Saturday, 6 April 2013

Creating a culture of Critique

A while ago I wrote a post reflecting on how I probably don't structure sequences in my practice to allow students the opportunity to properly act upon feedback.  I then put a plan into action and wrote a post about how I would therefore create dedicated times in my lessons for students to do something with the comments that I or their peers had given them.  As a PE teacher I'm not the best at remembering to do these sorts of things so I came up with a few ideas to ensure I did.  The one idea that shone through was using a process called 'Critique'.  This method of getting work analysed and unpicked sounds very similar to traditional peer or self assessment.  And there are similarities.  What critique does differently though is develop the process by getting the feedback and feedforward more specific and refined.  It forces the feedback that is given to be more focused on specific features or elements.  All of the comments are designed to allow the writer/author/artist to take away that particular draft and know exactly what elements need focusing on.  The feedback becomes similar to that of a set of instructions, all with the purpose of driving forward the quality of a piece of work.

Critique also goes beyond an end of lesson activity and with simple protocols, makes the giving and receiving of feedback the culture of the classroom.  It pushes you to deliver a dedicated lesson which involves only the process of critiquing work, rather than "Right, swap books with your partner and give them two stars and a wish.  You have 5 minutes to do this".  It requires the teacher to model the method of critique using actual student drafts or exemplars, and can be done in a number of ways including an 'In depth class critique' or 'Gallery critique'.  The end result of doing this process over time is students critique each others work naturally and seek feedback independently of teacher instruction.  Here is where the culture is developed.

So why do I love the idea of critique?  Well, based on the various sources of research, evidence, blog posts, discussions of Twitter and so on, feedback is a big deal.  In my eyes, quality written/verbal feedback ranks higher than the giving of grades and levels although it is often the other way around with students.  Effective feedback that specifically highlights exactly what is good about a piece of work (so can be repeated and become habitual) and what exactly needs to be improved (to drive this piece of work towards excellence) is such an important component of the learning process (much more so than knowing a grade or level).  But so often in my own practice, there have been times when the feedback I have written is never followed up.  There are also still those fixed mindset students who are grade focused (as excellently explained here by @joe__kirby) .  This is where the process of critique is different.

As a number of teachers are increasingly engaging students to peer or self assess pieces of work, we need to first teach them how to do this.  The research from G. Nuthall talks roughly about how 80% of feedback students receive is from their peers.  But 80% of this student-student feedback is wrong  ties into this.  The rules, protocols, modelling, dedicated time and culture surrounding critique is therefore a great method for avoiding this low return rate.  So what is it that makes critique different?  Well, if you haven't already, I would highly recommend that you buy and read Ron Berger's 'An Ethic of Excellence'.  In this book, Berger exemplifies the process and breaks down the structure for forming effective critique sessions.  He is driven towards getting students to value their work and create pieces of excellence.  The mantra of 'If it's not perfect it isn't finished' echoes some of his values.  There are a number of additional factors (such as publicly displaying work, having an authentic element to the work and so on that add to this) but the core foundation of critique is key to producing excellent work and ensures that feedback is given and acted upon.  And as I said before, make critique part of your classroom culture rather than an activity or task.

So how do you do this?  There are a number of methods but the core principles stay the same.  I would recommend reading Berger's book or read this guide from the Innovation Unit.  The following tips are how I adapted and implemented the critique process during my PBL project.

Before you even start the critique process, it's important to establish the following steps:

1 - Examples of excellence: Introduce a piece of exemplary work similar to what students will need to complete (an example of excellence).  Critique it with the class.  Draw out what it is that makes this piece such a high standard including key terminology.  Create a success criteria for the piece of work which students use to complete it.  You will use this in your first critique session.

2 - Drafts: Call the work students create 'drafts'.  This may seem irrelevant but it actually gets students into the mindset that the work they are completing will be critiqued and it will be redrafted.  By calling it a draft it explains that work is not finished and that improvements can always be made until you do get to a finished product (providing your success criteria is strong enough).


