September 26, 2011

By jleffron

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In Praise of Critiques

I don’t like criticism, which probably puts me in pretty good company. But I like critiques very much.

Yesterday there was some lively discussion on Twitter  about the use of public critiques as a learning tool. The phrase “learning tool” is the key – critiques are about learning, not correction.

Critiques are not a new tool for learning, many university Music and Art Departments post their guidelines for effective critiquing online. It’s not a tool restricted to the world of performing arts; at it’s best public critiquing is a civilized discussion of a person’s work, looking at what’s good, what’s lacking, what other avenues could be pursued. It’s a blend of offering needed objectivity and providing additional germane resources. It’s discourse, it’s learning, and it can be a bit unnerving to the uninitiated; but that last bit doesn’t have to be the case.

Consider the popular site Critters.org where there are loads of people actively seeking critiques of their novels and short stories. Why would someone do this? If you’ve written a piece of fiction, even if you (rightly) suspect that it’s absolute dreck, you’ll be irrationally fond of it, protective of it; you love it like your firstborn child, so why seek out critiques? The answer seems to be simply this: for writers, improving in their craft matters more than their fear of hearing something negative about their work; they know they need that objective outside voice.

Common Objections

Supposing you’re sold on the notion of critiques. It’s still not all sunshine and daffodils, because there a few hurdles to clear before most people are going to jump on the “Critiquing is Awesome” band wagon. And they’re big ones.

If critiques are going to be effective as a learning tool, there are some logistics to be addressed, in the form of trust, culture (individual and organizational), and personality. Some of these are clearly not in your control; but you can usually address enough of them to be successful. Being aware of obstacles allows you to address them up front in your learning design.

As an example in some organizations the nature of the work is such that “failure is not an option” (things like nuclear power plants and neurosurgery come to mind) but that’s the big picture view the performance of the job. During the learning process, it has to be clear that critiques are not indicators of failure but stepping stones to success – or at least are akin to bumper bowling, keeping you from drifting too far off target.

Of course, there may be some cultures where critiques are a bad match. In a company with an up-or-out policy critiques may turn to daggers pretty fast.

Making it Work

In most circumstances it’s probably not the best plan to jump in with full throttle critiquing.

The whole notion of critiques is a bit contrary to our nature, or at least to our habits. It’s a bit like going for a swim in very cold lake – most of us like to ease in a little at a time; jumping in right off the bat is likely shock all but the most hearty folks right back out onto the shore. So, you need to help people want to swim in the (metaphorical) water, and then make it as painless as possible for them to ease into it.

Let’s look at back at those writers who willingly seek critiques – what’s going on there? In general it boils down to a sense that “the success of my project; the excellence of my work has risen to a higher priority than my fears or feelings”. We might call this “engagement” in the learning world. There has to be a sense that what is being achieved worth the investment.

So, let’s say you’ve done your up-front work and you have group that says “we’re so committed to excellence in understanding that what we want mutual public critiquing here so we can maximize our learning curve”. You still have real people with real fears and feelings, so how do you ease them into critiquing?

The first step will be tough: as an instructor you need to minimize the teaching and leave a void for people to fill. Cover the principles and potential pitfalls of the subject, but then turn folks loose. Critiquing is participatory by it’s nature. Too much noise from the instructor tends to silence the other voices; provide guideposts as needed, but let people wander around a bit and find their way.

Imagine the following scenario: you’re an instructor trying to build critiquing in your class. What might you do to get the conversation started?  One approach might look like this:

  1. Step away from spoon-feeding information and then fill that gap with brain-work. You have your learners “Read 5 of these 8 sources (and others if you like), then write an opinion/commentary on 2 of them. Leave comments on at least 4 other posts; your comments should be substantial. Bring in relevant information from other sources to support your comments as needed.” Repeat every week and pretty quickly comments evolve into meaningful, complex discussions. The learners realize that critiques aren’t red marks on paper, they are conversation; invitation to discourse.
  2. Build up to the big time. When there is a high comfort level, you might move onto oral assessments, taken collectively where students can amplify or refute comments made – shared marks on this kind of assessment can lead to a group of learners really working to build the best possible responses to questions. In this setting the only failure is lack of preparation, thought or constructive contribution. I’ve seen this work in real life – the students all agreed it was the most they’d learned in a class, and the most excited they’d been about preparing for classes.

Make no mistake: the instructor does not get off easily in this format. Sure there’s less lecture on information, but the workload shifts to preparation and mediation Curating a list of readings and references, creating the discussion formats, addressing group culture and checks/balances that will work with the learners at hand will all take some serious time on the front end. Even more important will be knowing the learners, knowing what’s going to convince them that (insert topic here)  is vital to them.

A lot of time especially early on, may be spent providing mediation in conversations in order to keep balance, allow voices to be heard, and redirect non-constructive approaches. This requires a bit of a deft hand, and more than a dash of diplomacy in some cases. But it’s really a big chunk of the learning – learning how to exchange ideas (even differing ones) rationally and respectfully; recognizing that you just might be wrong about some things; and it may be the others are also quite wrong, but collectively you might all hash through the wrong and get to something approaching “right”*. In particular, if this is the first time learners have walked through this model, there may be a learning curve from violent disagreement (or violent agreement) to actual discourse.

When done well, critiques a bit like Beta testing for ideas. Ideally in the course of discussion, terms are defined, assertions are supported and a spectrum of opposing opinions are allowed, all of which refines the original work.  And like Beta testing, ] the learning comes from hashing through the “Whys” in the critiques as much as from the “Whats”.

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