Lap 5 - Critique

"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.

Podcast Companion Episode(s):

  • Russ Horvath - Illinois District 211: Troubleshooting STEAM integration
  • James Campbell - Atlanta Girls School: Reflection on a new program and role

MVIFI Blog Companion Post:


The idea and practice of critique is nowhere near new and it is an absolutely fundamental practice in the arts. We wonder, though, how often is critique used in a maker context? For us, critique is foundational as a core skill in our program. Using critique in your maker-centered classroom - just like in art - is the jumping off place for assessment. Critique can be used in either a formative or summative context. Additionally, critique is closely related to craftsmanship. You might say that if craftsmanship is what you hope to achieve, then critique is how you get there. Below are some initial resources to review for various grade levels and situations.

The Driving Cog

You will surely find that to run a successful critique in the classroom will require some culture setting as it is important to encourage specific AND kind feedback while embracing failure. Educators know that failure is actually the way we learn, yet "failure" / "fail-forward" / "fail-up" are all terms with hard to escape baggage. - Rather than fight that fight, we decided to invent a new word - pHail. The nod to the well known pH scale is intentional, and our term represents a similar scale. (As you might remember from science class, the pH scale ranges from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (very basic) with 7 being neutral). The pHail scale has a neutral point that is bracketed by a range of mistakes (or pHails) from “OUCH” to “A-HA”.

This language is helpful for learners of all ages to describe a mistake they learned from. It might be somewhere on the “ouch” side of the scale as a reminder to everyone that we care about safety and not repeating those mistakes. Another might be on the “a-ha” side of the scale where an accidental discovery might unlock some new learning or techniques for others. Both are learnings worth sharing as a form or critique and “pHail” is our vehicle. Read more about the pHail scale.


Places to wander and wonder

The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practicehas been an immensely influential read for us....particularly with regard to the core skill of critique. As a group of makerEd teachers with little formal art experience, this book has really helped us to see the overlap between maker and the arts...Critical Making.

Critique is the space in which new work is shown, experiments are examined, and questions are asked. It is a time for honest observation, dispassionate listening, and plain talk. It is an incubator for ideas, a bubbling cauldron of opinion, and the place in which we make connections that we hadn't made before, moving toward understanding what it is we've made. At RISD, critique is the core of an art and design practice.

Rosanne Somerson. The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice (Kindle Locations 3204). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

(also via Google Books)

Image Credit

You also heard us mention precedent studies. That is a term that - as far as I know - comes out of architecture practice. The idea is that we may study previous works and designs to inform elements we might include in new ones. Below is a clip of what it looks like to teach precedent study in a high school classroom. This is from one of my creative heroines - Emily Pilloton at Project H Design:

You will notice that this lesson is indeed about an architectural build, but you can quickly see how this same process is helpful for all sorts of builds. You might first study what people have made on Instructables or even right here on MVIFI.org/maker. From there, studying things like materials and function will pretty quickly get you into a FABRICATION frame of mind. Refer back to that lesson for more information.


Your Turn to Play

REFLECTION PROMPT: What does it feel like to take an honest and critical look at your students' work as well as your own? How do you foster a culture of critique as a means of leveling up craftsmanship? What language is helpful (and hurtful) to use in a critique?

Below is a slide deck I used for a workshop - Leveling Up Craftsmanship - I facilitated at MVIFI's "Collider" professional learning day. Flip through and try the exercises for yourself. The Helpful Hints section will guide you.


Slide 1: Learn from the best at giving critical feedback - Tim Gunn. In these two clips, see if you can spot the opportunities for both warm and cool feedback. Does Tim "care" what the outcome is? Do the designers get offended? Do they take the feedback?

Slide 2-8: These are actual pictures of work at our own school. Consider substituting them with pictures from your own community. The SEE. THINK. WONDER. routine primed us for making objective observations without judgment (yet!).

Slides 9-12: These are images pulled from other schools whose student work shows a very high level of craftsmanship (NuVu and High Tech High in particular). We did the same SEE. THINK. WONDER. routine. What new types of language and conversation emerged?

Slide 13: This is essentially the hypothesis we are testing by holding CRITIQUE as a core skill in our program. You will notice the high degree of overlap between craftsmanship and critique. They are SO closely related. I often describe to my students that craftsmanship is WHAT you want as an outcome and critique is HOW you get there.

Slide 14: Your turn to play. Choose a project as if were your own. Present it to a partner or a group without over-explaining or defending your decisions. Listen for the feedback - Tim Gunn style. Don't answer...just listen. What do other people notice? Is there interpretation of your intentions the same as your own? Practice the feeling of giving and receiving feedback knowing all feedback is a gift. Say "Thank you"!

The full season of Build In Progress is available on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or wherever you go to get your podcasts.
In each episode of the Build in Progress Podcast we ask our guests what they are listening too. Here it is...in all its eclectic glory for you to tap your toes to. It is a collaborative playlist, so we invite you to add your own Maker Tracks to this list!