Infographic by @saidthemac
1 - Give critique time!  Usually a whole lesson should be set aside for a critique session.  Time is needed to model the process, allow for detailed analysis, the giving of feedback and acting upon it.  Don't rush it!  What about the time element though?  If I have only 6 weeks to cover the content of a unit/module/scheme, I don't have time to review work.  Well actually, critique improves the quality of the work and reinforces the content if you ask students to focus on this.  By actively seeking out errors in content, it develops the level of their understanding.  Once again, set aside time!  It really will benefit the process.

2 - Establish the rules:  Berger uses three very simple rules when using critique.  These rules ensure that the quality of the feedback is improved.  They are:

Be kind:  All comments should focus entirely on the work.  No personal comments at all. No sarcasm or put downs.  The comments can be challenging but the creator of the work should feel that the feedback is work orientated and happy to receive it.  Hard on content, soft on people.  

Be specific: Refined and precise dialogue with detailed explanations on positives and steps to improve.  Comments should explain exactly what needs to be worked on (like a set of instructions) which the writer can simply take away and use.

Be helpful: If the comments don't benefit the work, the learning, the learners or the class, don't share it.  Everything you provide feedback on is there to help make the work better.

3 - Model the process: Using a piece of work or exemplar, model the process of critique to your students.  Show them exactly the how to critique work.  This is normally done by the teacher and in the form of an 'In depth critique' to the whole class.  Share terminology that you are using.  Refer to the success criteria from when you first set the work.  Demonstrate exactly how you are focusing on key details.  Scaffold what good feedback/feedforward comments actually are.  Get students involved in this and see if you can refine the comments further.

4 - Banned words:  Promote the use of specific terminology that you drew out of the initial exemplar piece of work.  Promote the use of these words and the success criteria whilst critiquing the work.  We are trying to develop students vocabulary and make the feedback they give specific and helpful.  Also encourage any topic specific terminology.  For instance, if you are creating a piece of music, use actual words that the industry and composers use.  Create a list of banned words.  Get rid of 'It's good' and 'I like it'.  They are not specific and definitely not helpful.

5 - Allow students to critique:  Using what you have just modelled, allow students to critique each others work.  Use the success criteria to structure what it is students focus on.  Focus on one element at a time.  This may be asking students to look at the opening paragraph in an article they have written and see if it answers the Kipling's questions (who, where, what, when, how, why - basic guidance from local journalists that all articles should start with).  You may simply ask students to critique the spelling, punctuation and grammar.  Maybe ask them to focus on the shape of the wings (as shown in Berger's video above).  The important thing is to make the elements you want critiqued to be clear.  Ask students to critique too much and the specific nature of their feedback/feedforward gets confused.  Critique sessions can also take on two forms:

Formal in depth critique:  This is similar to the process that you have just modelled.  Students look at each other work and focus on an element at a time.  They identify good points that match the success criteria, and pick out specific parts that need improving (or if tweaked, could make the work better).  A copy of the critique sheet I use (which is differentiated) can be found here.

In depth critique - from my Year 11 GCSE lesson

Gallery critique:  This is where work is displayed in a gallery style (on a wall, laid out on tables, on presentation boards).  Ask students to individually walk around and look at one or two pieces of work.  Ask them to focus on one specific element.  Students write feedback on a post it note or feedback slip and place it below the work.  Snowball this and ask them to discuss their comments with a peer.  Move on and repeat the process on another piece of work, either with the same or different focus.

Gallery Critique: Picture courtesy of Jamie Portman.

6 - Critique the critique:  Particularly in the early days of introducing critique, get students to review the comments that have been given to them.  Are they refined enough?  Are they specific enough?  Do they pinpoint exactly what needs improving?  If anything is unclear, model how to develop it with the class.  Use examples of good and bad critique comments with the class.  This is taking peer assessment to the next level so knowing how to give effective critique comments needs support.

