time they need to get it finished. How much time? As much time as they need. This can get tricky, as we have grading requirements given to us by the powers that be, so I set a flexible due date. I say, “I am going to grade it next Thursday; try to get it in by then.” Notice I said try. If they don’t, I mark it as missing and grade it the next time I go to the drawer looking for completed assignments. This scares a lot of teachers, but it works. Now the message my actions communicates is, “Your work is important, and it’s important that you finish it.” And the work gets turned in. Students rush to make the changes, wanting to make the best work they can.
This works even better when you empower the students to critique themselves and each other. To do this, I let the students do as much of the talking as possible. This is tough. Sometimes getting students to talk is like pulling teeth. One solution I have found is asking a student who is working in a different direction how he or she would solve a problem we have identified in another student’s artwork. This has three effects. One, it validates the work of the student offering critique, saying his method/style/voice is important. Two, it allows for new solutions that I as the art teacher might not have thought of. Three, it shows the students that they can trust each other’s input and develops an environment of student collaboration. It works towards the goal of a classroom where many artistic voices work together, instead of a group of students following the voice of the educator. The work gets better and the students don’t dread critiques.