Critiques an essential element to the success the students experience at High Tech High. Critiques are basically a formalised peer and teacher assessment session, but through their regularity, intensity and genuine sense of a learning community these turn into something all together more powerful. A real learning forum, as David Perkins would put it "an opportunity to learn from the team".
The foundation of these critiques are three simple norms, which are now proudly on display and referred to in my classroom. I like the term norm as it makes it very easy for me to say that these things are normal in successful classroom). These are:
1. Hard on content, soft on people- I always exemplify for my students, for example "When Sean explained about how the light refracts in the eye he did not use any scientific words. Would become the explanation of the how the eye refracts light did not use any scientific language". So far, my students have liked this, giving them confidence to give critical advice to classmates and friends alike. Self correcting has been evident with students rephrasing sentences to give feedback. I feel it has really helped them talk about the content more rather than the presentation.
2. Step up, Step back - Focus on the age old problem that some students will not offer suggestions and others will dominate. Dylan William's advice on no hands up rule applies double here! I like the terminology here makes it a much more student friendly than a rule. This was expertly done at HTH with students being invited to give their advice ,opinions and feedback.
3. Feedback should be kind, specific and helpful- requires no further explanation, although I was amused that the first time I held a critique in this style not one bit of positive feedback was given. I let my students go and did not correct this, as they were clearly trying to be helpful and were battling well trying to be specific. I told them at the end and they thought it was hilarious, in an embarrassed sort of way. The second time around they made sure that they had a bit of praise too. I only give this anecdote as a way of emphasising the need to give feedback on the process of critiquing as well as the content on show.
At High Tech High the Projects run for a long period of time, which naturally allows for the undertaking of what can be quite lengthy feedback sessions. The expert teachers I observed doing critiques were aware that it is hard work for students and can be monotonous, so they managed this situation with aplomb with great sensitivity to how students were responding and giving appropriate breaks and if necessary rescheduling of some group presentations to enable students to get the best feedback possible. It really mattered to everyone.
The teachers also had planned for the feedback that they wanted to be discussed. This tended to be around the content of what was being learned during the project, as well as the quality of the understanding, making this a real chance to explore misconceptions. The basic format was that each group of student in turn would present where their project was at the time, and then the class would discuss the work being guided by the questions the teacher had established. These were on display and guided the conversation as opposed to directing it, so there was plenty of scope for more explorative discussion. Every group also asked for specific advice about their own project which ranged from looking for tips and tricks on how to improve the presentation, yes/ no feedback on whether something was clear and too much more complex request about the content and context. These led to sophisticated dialogue between students, but, the art of the teacher was to interject and clarify, prompt and extend at opportune moments. The teachers role in subject content ( pedagogical content knowledge mostly) was vital, so that they did not revert to the "elementisis"(elements first) approach to teaching and learning. Instead it allows teachers to teach within the context of what the students need to know within the bounds of their projects. See David Perkins wonderful book "Making Learning Whole" for more about elementisis.
The ownership of this feedback by the students, facilitated (and sometimes) given by the teacher was one of the reasons that the quality of the student projects was so high. Due to the creative nature of (all?) the projects at HTH, I am reminded of Geoff Petty's Six phase model of the creative process:-Inspiration, Clarification, Distillation, Incubation, Perspiration and Evaluation. With these it is easy to see that you could indeed have critiques around most of these as they would match the different stages of any project. The least obvious is possibly Incubation, where you are "to leave your ideas alone", but what better way to do this than spend some time reflecting on the learning of others, which could lead to a new insight for your own learning. The notion of incubation challenges the need for "pace" within a lesson, our brains need time process and organise information. Project Based Learning does this.
Back at school, without the luxury of large projects, I have taken the chance during "create a presentation" tasks to utilise Critiques. I would normally rely on my circulation to provide feedback during these sessions, thereby taking the responsibility away from my students. I have therefore built in a mini presentation into these tasks, timed just before the half way point. These are timed, short (around 2 minutes) and focused not on the content but where they are in the development of the presentations. They also allow for discussions on improvement (or learning as you will) in subsequent presentations. I have also requested that each group has questions that they would like to ask, although this is something that they have found difficult so far.
I have supported these by ensuring I have clear learning outcomes, so that they can assess coverage, and then questions about the content so that they can begin to assess understanding. Although this lengthens these activity substantially, I have so far been impressed by the depth of the knowledge that this time(incubation?) has allowed my students to acquire.
A great thing that High Tech High did that I am yet to emulate is having students work on similar yet distinct projects ( although one is in the pipeline!) This allows them to approach the content from different perspective and contexts. So during the Critique the students will "hit" the same information four or five times in different contexts. This would be music to Graham Nuthalls ears. Then factor in again that over a prolonged period of time you would have several critiques it is no wonder that the students at HTH learn so deeply.
Undoubtedly the high stakes nature of the projects at HTH is a huge motivational factor in offering and being willing to receive critical feedback with their peers. Although I was surprised that this did not dominate these discussions, as the content and learning of the content was central to the conversations I bore witness too. This excellent article on the Unboxed journal written by staff and students at HTH explains in more detail.