For the more able students in your class, get them to use questions in the feedback they give to the recipient.  Comments such as 'Could you eliminate the number of redundant words in your final paragraph to conclude your argument....' make those individuals who are able to, really think about amending their work.

6 - Redraft:  This is the vital element!  Dedicate actual time, in that session, for students to begin redrafting their work.  They need the guidance, the support, the ability to question those who gave them the feedback, the teachers careful eye.....all to help structure the redraft process.  Don't simply let this be done for homework.  It can be but initiate the redrafting section in your class.  Students need to get into the mindset that work needs reworking if it is to become something of beauty.  As Berger states, you wouldn't put on a school production without practising it over and over again, making improvements after improvements, until it was perfect.  Unfortunately some students will not initially see the benefit of redrafting.  To combat this, get students to keep every copy of their drafts.  Get them to number them and point out the improvements and developments they have made as the go through their multiple drafts.  This is where keeping portfolio's for students makes sense.

7 - Culture:  It takes time but creating a culture with your students is so important.  We need to make students value feedback.  We need to get students to want to seek it out.  We need to make students want to make the work they are producing better and better.  We need to help them develop their content knowledge and actually look at the feedback given to them.  We need to help them actively read the feedback they are given and make the improvements identified.  We need them to see the benefit of this effort and hard work improves work vastly (providing the feedback is good).  It does take time, and there will be some reluctant students, but creating beautiful work and developing content knowledge is important.  And it is from structured feedback, not necessarily grades, that ensures this happens.  Incorporate this regularly into your practice and maybe the quality of feedback in your classroom will increase.

The following links may help you develop your understanding further about the process of critique.  They may also help you understand the difference between critique and traditional peer assessment.  Please look through them and see the benefits that dedicated critique time can have.  The first presentation are quotes from teachers using critique.  The video is from a session where I delivered a critique introduction to all staff. The final presentation is what I referred to during that presentation.

Video of the T&L briefing I gave to all staff on critique.

Critique presentation from davidfawcett27

David Didau blog on critique:

Darren Mead numerous posts on critique:

Darren Mead additional posts on critique:

Tait Coles on critique:

Tait Coles post and videos from #TMClevedon on critique:

Ron Berger on critique:

Ron Berger (part 2) on critique:

Alex Quigley post on gallery critique:

Russell Hall numerous posts on critique and work of Berger:

Martin Said blog link to the amazing Infographic from above:

David Price OBE blog post on creating multiple drafts and using critique:


  1. A really interesting blog and a large step away from the pre-prepared answer. The closest thing I can think of in my experience is working with PhD students on academic papers. I always tell them (and work the same way myself) that no mater how many reworks they do the first submission for review is draft one. It is only finished when it is accepted for review. This idea seems to be a big step forwards and I wish you all the best with it.

  2. Thanks for an excellent post David - depth and breadth! I will be incorporating a culture of critique with my pre-service PE teacher classes especially as it pertains to lesson planning and resource critique. I feel that in university education we talk a lot about formative assessment but then really only provide our own students with summative. Hmmm - the media is the message? Appreciate your honesty and struggle with critique within the current education system. Thanks for all the resource connections!
    Doug Gleddie
    University of Alberta

  3. I enjoyed reading this David, thanks - will use it with groups of aspiring/new Middle Leaders I'm working with.

    Just see my comment about the Berger 'perfect' quotation in response to the @LearningSpy blog:

  4. I understand that it can cause apprehension with some students using that term, but in the right classroom environment, with the right culture and right protocols, having these high expectations can be extremely powerful. I think it's down to knowing your students and the kind of individuals they are. You will know those students who you may have to approach this slightly differently. Having a model (of excellence) and working towards it, encouraging students to work towards this in a very clear way is very helpful. The wording of 'perfection' doesn't have to be an unobtainable goal. If when we provide our feedback we specifically focus on what could still be improved, it can improve the standard of work profoundly. It's really getting students to step away from producing 'sloppy' work and moving them towards understanding that hard work and effort produces great work.

  5. Any examples of how this has been used in mathematics?