Using Critique for Formative Assessment and Higher Craftsmanship

Leveling Up Project Craftsmanship with Critique

“Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right.”

Matthew B. Crawford. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work


This week MVIFI hosted Collider  – an in house unconference style professional learning day*. I was curious to test and share a hypothesis that I have been pondering: As critique leads to higher craftsmanship, depth and complexity of learning also increases.

Tips for running a productive Critique style assessment

Let’s be honest, running critiques is not a new technique for offering formative assessment and feedback. Artisans have been doing it for centuries. I bet you could spot one happening in the art room of your own school this week. From my observation, however, we don’t as often see art style critique happening in a science, world language, or math classroom. As we continue to see project based work ramp up in all disciplines, so too should the level of craftsmanship via honest critique. The Art of Critical Making is full of gems, and I especially like the quote below:


“Critiques provide a pathway through which students develop a lifelong ability to self-evaluate and to reflect on improving, articulating, and evolving their ideas. The benefits of this kind of conscious awareness of how a work succeeds in communicating an intended outcome and the cultivation of honest response surely have applications not just in art and design but in multiple circumstances.”

Rosanne Somerson. The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice (Kindle Locations 456-459). Wiley. Kindle Edition.


Critique – not just for art classes

To dig in and validate or discredit the thought, we started with some practice laps around doing thoughtful critique. Art school style critique. Chopped style critique. Tim Gunn style critique. That’s right, Project Runway fans, Tim Gunn is the godfather of soul critique. Our intrepid group started with a group read of this fantastic essay that summarizes Tim Gunn’s technique, then we practiced spotting those bulleted moments of warm and cool feedback, question asking, coaching, encouraging, and risk taking, by watching a few clips of Tim in action. (Hat tip to Unprofessional Development.org – I’m a fanboy). If you want to set the stage for critique culture in your class, maker lab, or professional learning session…a few clips of Project Runway are a disarming and surprising way to do it 😉

Taking an honest look at craftsmanship from your own school’s projects

With an underlying precedent set – It’s about critique; not being critical – we changed gears to observe some of the student work coming out of our own school. Examining using the visible thinking routine See, Think, Wonder, we scrolled through a variety of projects.

3rd grade candle holders | 9th grade hand drawn posters | a group pitching an app concept | handmade kites | an incomplete retro arcade game | cardboard prosthetic hand prototype | hand-drawn diagrams of the brain.

Some quasi-conclusions emerged from the conversation:

  • Craftsmanship is not necessarily age dependent: In some cases, elementary students had higher crafted products than high school and vice versa.
  • Craftsmanship is not necessarily material dependent: Cardboard, string, and markers could equally be used for a middle school prosthetic project as well as an adult design thinking exercise. The former was perceived to be more highly crafted, presumably because of the right mix of purpose, audience, process, and complexity of learning involved.
  • Craftsmanship induces pride: An insightful “see” was that the pictures of products that were more highly crafted also had groups of infectiously prideful and smiling students in them.

Still Curious?

Finding Common Language for your Critique

In an effort to push our thinking and definition(s) of craftsmanship, I thought it might be interesting to test our newly honed critique skills against some projects at other schools – High Tech High and NuVu – known for some seriously high-quality project work. But what is it, specifically, that we perceive as high quality?

Armed with language and philosophy from our own Cognitive Gearing, we were challenged with critiquing what was pretty clear to be very highly crafted work by kids just like ours at MVPS. Eyebrows raised at the differences between their public products and our own. Comments were made about the quality of photos on those schools’ project pages. Questions were asked about the length of time that must have been spent on these projects.

Click for full size download


What emerged:

  • It was important to be able to gauge time, purpose and process: Because we were not directly involved with these projects, it was helpful to see the documentation of goals, timeline, and iterative prototypes. We wondered about our own practice of documenting these moments and the formative assessment alongside.

Fabrication | Algorithmic thinking; Planning {check}

  • We were blown away by the student portfolios: NuVu students did a particularly good job of documenting the process and precedent studies. For example – It was fascinating to see the precedents from students who designed a storage chair – floating storage shelves, existing book storage chaise, and rolling desk chairs.

Observation and Judgment | Precedent studies  {check}

  • It was clear that these projects took some real time: AND it was equally clear, through detailed and shareable documentation, that deep learning accompanied the hands-on portion.

Craftsmanship | Perseverance; Process AND Product matter {check}

It was a valuable hour of discussion and challenging assumptions. I’m feeling more convinced. If you want to level up craftsmanship, resist the urge to start with “innovative projects” and instead start with building a culture of critique.

*A link to the slide deck for the session


You got this far? Dive deeper into:

Design Thinking: How MVIFI is leading the way

Maker, Design, Engineering: Our philosophy and distinguishing features

Events: Come visit us

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *